Infection as communication

by Alessandro Ludovico.
Our perception of viruses stems both from the way we consider the most recent epidemic diseases, such as AIDS, and from an innate fear of having one’s own body invaded by other efficient organisms, capable of re-arranging their working patterns in order to facilitate infiltration into their host. This perception applies to the principles of knowledge society with similar consequence. Many are concerned with cultural infection, as it may change our identity, and as communicative distances grow shorter, this process seems to become even more inevitable. Viruses are able to adapt and to transform themselves very quickly – hence their dark charming powers. Computer viruses actually do have quite the same qualities. They have proved to be important and influential to media culture, as their ability to invade foreign systems in a very obvious manner reveals any badly protected system controls.

Virus as medium, virii as media.
But can ‘computer virus infections’ be considered to be a form of communication? The answer might be yes, as the infecting process involves a critical exchange of information. If so, the computer virus phenomenon could be seen not only as a mere IT security problem (this is the common approach that mass media have), but also as a presence with many social and cultural consequences. Viruses, in fact, are a frequent presence in our computer environment. No PC seems to be aseptic, and the infections are so frequent and so well pictured by the media, that the average user tends to consider most of the strange software behaviors as a suspected ‘virus’. Viruses, indeed, are widely perceived as unwanted digital ‘immigrants’, trespassing the border of our personal PCs. They make invisible but perceptible stains on the perfect cleanliness of the industrial OS interface. They often seem to induce an unexpected instability of the system with unpredictable consequences. In this sense, we can find a good example in the early works of Jodi, a couple of enfants terribles in [2]The emblematic ‘OSS’, in fact, implements a disquieting aesthetics of abnormal and unpredictable computer behaviour, evoking the real or imagined presence of something ‘alien’. Their aim was to make the computer user gradually believe that ‘there’s something going wrong’. [3]This is a recurrent concept in electronic culture. It can be noticed in the literary work ‘Hypertextual Consciousness’, by Mark Amerika, that embodies in an insidious ‘virtual object’ that says ” … I’m not at all polite. Would you mind me infecting you with my latest virus?”.

Speed of propagation.
So, among the different social, theoretical and aesthetical analysis, one of the emerged results seems to be that computer viruses should be seen also as an amazingly fast and pervasive communication system, that evolves and mutates being a medium itself. The speed of propagation is an important aspect to understand this phenomenon. Under the specific ‘logic’ of viruses (bigger distribution means better communication) the epidemic dimension is the key to declare the success of a communication or its defeat. The more computers get infected (or in other words will accept the message), the bigger will the impact and reaction on the network be. The critical mass of data spread around the network, temporary transforms the shape and the content of the network, so it varies its own conscience. During the first moments of the infection, the network is pervaded in its own vital mechanisms (the protocols for exchanging data), and loaded with a new powerful wave of information, generated by the viruses’ replicating process. It suffers for a while and then it reacts with a quick structural evolution, through software updates implemented by thousands of active members, that quickly introduces a different type of code able to slow the spreading process. This process in its macroscopic dimension can be appreciated with a specifically conceived tool that visualizes global virus infections on a world-map. It was realized for the second edition of the ‘I Love You’ exhibition, curated by Franziska Nori [4]. [5]In fact what the tool pictures is another match played by viruses: the game of viral communication and its consequences in terms of space.

