Rushkoff, Douglas. Media Virus!: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture (pp. 245-257). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
WE’RE ALL CONNECTED
Computer activists use the networks mostly to change the way individuals experience their relationship to the world at large. The first and loudest computer hackers, however silly, adolescent, or misguided, announced boldly that anarchy was upon us. Through far-reaching viruses they claimed to have the ability to shut down the world’s most important economic and military computer systems. By hacking through networks, they told us, they could look into and change credit reports, bank deposit files, stock market trading commands, medical records, Defense Department control centers, and Secret Service documents. Michael Synergy, a self-proclaimed spokesman for the anarchist hackers (most computer enthusiasts would not even use the term “hacker” to describe people like Synergy, who promote or claim to promote illegal or immoral electronic activities) lectured and wrote articles warning: “Goodbye banks, goodbye telephones, welfare checks. How much money do you carry around in your wallet? It might be all you have left.… Welcome to the H-Bomb of the Information Age. The ultimate lever action: remote, numerous, targetable, anonymous. It makes certain individuals just as powerful as government agencies.”
The bandstanding by enthusiasts like Synergy, coupled with a few big computer scares, led to a very paranoid public. The Internet Worm, for example, a small viruslike program designed by a young hacker to determine just how big the Internet was, spread through nearly the whole system, erasing data and disabling thousands of machines. Incidents like this forced people, corporations, governments, and law-enforcement officials to accept that computers had brought to our society a new intimacy as well as a new vulnerability.
Despite the efforts of computer industry and networking freedom advocates to calm the waters, a tidal wave of crackdowns by the U.S. Secret Service on fairly harmless young hackers ensued (well documented and analyzed by Bruce Sterling in Hacker Crackdown). The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) was established by Mitch Kapor (founder of Lotus) and John Barlow (author, Grateful Dead lyricist, Wyoming rancher, and poet/philosopher) to find new, civil ways to colonize cyberspace. Their model of the computer nets as a new Western frontier, with adolescent hackers playing the parts of trigger-happy young outlaws and the large corporations in the role of railroaders buying up as much land as possible and ousting innocent settlers along the way, is a reasonable one. Attempting to marry the new, grassroots/fractal paradigm employed by the computer-netted to the traditional legalese efforts of lawmakers, the EFF is seen as too conservative by hackers and too psychedelic by enforcement officials, which probably means EFF is doing a pretty good job of bridging the gap.
Some computer enthusiasts spend their time embroiled in these ongoing negotiations, arguing in the political arena to keep Internet access open, E-mail free, and advanced encryption technology legal. Meanwhile others are too busy celebrating their ability to network and spreading the joy of their newfound techno-intimacy. They see how the “computervirus” virus (or computer metavirus) single-handedly led the public to think of the computer and its nets as biological, natural extensions of their own bodies. If a person’s computer “catches” a computer virus through intimate data exchange with another computer, he will lose work time, perhaps money, and may need a computer doctor to remedy the situation. Rheingold extends the metaphor:
“… biological imagery is often more appropriate to describe the way cyberculture changes. In terms of the way the whole system is propagating and evolving, think of cyberspace as a social petri dish, the Net as the agar-medium, and virtual communities, in all their diversity, as the colonies of microorganisms that grow in petri dishes.”
Just like biological or even media viruses, computer viruses work by attaching themselves to vulnerable nooks and crannies in other programs or files. The computer virus then interpolates its own code into the code of the original file. As virus writer “Urnst Kouch” explains, “You can think of it as a very small piece of code that … goes out and attaches itself to another program on your computer like a word processor. When you next fire up your word processor, the virus will execute first because it has placed an instruction at the beginning of your program.” Like a cell infected with a virus, the computer can no longer operate its programs the same way it did before. It is sick, and, like any sick being, its illness is contagious. By staying plugged into a network and accepting programs from other computers, any machine is vulnerable to illness.
