Joseph Nechvatal on Wed, 26 Sep 2007 21:13:32 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> back on the virus word thread

Back on the virus word thread I promised this:

A Book Review of ?Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer 
Viruses? by Jussi Parikka (Peter Lang Books, 2007, 327 pages) by Joseph 

{loop:file = get-random-executable-file;
if first-line-of-file = 1234567 then goto loop;
prepend virus to file;}
-Fred Cohen, Computer Viruses: Theory and Experiments

We cannot be done with viruses as long as the ontology of network 
culture is viral-like.
-Jussi Parikka, The Universal Viral Machine

One could be forgiven for assuming that a book with the title ?Digital
Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses? would be of
sole interest to those sniggering hornrimmed programmers who harbor
an erudite loathing of Bill Gates and an affection for the Viennese
witch-doctor. Actually, it is a rather game and enthralling look,
via a media-ecological approach, into the acutely frightening, yet
hysterically glittering, networked world in which we now reside. A
world where the distinct individual is pitted against - and thoroughly
processed by - post-human semi-autonomous software programs which
often ferment anomalous feelings of being eaten alive by some great
indifferent artificiality that apparently functions semi-independently
as a natural being.

Though no J. G. Ballard or William S. Burroughs, Jussi Parikka
nevertheless sucks us into a fantastic black tour-de-force narrative
of virulence and the cultural history of computer viruses (*),
followed by innumerable inquisitive innuendoes concerning the
ramifications for a creative and aesthetic, if post-human, future.
Digital Contagions is impregnated with fear and suspicion, but
we almost immediately sense that it also contains an undeniable
affirmative nobility of purpose; which is to save the media cultural
condition ? and the brimful push of technological modernization in
general ? from catastrophically killing itself off.

This admirable embryonic redemption is achieved by a vaccination-like
turning of tables, as Parikka convincingly demonstrates that computer
viruses (semi-autonomous machinic/vampiric pieces of code) are not
antithetical to contemporary digital culture, but rather essential
traits of the techno-cultural logic itself. According to Parikka,
digital viruses in effect define the media ecology logic that
characterizes our networked computerized culture in recent decades.

We may wish to recall here that for Deleuze and Guattari, media
ecologies are machinic operations (the term machinic here refers to
the production of consistencies between heterogeneous elements) based
in particular technological and humane strings that have attained
virtual consistency. Our current inter-network ecology is a comparable
combination of top-down host arrangements wedded to bottom-up
self-organization where invariable linear configurations and states of
entanglement co-evolve in active process. Placing the significant role
of the virus in this mix in no uncertain terms, Parikka writes that,
?the virus truly seems to be a central cultural trope of the digital
world?. (p. 136) Indeed digital viruses are recognized by Parikka as
the crowning culmination of current postmodern cultural trends - as
viruses, by definition, are merger machines based on parasitism and
acculturation. So it is not only their symbolic/metaphoric power that
places them firmly in a wider perspective of cultural infection; it is
their formal structure, in that they procure their actuality from the
encircling environment to which they are receptively coupled.

Moreover, with the love of an aficionado, Parikka lucidly demonstrates
that computer viruses are indeed a variable index of the rudimentary
underpinning on which contemporary techno culture rests. He astutely
anoints the indexical function of the virus by establishing not
only its symbolic melancholy power in relation to the human body
and sex, but by folding the viral life/nonlife model (**) into key
cultural areas underlying the digital ecology; such as bottom-up
self-organization, hidden distributed activity and ethereal meshwork.
In that sense Parikka describes network ecology as both actual
and virtual, what I have elsewhere identified as the viractual.
(Briefly, the viractual is the stratum of activity where distinct
actualizations/individuations are materialized out of the flow
of virtuality.) But some viruses do not simply yield copies of
themselves, they also engage in a process of self-reproducing
autopoiesis: they are copying themselves over and over again but they
can also mutate and change, and by doing so, Parikka maintains, reveal
distinguishing aspects of network culture at large.