Code as literature.
The primary sense of the initial communication travels unaltered through millions of hosts and, even more relevantly, through numerous personal computers. It multiplies its presence all over, like a neologism included in millions of copies of a new dictionary. [6]The literary aspect and sense of the code is evident when applied to communication as it can be observed in ‘The_Lovers’ by Sneha Solanki, an installation based on two networked computers. One is infected with an encrypted stealth virus, contaminating itself and its connected partner through the interface of classic romantic poetry. [7]It’s a romantic language contamination that blends an infecting process with the love’s power to pollute information’ sense. And copies of virus code have the characteristic of lasting for years hosted on old machines, like sometimes forgotten poetry sits in drawers. Because of the self-replication process, this hibernated code starts to pulse again when activated on a networked machine, generating new active copies, and therefore a specific form of data-literature. After years his retro taste would be even fashionable disrupting the current grammar in use, and developing a time-related distortion of the sign-sense relationship. It is an (involuntary) gesture that triggers the replication of the message, in fact for many virus contaminations spread through mail systems, the user needs actively to open or download an attached file. The lack of anti-virus software or the irresponsible act of clicking on some attractively-named files might be strictly connected to the desire of leaving the personal doors of communication open, letting signals from the outside world come in. Furthermore this gesture generates an ‘extorted word of mouth’ of the written code on a global scale. In this sense the unaware user is coerced to communicate the virus to his personal network of friends, and friends of friends. The original code is carefully copied millions of times, becoming part of a common datascape which by doing so unifies a large number of users. The code travels carrying its own message, sometimes telling a story, often an original one, and at the same time abusing some common resources (the bandwidth and the server’s functionalities, for example). The message cannot be filtered at the beginning (every new virus tests a new effective technology of self-replication), bypassing almost all kind of protections and censorship. It is a travelling piece of literature that overcomes the infrastructure of the moment, invading the recipients’ personal space with its own narration. The Net is an unmapped space of exponentially growing, intertwined connections, like neuronal systems are. The virus, as a small narration entity, travels within this context highlighting the hidden structure at its passing, therefore depicting an image of the Net itself. The spreading is fast, the socio-political consequences cannot be calculated in advance and the goal is to score a possibly high number of viewers. That’s why this phenomenon could be seen as a ‘living metaphor’ of our contemporary media system. But contemporary media are using few well-known methods to grasp the viewer’s attention. This methods include ‘special effects’ and old tricks (stimulating sex fantasies or deep feelings) and are crammed in a compressed time to wake up every possible mind. The computer viruses, on the other side, are continually re-inventing their own protocol of communication. They are combining existing techniques which allow to hide its code with innovative ways of self-transmitting it.

Vi-Con, virus love story.
Viruses and spam share the same attitute to corrode the image of corporate’s efficiency on one hand and the image of this entertainment paradise on the other end, both advertised by global industries. Both (viruses and spam) are evolving their own technologies continuosly, in a research process that has very few other similar cases. Spam is basically only about electronic mail. Viruses and worms have multiple infection possibilities and so spreading possibilities. [8] The code and the delivered message has specific characteristics, very often completely ignored and banished as a mere side effect. ‘Vi-Con’ is a work by Luca Bertini. This work is able to subvert the cliché that relates viral code to the pc’s damage. It create a virus couple that not only doesn’t create any damage, but also establish a different sense of life in the digital ecosystem, including philosophical and romantic parts, very distant from the general people’s perception of software technologies. Actually the work consists of ‘Yazna’ and ‘++’, a couple of worms in love that travels from one computer to another one on the net. [9] To ‘travel’ they don’t duplicate their code to another machine, but they erase the code on the old machine writing it on the new one, so, in a way, ‘moving it’ to the new machine. They leave only a slight sign of the their transit and when they arrive on a new machine they both search for each other’s footsteps. Their travel is invisible, unless you specifically check their presence. Also the fateful meeting would be invisible too, after all these hopeful wondering throught the net cables. Yazna is looking for ++ in the temporary files’ folder and in the registry. If he doesn’t find him, he sends himself to all the addresses contained in the mail client address book. This work basically creates a couple of text files, a folder and adds a key in the register that is deleted when the virus ‘leave’ the system. The fateful meeting result, if it ever happen in the end, would be of three types (they’d split, they’d merge in a single identity or they’d procreate), but it’d be very difficult to know what’ll happen. Apart from the rich narrative, there’s also a fatality typical of viruses and of their behaviours. The user can’t decide anything, so the excessive power of the code (in this case camouflaged as the excessive power of love) invisibly colonize the machine. But this disguise is touching and harmless, and really touches the user’s sensibility. So the user is helpless because of the dramatic power of the event, or, better, of the dramatic power of the metaphor. And the irony can be read in title also. ‘Vi-Con’ is what is displayed if you write the sentence ‘Ti amo’, that is the Italian translation of ‘I love you’, on a mobile phone with the T9 technology activated, the technology that facilitate the insert of text.