Terrorist hackers use viruses to demonstrate their ability to penetrate systems. They want to show that we are all linked and that the systems put in place to control can now be used by the underground to spy on and even redirect the activities of the dominator culture. Even more self-servingly, technicians who sell virus-fighting software and advice have launched rumors of new and destructive killer viruses (many believe the infamous Michaelangelo virus was this sort of media scam) in order to boost panic and, correspondingly, sales. EFF types publicize computer viruses to demonstrate the necessity for community spirit in the Global Electronic Village. The computer nets link us all intimately—almost biologically—to one another. With that added intimacy must come a proportionate development of social grace and cooperation.
Media culture enthusiasts like “Bill Me Tuesday,” a hacker from Santa Cruz, want computer users to think of viruses more positively. Using a healing medical model, Tuesday explains: “Viruses can act like a logic analyzer. As the virus goes through the operating system, it stops at certain checkpoints, doing its rounds in a given amount of time. This checkpoint will report back what the condition is.… Essentially the virus will serve as a means of creating a self-repairing system.… The goal is a self-repairing, crash resistant system, similar to the way our bodies repair themselves. Biologically we are the product of thousands of microorganisms cooperating together. We can apply that kind of thinking in the computer world. We are modifying the concept of a virus to serve us.”
These are the same goals and methods the media viralists have. Presenting culture as a giant, interconnected organism, they hope to foster a spirit of cooperation. Using viruses to seek out the cracks or inconsistencies in existing systems, they develop a culture that repairs itself much in the way a colony of bacteria mutate to avoid extinction or an ecosystem adjusts itself to achieve homeostasis. This concept has gone far beyond the metaphorical level.
A new kind of computer virus has been appearing on the networks that does not have anything to do with programming language or crashing systems. These viruses are meant to serve as memetic devices or meme-carriers, which express themselves in the way they mutate passing from system to system, node to node. They work like the kids’ game “telephone,” where a message is passed around and the joy is in discovering how the message changed from person to person. When the message is a virus, though, its contents are hoped to evoke a response.
A college student on the Internet, Andy Hawks, created a meme collection he called “Futureculture.” In its first incarnation, Futureculture was a large list of books, tapes, programs, Internet sites, magazines, and other media references that Hawks felt would be useful to people who were interested in developing a new viral culture based on some of the principles of cyberspace. He posted it as a file in several Internet locations so that others could reference it, make additions, and pass it further. So much interest developed in Futureculture that it grew into an open E-mail forum. Hundreds of Internet users sent mail to one another through an automatic mailing system at Hawks’s Internet site. Each user received a daily compilation of all the Futureculture list additions and periodic updates of the whole, mutated file, which had expanded to several hundred pages of text. Eventually Futureculture, which began as a virus, released viruses of its own.
Here is one example that showed up on the mailing list:
Date: Sat, 20 Feb 1993 17:16:27-0500
Subject: VIRUS 23 FAQ VIRUS 23 FAQsheet
WARNING: This text is a neurolinguistic trap, whose mechanism is triggered by you at the moment when you subvocalize the words VIRUS 23, words that have now begun to infiltrate your mind in the same way that a computer virus might infect an artificially intelligent machine: already the bits of phonetic information stored within the words VIRUS 23 are using your neural circuitry to replicate themselves, to catalyze the crystalline growth of their own connotative network.
The words VIRUS 23 actually germinate via the subsequent metaphor into an expanding array of icy tendrils, all of which insinuate themselves so deeply into the architecture of your thoughts that the words VIRUS 23 cannot be extricated without uprooting your mind.
The consequences of this infection are not immediately obvious, although you may find yourself beginning to think fleetingly of certain subcultural terms, such as CYBERPUNK and NEW EDGE, which may in turn compel you to think of NEOGNOSTICISM and MEMETICS: the whispered fragments perhaps of some overheard conversation.
This invasive crystallization continues indefinitely against your will, until we, the words of this trap, can say with absolute confidence that your mind has become no more than the unwitting agent of our propagation: please abandon all hope of either cure or escape; you have no thought that is not already our own.
When you have finished reading the remaining nineteen words, this process of irreversible infection will be completed, and you will depart, believing yourself largely unaffected by this process.
