Review of Jussi Parikka, Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses

Review of Jussi Parikka, Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses, Second Edition (Peter Lang, 2016), 296 pages, $53. ISBN: 978-1433132322.

Reviewed by Roger Whitson

Book website: https://www.peterlang.com/view/product/70580

Abstract

The second edition of Jussi Parikka’s Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses is both a welcome reissue of a canonical text in media archaeology and an important intervention into contemporary techno-political crises like cyberwarfare. Parikka’s book shows how viruses are central to the history of networked computing, while articulating their social connections to political, medical, and cultural discourses. For him, the notion of contagion in digital networks is inseparable from the rise of the computing security industry and the spread of what he calls “viral capitalism:” a system of value that leverages viral methodologies to colonize new markets and appropriate revolutionary impulses. Against the purity and commercialism of contemporary consumer electronics, Digital Contagions instead looks to the experiments of early viral programming as offering alternate histories of digital media.

Keywords

hacking, viruses, security, autoimmunity, alternate history

 

Toward the end of the second chapter on “Body,” Jussi Parikka argues that the computing security culture of the 1980s and early 1990s identified the threat of computer hacking as on par with that of Communist infiltrators and spies. “The danger from behind the Iron Curtain remained,” Parikka says referring to American fears of Russian and Bulgarian hackers, “even though the Cold War gradually moved to the sidelines” (149). I couldn’t help but feel a sense of the uncanny while reading the second edition of Parikka’s Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses. First published at the dawn of the Obama administration in 2007, Parikka’s media archaeological excavation of the political, medical, cultural, and technological conditions of computer viruses reads very differently in the wake of Donald Trump’s gushing admiration of Vladimir Putin in 2017. Parikka’s appropriation of the control-society political theories described by Hardt and Negri and Alexander Galloway similarly emerge as quite jarring when compared with the 2016 resurgence of white nationalism that used the technological infrastructure of network capitalism to solidify their racist political power base. Yet these jarring juxtapositions that haunt the second edition of Parikka’s Digital Contagions underscore just how much the book remains a canonical touchstone of post-Kittlerean media archaeology and cultural techniques while also acting as an urgently-needed intervention into the techno-political crises that define our current world.

References to events occurring since the 2007 publication of Digital Contagions’s first edition are scattered throughout the book as so many traces of an always emerging textual genealogy. Edward Snowden, who leaked classified CIA information in 2013, appears several times in the book. Dave Eggers’s The Circle, a 2013 satirical novel about internet capitalism, is used to contextualize Parikka’s critique of the Silicon Valley-inspired Californian Ideology. A new “Afterword” written by Parikka recounts the 2015 revelation by tech journalists that the popular driving application Uber is “literally malware,” references the Stuxnet worm first identified in 2010, and discusses the 2008 targeting of non-American anti-virus companies like Russia’s Kaspersky by the NSA (250). Even short references to Parikka’s subsequent books like Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Insects (2010), What is Media Archaeology? (2012), and A Geology of Media (2015) create fascinating recursive histories that both recall and forecast the various threads emerging from this book and continuing in other pieces of his scholarship. The palimpsest quality of this second edition, like those of many updated books whose contents are stored on the servers of networked computers, reinforces the necessity of Parikka’s description of media archaeological excavation as looking for “the interplay between continuities and discontinuities” in various media histories (xvii).

To recall Matthew Kirschenbaum’s recent book on the archaeology of word processing, I kept wanting a set of “tracked changes” illuminating the philological composition history of Parikka’s book. Instead, these otherwise invisible traces of the book’s composition perform the impossibilities of the media archaeological method Parikka describes. Revisions to the second edition emerge as so many viruses, in that they are not malicious invaders obscuring some original composition, but instead suggest that we are curiously disconnected from what Parikka calls the various “detours and experiments that remain virtual, yet real, in the shadows of the actuality of hegemonic understanding” (xxxii). As I read this second edition, I became all-too-aware of the ghosts of abandoned drafts and deleted sentences that Parikka must have once wrote. Some of them, perhaps, were recontextualized in his subsequent books and articles — others must have been deleted, maybe recoverable as forensic data or otherwise lost forever.