I would add that they mimic the manneristic aspects of late
post-modernism in general, particularly if one sees modernism as the
great petri dish aggregate in which we still are afloat. So computer
viruses are recognized here as an indexical symptom also of a bigger
cultural tendency that characterizes our post-modern media culture as
being inserted within a modern (purist) digital ecology. This aspect
provides the book with a discerning, yet heterogeneous, comprehension
of the connectionist technologies of contemporaneous techno culture.

But beyond the techno-cultural relevance, the significance of the
viral issues in Parikka?s book to ALL cultural production is evident
to anyone who has already recognized that digitalization has become
the universal technical platform for networked capitalism. As Parikka
himself points out, digitalization has secured its place as the master
formal archive for sounds, images and texts. (p. 5) Digitalization is
the double, the gangrel, that accompanies each of us in what we do -
and which accounts for our cultural feelings of vacillating between
anxiety and enthusiasm over being invaded by something invisible - and
the sneaky suspicion that we have been taken control of from within.

To begin this caliginous expedition, Digital Contagions plunges us
into a haunting, shifting and dislocating array of source material
that thrills. Parikka launches his degenerate seduction by drawing
from, and intertwining in a non-linear fashion, the theories of Gilles
Deleuze and Félix Guattari (for whom my unending love is verging on
obsession), Friedrich Kittler, Eugene Thacker, Tiziana Terranova,
N. Katherine Hayles, Lynn Margulis, Manuel DeLanda, Brian Massumi,
Bruno Latour, Charlie Gere, Sherry Turkle, Humberto Maturana and
Francisco Varela, Deborah Lupton, and Paul Virilio. These thinkers
are then linked with ripe examples from prankster net art, stealth
biopolitics, immunological incubations, the disassembly significance
of noise, ribald sexual allegories, antibody a-life projects, various
infected prosthesis, polymorphic encryptions, ticklish security
issues, numerous medical plagues, the coupling of nature and biology
via code, incisive sabotage attempts, anti-debugging trickery,
genome sequencing, parasitic spyware, killer T cell epidemics,
rebellious database deletions, trojan horse latency, viral marketing,
inflammatory political resistance, biological weaponry, pornographic
clones, depraved destructive turpitudes, rotten jokes, human-machine
symbiosis as interface, and a history of cracker catastrophes. All are
conjoined with excellent taste. The shock effect is one of discovering
a poignant nervous virality that has been secretly penetrating us

Digital Contagions?s genealogical account is proportionately
impressive, as it devotes satisfactory space to the discussion
of historical precedent; including Turing machines, Fred Cohen?s
pioneering work with computer viruses, John von Neumann's cellular
automata theory (i.e. any system that processes information as part
of a self-regulating mechanism), avant-garde cybernetics, human
immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the Creeper virus in the Arpanet
network, the coupling machines of John Conway, the nastily waggish
Morris worm, Richard Dawkins?s meme (contagious idea) theory; and
even the under known artistic hacks of Tommaso Tozzi. Furthermore,
the viral spectral as fantasized in science fiction is adequately
fleshed out, paying deserved attention to the obscure but much loved
(by me, anyway) 1975 book The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner and the
celebrated cyberpunk novel by Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash; among other
speculative books and hallucinatory films.

But the pinnacle of interest, for me, of this engaging and
educative read is its conclusion where Parikka sketches out an
alternative radical media-ecological perspective hinged on the viral
characteristics of self-reproduction and a coupling of the outside
with the inside typical of artificial life (a-life). He correctly
maintains that viral autopoiesis undertakings, like Thomas S. Ray's
Tierra virtual ecology art project, provides quintessential clues to
interpreting the software logic that has produced, and will continue
to produce, the ontological basis for much of the economic, political
and cultural transactions of our current globalizing world.

Here he has rendered problematic the safe vision of virus as malicious
software (virus as infection machine) and replaced it with a far more
curious, aesthetic and even benevolent one; as whimsical artificial
life (a-life). Using viral a-life?s tenants of semi-automation,
self-reproduction, and host quest; Parikka proposes a living machinic
autopoiesis that might provide a moebius strip like ontological
process for culture.