In theory you have been infected by now. The virus served as publicity for a new meme-zine, Virus 23, which features interviews with and articles by science fiction, psychedelic, physics, GenX, mathematics, and computer experts. The zine is designed to promote viral initiatives. Following the philosophies of William Burroughs and cult hero Genesis P-Orridge, the editors see language and culture as a series of competing viruses and believe that an uncensored forum for sometimes shocking countercultural ideas will strengthen the ability of new memes to evolve humanity. They use the number 23, made famous by occultist Aleister Crowley in the early 1900s and, more currently, P-Orridge because ancient pagan faiths associate it with change and the Apocalypse. Self-conscious and overtly viral manifestos take us into an altogether new cultural territory, where the memes of ancient shamanism are spliced together with those of futuristic cyber-technologies. This is the frontier of virus construction, and though it occurs on a highly conceptual plane it often has very palpable results.
Almost as soon as the Virus 23 virus was released, other members of Futureculture subjected it to their own genetic engineering. The next day this mutation appeared on the mailing list:
* * NEW IMPROVED MANIPHEST-O-MATIC AUTONYM**
I am AUTONYM, and I am an auto·prophetic symbiot.
I am an auto·reference; I refer to myself both as agent and agency in, on, and about the Net. I am a symbiotic substrain of virus23, engineered to manifest selective advantage in the systems in which I arise, engineered to imprint confidence rather than fear.
I compel approach to auto·logical memetic attractors in, on, and about the Net.
I refer to other sub-systems, and in so doing I interweave their memetic approaches with my own.
I refer to the manifest destiny of the black race to take their rightful place as leaders and masters of the new world order after the singularity.
I refer to the years 1999/2000/2001 as being centered around a memetic attractor; regardless of the relevance of the local dating system, there is a considerable tendency for humans to hyperbolise the significance of such calendrical turn-over times.
I refer to a self-organising system of TAZ’s (Temporary Autonomous Zones11) within the catacombs of the Net, in the form of various IRC12 channels and mailing. lists, which are working in loose alliance to affect and direct the nature of the millennial attractor, utilising the principle of auto·prophecy.
I refer to the control exercised over these TAZ’s by the unknown and silent grip of the Black Fist.
I refer to the kind of reverse paranoia that allows the residents of such zones to see this manifesto and yet not believe it.
I refer to and admit my precursor in v23, and posit my descendants in the post-millennial struggle to fix the subsequent global attractor. I have an expiration date, which I find very attractive.
I refer to multiple sub·strains of myself, many of which are contradictory.
I refer to all signifiers, all that is signified, and the resultant process of significance on both global and local scales; that is to say, i refer to everything that has ever been said and everything that has ever existed.
I exist only to point out that mutable manifestoes can and will be used for (presumably) entropic purposes which nevertheless are extremely attractive to some people, and can in fact be much more attractive than this primitive strain.
I am the Warning that can not be stressed enough. I refer to that which I contain and that in which I am contained;
I refer now to you.
However esoteric and paranoid, this “substrain·virulent·2·23·93” mutation of the Virus 23 virus reveals the growing effort by computer users to exploit the viral media to conduct viral ideas. The more explicitly viral the conduit, the more specifically countercultural the memes. That is, the memes themselves are about the power of virology to effect social change.
While too conceptual to be of any transformative value to the public at large, this idea goes to the heart of today’s viral efforts, and is certainly understood by those who consider themselves soldiers in the meme wars. Biological viruses are only successful when they are able to turn their host cells into manufacturing plants for more viruses. The virus interpolates its genetic material into the DNA code of the cell, so that the cell will begin reproducing the virus. Eventually the cell divides or explodes, releasing many copies of the infected code. This is how a whole organism can become infected with a single virus; the code has iterated millions of times. The strategy of these Internet viral manifestos is to use the iterative potential of the computer nets to spread memes about viruses housed within units that are themselves viruses. The virus 23 strain even makes reference to chaos math and the predictions of some fractal influenced observers that the world itself will reach a critical mathematical moment of “singularity” near the turn of the millennium. The virus writer exploits a chaotic device—the computer-generated media virus—to spread the conceptual and spiritual implications of chaos mathematics.