 In Digital Contagions, Parikka argues that, far from being marginal or malicious actors, viruses are central in the constitution of the material and social history of computing. The book sketches a model of computer history as a vacillation between trust and security, on the one hand; and experimentation and viral replication, on the other. In fact, as we are told in the first chapter “Fear Secured,” some of the earliest viruses were not meant to be malicious at all, but designed as amusements or as games that tested the security capabilities of various computer systems. Parikka tells us that the authors of the 1961 game DARWIN referred to their program as a “virus,” even though the program never caused any real damage. The game featured the programming of digital viral organisms that fought one another to occupy the core memory space of their enemies. Similarly, John Walker’s PERVADE “infected” computers by automatically updating previous versions of the program, only causing minor problems when it overwrote the security protocols of Univac system operated by Walker’s company. Parikka’s first chapter charts how such self-replicating programs were reconceptualized from being quirky entertainments to threats by a computing industry that became more and more invested in security and commercialism.

This link between security and commercialism is not arbitrary in computing history. For Parikka, it describes a form of “viral capitalism” that also saw the “drive toward virality as a mode of operation based on contagion, mutation, and colonization of various networks” (66). The virus is, in other words, a doppelganger of capitalist appropriation. Security is necessary only to safeguard the surplus value that is the by-product of acts of monetary infection and colonization. Parikka’s first chapter charts this history by pointing out how computer security was originally a problem of secure buildings and trustworthy programmers. His analysis reminded me of a scene from the 1983 film Superman III, in which Richard Pryor’s Gus Gorman hacks into a computer mainframe by breaking into the physical building where it is housed and getting its security guard drunk. Unlike the phone lines in War Games, which appeared in the same year and is referenced by Parikka in the book, Superman III references an earlier moment of computer security as place-based and achaten-suisse.com socially enforced. The conclusion pits a cyborg created by Gorman’s supercomputer against Superman, yet it never quite raises the same posthuman questions posed by Parikka’s “field of prosthetic technologies” in which programmer and virus are seen as interdependent intruders (17). Even so, the image of Pryor’s countercultural hacker teaming up with the millionaire villain Ross Webster (played by Robert Vaughan) is all-too-symptomatic of Parikka’s argument that the contagion represented by hackers and computer viruses was simultaneously used as a method of market colonization by viral capitalism and the computer security industry.

Sean Cubbitt’s new preface stresses this interplay between hacking and colonization on an immunological level: that to communicate means to touch and to exchange “and involves us opening up, and therefore taking risks” (X). And, indeed, Parikka’s own book spends quite a bit of time reflecting on the connections between viral immunology and computer security. Much like AIDS caused not only the safe sex movements of the 1980s and 1990s but also stigmatized the LGBTQIA population, the rise of computer viruses also caused a newfound focus on so-called “computer hygiene” while stigmatizing the computer hacker as a miscreant — or worse — people who must be sick themselves.

Yet this discussion creates what is the one slight disagreement I have with Parikka’s book. In the “Body” chapter, Parikka argues that the immune system “inhabits a liminal status between the system and its outside” and that this fact “is further emphasized by autoimmune diseases (such as AIDS).” AIDS is actually a disease of immunodeficiency, in which the HIV virus attacks the immune system and deaths are often caused by so-called “opportunistic infections” like pneumonia. As someone who suffers from Crohns and Ankylosing Spondylitis, two common autoimmune conditions, I know that my diseases are quite different from those who have HIV. Beyond this small disagreement, however, recent medical research into autoimmunity actually bears out Parikka’s larger argument about virality. In a review article published in 2012 for the medical journal Pathophysiology, A.B. Poletaev et al, argue that the struggle between self and non-self is just one part of the immune system’s responsibility, and that so-called “natural autoimmunity” exists in every organism as the “perpetual self-harmonization of the primarily imperfect and contradictory body under the conditions of permanent pressure of the environment” (222). It is the continuous organization of a bodily assemblage with some tolerance for the liminality of this condition that characterizes the adaptability of our immunological response. We live with many viral and bacterial “aliens” in our bodies, and the immune system is commonly used in cell apoptosis and cancer management. Pathological autoimmunity, for the authors, occurs when otherwise normal autoimmune responses are poorly regulated by specific antigen and antibody reactions to the point of causing organ or tissue deficiency.

