The Universal Viral Machine: Bits, Parasites and the Media Ecology of Network Culture

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

In this article, I examine computer worms and viruses as part of the genealogy of network media, of the discourse networks of the contemporary media condition. While popular and professional arguments concerning these miniprograms often see them solely as malicious code, worms and viruses might equally be approached as revealing the very basics of their environment. Such a media-ecological perspective relies on notions of self-referentiality and autopoiesis that problematize the often all-too-hasty depictions of viruses as malicious software, products of vandal juveniles. In other words, worms and viruses are not antithetical to contemporary digital culture, but reveal essential traits of the techno-cultural logic that characterizes the computerized media culture of recent decades.

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Fred Cohen was not, however, thinking merely of digital guerrilla war but of life in general, of the dynamics of semi-autonomous programs, highlighting that the two, war and life, are not contradictory modalities, in the sense that both are about mobilizing, about enacting. In this respect, his work has also been neglected, and I am not referring to the objections his research received in the 1980s.[16] Instead of merely providing warnings of viruses, Cohen's work and Ph.D thesis presented the essential connections that viruses, Turing machines and artificial life-like processes have. We cannot be done with viruses as long as the ontology of network culture is viral-like. Viruses, worms or any other similar programs that used the very basic operations of communicatory computers were logically part of the field of computing. The border between illegal and legal operations on a computer could not, therefore, be technically resolved -- a fact that led to a flood of literature on "how to find and get rid of viruses on your computer."

For Cohen, a virus program was able to infect "other programs by modifying them to include a, possibly evolved, copy of itself."[17] This allowed the virus to spread throughout the system or network, leaving every program susceptible to becoming a virus. The relation of these viral symbol sets to Turing machines was essential, similar to an organism's relation to its environment. The universal machine, presented in 1936 by Alan Turing, has since provided the blueprint for each and every computer there is in its formal definition of programmability. Anything that can be expressed in algorithms can also be processed with a Turing machine. Thus, as Cohen remarks, "[t]he sequence of tape symbols we call 'viruses' is a function of the machine on which they are to be interpreted"[18], logically implying the inherency of viruses in Turing machine-based communication systems. This relationship makes all organisms parasites in that they gain their existence from the surrounding environment to which they are functionally and organizationally coupled.

I do not want to address the question of whether worms and viruses are life as we know it, but underline that in addition to being an articulation on the level of cultural imaginary, this virality is also a very fundamental description of the machinic processes of these programs, and of digital culture in general. As a continuation to the theme of technological modernization, network culture is increasingly inhabited by semi-autonomous software programs and processes, which often raised the uncanny feeling of artificial life as expressed, for instance, in the various journalistic and fictitious examples describing software program attacks. This uncanny feeling is an expression of the hybrid status of such programs that transgress the constitutional (in Latour's sense of the word) boundaries of Nature, Technology and Culture. Whereas viruses and worms have come to be the central indexes of this transgression for popular consciousness, artificial life projects have also faced the same issue. As transversal disciplines such as ALife have for decades underlined, life is not to be judged as a quality of a particular substance (the hegemony of a carbon-based understanding of life) but as a model of the interconnectedness, emergence and behaviour of the constituent components of a(ny) living system. Chris Langton suggested in the late 1980s that artificial life focuses not on life as it is, or has been but on life as it could be. This is taken up as the key idea for projects that see life emerging on various synthetic platforms, silicon and computer-based systems and networks for example. [22] In a similar vein Richard Dawkins, when he viralized cultural reality with his theory of memes in 1976, referred to the possibilities of finding life even in "electronic reverberating circuits." [23]

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Luciana Gattass