Though suppositional, he bases his procedure in formal viral
attributes - not unlike those of primitive artificial life with its
capability to self-reproduce and spread semi-autonomously (as viruses
do) while keeping in mind that Maturana/Varela?s autopoiesis contends
that living systems are an integral component of their surroundings
and work towards supporting that ecology. Parikka here picks up that
thread by pointing out that recent polymorphic viruses are now able
to evolve in response to anti-virus behaviors. Various viruses,
known as retroviruses, (***) explicitly target anti-virus programs.
Viruses with adaptive behavior, self-reproductive and evolutionary
programs can be seen, at least in part, as something alive, even
if not artificial life in the strongest sense of the word. Here we
might recall John Von Neumann?s conviction that the ideal design of
a computer should be based on the design of certain human organs -
or other live organisms. The artistic compositional benefit of his
autopoiesic virality theory, for me, is in allowing thought and vision
to rupture habit and bypass object-subject dichotomies.

I wish to point out here that although biological viruses were
originally discovered and characterized on the basis of the diseases
they caused, most viruses that infect bacteria, plants and animals
(including humans) do not cause disease. In fact, viruses may be
helpful to life in that they rapidly transfer genetic information from
one bacterium to another, and viruses of plants and animals may convey
genetic information among similar species, helping their hosts survive
in hostile environments.

Already various theories of complexity have established an influence
within philosophy and cultural theory by emphasizing open systems and
adaptability, but Parikka here supplies a further step in thinking
about ongoing feedback loops between an organism and its environment;
what I am tempted to call viralosophy. Viralosophy would be the
study of viral philosophical and theoretical points of reference
concerning malignant transformations useful in understanding the viral
paradigm essential to digital culture and media theory that focuses on
environmental complexity and inter-connectionism in relationship to
the particular artist. Within viralosophy, viral comprehension might
become the eventual - yet chimerical - reference point for culture
at large in terms of a modification of parameters, as it promotes
parasite-host dynamic interfacings of the technologically inert with
the biologically animate, probabilistically.

So the decisive, if dormant, payload that is triggered by reading
this book, for me, is an enhanced understands of pagan and animist
sentiment which recognizes non-malicious looping-mutating energy
feedback and self-recreational dynamism that informs new aesthetic
becomings which may alter artistic output. Possibly heuristic
becomings (****) that transgress the established boundaries of
nature/technology/culture and extend the time-bomb cognitive nihilism
of Henry Flynt. This affirmative viral payload forces open-ended
multiplicities onto art that favor new-sprung conceptualizations and
rebooted realizations. Here the artist comes back to life as spurred
a-life, and not as a sole articulation of the pirated environment
of currency. So the so-called art virus is not to be judged in
terms of its occasional monetary payload, but by the metabolistic
characteristics that make art reasonable to discuss as a form of
extravagant artificial life: triggered emergence, resilience and back
door evolution.

(*) A computer virus is a self-replicating computer program that
spreads by inserting copies of itself into other executable code or
documents. A computer virus behaves in a way similar to a biological
virus, which spreads by inserting itself into living cells. Extending
the analogy, the insertion of a virus into the program is termed as
an "infection", and the infected file, or executable code that is not
part of a file, is called a "host".

(**) Scientists have argued about whether viruses are living organisms
or just a package of colossal molecules. A virus has to hijack another
organism's biological machinery to replicate, which it does by
inserting its DNA into a host.

(***) Retroviruses are sometimes known as anti-anti-viruses. The basic
principle is that the virus must somehow hinder the operation of an
anti-virus program in such a way that the virus itself benefits from
it. Anti-anti-viruses should not be confused with anti-virus-viruses,
which are viruses that will disable or disinfect other viruses.

(****) A heuristic virus cleaner works by loading an infected file up
to memory and emulating the program code. It uses a combination of
disassembly, emulation and sometimes execution to trace the flow of
the virus and to emulate what the virus is normally doing. The risk in
heuristic cleaning is that if the cleaner tries to emulate everything,
the virus might get control inside the emulated environment and
escape, after which it can propagate further or trigger a destructive
retaliation reflex.

Joseph Nechvatal
Mid-September 2007, Marrakech

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