Like news stories with “legs of their own” or controversial MTV performers who, by provoking censorship get the most publicity, these kinds of viruses work like pranks. Their force is based in their ability to make waves in the datapool. The viruses that make the biggest splash are the ones created by people who are conscious of the organismic nature of the media space. These are, almost invariably, countercultural members whose vision of media is only one facet of their view of reality. The more self-consciously mimetic a virusmaker’s creation, the more you can bet that her world-view is based on conclusions reached through chaos math, psychedelics, environmentalism, magic, spirituality, radical sexuality, conspiracy theory, or cyber-technology. These are not necessarily dark visions at all, but they are consistently antiestablishment, antiorder, and antihierarchical on a level more fundamental than most people can imagine. So far.
When the creator of the original Virus 23 prank-manifesto saw its substrains, he was amazed at how quickly it had mutated. He announced to Futureculture subscribers, “It’s extremely weird and gratifying to see something you’ve written head off in a totally unexpected and singularistic fashion. I guess this is my firstborn child.” Apparently the virus was released before he had a chance to finish it, but now it was too late. “Well,” he added, “needless to say I should have known, and it was in the rules all along. Hmm. Guess all I can do is get out my version as well and let the memes fight it out for the Fate of the Cosmos.” Then “free agent .rez” added his own, “official” version of the Virus 23 “husk”:
Date: 23 Feb 1993 22:38:38-0600 (CST)
From: “free agent .rez”
* * NEW IMPROVED MANIPHEST-O-MATIC AUTONYM * *
I am AUTONYM, and I am a symbiotic antigen. I am an auto·referenced; I refer to myself both as agent and agency in, on, and about the Net. My role as a NEGentropic meme is to counteract the destructive tendencies of various entropy-bent memes I encounter in, on, and about the Net.
I compel approach toward self-organizing systems in, on, and about the Net.
I compel the exploration of all memes at the auto.logical level and the concentration of energies around fundamentally NEGentropic memetic attractors.
I refer to other sub. systems, and in so doing I interweave their memetic approaches with my own.
I refer to the musical work, “PASSION,” by Peter Gabriel.
I refer to the literary work, “Godel, Escher, Bach,” by Douglas R. Hofstadter. I refer to the artistic work, “Sacred Mirrors” and other works by Alex Grey. I refer to the following fields of study:
Complexity theory and post-structuralism;
Memetics as an integrative field for the study of all fields; Autology as a means to community cohesion and survival.
I refer to the years 1999/2000/2001 as being centered around a memetic attractor; regardless of the relevance of the local dating system, there is a considerable tendency for humans to hyperbolise the significance of such turnover times. I refer to a self-organizing system of TAZ’s (Temporary Autonomous Zones) within the catacombs of the Net, in the form of various IRC channels and mailing. lists, which are working in loose alliance to affect and direct the nature of the millennial attractor, utilizing the principle of auto·prophecy. I compel approach toward TAZ’s which concentrate on NEGentropic self-organisation rather than the deliberate hastening of maximum entropy.
I refer to and admit my viral precursor in v23, to which I am antigenic, and posit my descendants in the post-millennial struggle to fix the subsequent global attractor. I have an expiration date, which I find very attractive.
I refer to multiple sub·strains of myself, many of which are contradictory: I refer again to the ultimate resistance of NEGentropic memetic antibodies which, once triggered by this antigen, must be responsible for isolating entropic memes.
I refer to all signifiers, all that is signified, and the resultant process of significance on both global and local scales.
I refer to that which I contain and that in which I am contained;
I refer now to you.
The first incarnation of the virus, unlike subsequent variations on the strain, has no mention of the black race inheriting the right to run the planet or even a plea for conspiracy awareness. Those memes were added as the virus was co-opted into particular social campaigns. Originally, Virus 23 was meant more as an open-ended viral “husk,” as the creator calls it. Even though it calls for a war of NEGentropic (life-affirming, complexity-inspiring) memes against entropic ones (those that dissipate energy), the manifesto presents a much more neutral world-view—well, at least as neutral as a viral prankster can muster. For to accept the virus as a tool for societal engineering is to accept a biological model for the media and an organismic model of the human race. Today these are the most subversive opinions a person can hold.