Practicing virus.
As famous zoologist Richard Dawkins explains, organic viruses are not simply invasive organisms, but they respond to two characteristic environment conditions in order to exist and to multiply. The first is the ability of the hosting system to copy information accurately and in case of errors, to copy an error with the very same accuracy. The second is the system’s unconditional readiness to execute all instruction codified in the copied information. [10] Refined virus writers are of the same opinion, like the australian Dark Fiber who declares ‘A good virus should infect a machine without interrupting its use in any way.’ So the hacker attitude, that is constructing sense reinventing machines’ mechanisms, is evident in conversations with practitioners. The virus programmers, or at least those who succeed in conceiving the magic of an executing code, are writing a true and deep literature in computer language, and obviously appreciate viruses not just as simple tools. In many cases, they started writing viruses after their own personal computers had become infected, thereby arousing curiosity to study the very code that has been responsible for an upheaval within their ‘computerised territory’. This is what had happened to one of the most respected virus creators of the first half of the 1990s: Hellraiser, a member of the Phalcon/Skism group and founder of 40Hex, an electronic magazine for virus programmers whose concise and eluding contents have influenced a large part of American virus writers. One of the most famous definitions we owe to Hellraiser says, ‘Viruses are an electronic form of graffiti.’ On another perspective Jean Baudrillard says in his essay named ‘Cool Memories’: ‘Within the computer web, the negative effect of viruses is propagated much faster than the positive effect of information. That is why a virus is an information itself. It proliferates itself better than others, biologically speaking, because it is at the same time both medium and message. It creates the ultra-modern form of communication which does not distinguish, according to McLuhan, between the information itself and its carrier.’ Viruses have their own methods to survive and to reproduce themselves within computerised systems. On the one hand their necessary egoism stands in sharp contradiction to the user’s wishes, and it expropriates him, step by step, from his possession of the computer. On the other hand, many users try to secure free access to all means of virus production, thus trying to regain intellectual control over the instrument. Romanian virus writer MI_pirat, for instance, has programmed his web site in order to make it generate simple viruses of the ‘macro’ type. It works at the base of simple program commands anybody could use, even without any experience in programming. The author insists on the point that nobody writing this sort of codes would be interested in provoking devastation, but in expressing and appreciating innovation. Sometimes the virus writers talk about their ‘art’ in a fresh and uncontaminated way, being fascinated much more by the abstraction and manipulation of mechanisms, than by the eventual conceptual speculations. They talk about the necessity to evolve, changing and adapting to new environments and conditions, finding fresh solutions to let the sense survive in the tricky and speedy infoworld.

The loss of innocence.
A code’s possible destructiveness may be programmed and activated from a distance like an explosive device. This mechanism, however, makes its users lose their innocence, forcing them to discover the very existence of uncertain possibilities among the fascinating traps on the screen. It even calls into question the user’s rule over the machine, which he usually exercises by means of his keyboard, a word-generating artificial limb, and the mouse, as a sceptre. Net.artists have often used methods related to the idea of pre-programmed invasion, and they have mostly taken the winning side in any conflict. Etoy, for instance, a group of media agitators, has been among the first to make use of the concept of ‘cultural viruses’ by systematising their propaganda as to make it infiltrate the systems of market and commerce (etoy.CORPORATEIDENTITY, 1994), and of finance (etoy.SHARE, 1998/99). Typically viral appearances have been used like a weapon, to ‘penetrate’, allowing both invasion into and dominion over foreign territories, even if, as in this case, the conflict is modelled after David and Goliath. [11] And on the media side the sinergy between the groups 0100101110101101.ORG and Epidemic joins the technological aspect with an explicit preference for the aesthetic part of the source code. During their ‘’ they succeeded in contaminating the Venice Biennale media. The computer virus strolling around the exposition pavilions was made front page news. In spite of all this clamour, the code could work only in a programme language that is not very common, the Phython. It is far more interesting that this group of programmer-artists demonstrated that a virus’ only purpose is to ‘survive’. Hereby they gave a new social and aesthetic value to viruses and refused of the traditional notion of natural malignity of any form of virus whatsoever.

Virus as language.
Finally, it is worth considering some interesting social and cultural reflections related with electronic communication when affected by a virus like ‘sircam’ or, even better, a ‘worm’ propagating within the net. Sircam chooses a document from the hard disk and sends it to all addresses found in the e-mail address book. So everything private, public, and interpersonal gets mixed up because of the possibility to reproduce information and to transmit them instantaneously in the net. Basically, the working patterns of both computers and the net form a wonderful environment to make viruses proliferate. But if we compare the way personal computers send signs and information to the net with the way human nerves and brain do the same thing, we may well compare viruses and their ways of collecting and generating information to the way we produce language. This should open new insights into the role computer viruses play, and into their very nature, as a form of language. Maybe these insights are nearer to reality than we could successfully imagine today.