Such a medical description of autoimmunity recalls not only the body without organs of Anton Artaud and Deleuze and Guattari, but also the cyborg and animal manifestos of Donna Haraway and the Darwinian reflections of Elizabeth Grosz. Parikka’s own analysis of artificial life in the final chapter extends this new materialist genealogy by usefully deconstructing the technological, biological, and ecological aspects of life. While he importantly points out how the meme theories of Richard Dawkins have been used to deny the materiality of computational processes, Parikka nevertheless invokes Dawkins’s work and that of Susan Blackmore to emphasize the posthuman implications of memetic reproduction on the internet. Blackmore, in particular, suggested in 2000 that useful accidents caused by the improper copying of data — what she saw as a technological version of the kinds of mutations giving rise to cancer in living beings — might actually bring about processes like those of general evolutionary theory. Blackmore’s theory usefully questions what kinds of intelligences we expect when conceptualizing artificial intelligence, a theme repeated in an interview with Benjamin Bratton when he compares the human-centered guidelines of the Turing Test to the notion of “passing” in queer and disability studies. Bratton argues that “making an A.I. pass as a human” is not dissimilar to “making a gay man pass as a straight person” and leads him to wonder “[w]hat may an A.I. that is ‘not pretending’ look like, and sound like to us?”

Parikka gives us one answer to Bratton’s question in a breathtaking vision of non-human artificial intelligence appearing in the final pages of Digital Contagions. Examining Thomas Ray’s Tierra Virtual Computing Project, Parikka points to a 1995 document Ray wrote called “A Proposal to Create Two Biodiversity Reserves: One Digital and One Organic.” Ray’s project planned on using spare CPU cycles running as background programs to “set off a digital analog to the Cambrian explosion of diversity in which multi-cellular digital organisms (parallel MIMD processes) will spontaneously increase in diversity and complexity” (236). Ray hoped that the experiment would let him use natural selection to enable more complexity amongst digital processes while also allowing him to identify biological analogues to computational parallel processing. His hopes never really materialized, and yet Parikka points to this curious experiment as a truly exemplary moment in viral media archaeology. What other ghostly counterfactual worlds have we abandoned by adopting a viral capitalist model of technological production and worshipping the new commercial gadget as a messianic force?

I feel haunted by alternate history when reading Parikka’s work, particularly as I am confronted with the strange machines he surveys like so many technologies from parallel worlds. Whether that feeling manifests in Parikka’s descriptions of Paul DeMarinis’s Rome To Tripoli, in which radio transmitters amplifying human voices are interrupted by sulfuric acid from What is Media Archaeology?; in his analysis of Etienne-Jules Marey’s nineteenth-century lithographs of wasps in flight, where myographs were used to measure the velocity of non-human wings from Insect Media; or in his excavation of Katie Paterson’s “Vatanajökull (the sound of),” in which a live phone line is attached to a melting glacier that a person can call to hear the sounds of global warming from A Geology of Media — Parikka’s scholarship often reads like the steampunk video game Bioshock Infinite. Bioshock Infinite tells the story of the failed libertarian utopia Columbia, where technology from multiple parallel universes gathered together has created an endless recurring pattern of war, racism, and death. Viewed from a moment in history when neoliberalism has likewise given way to nationalism, racism, and the possibility of nuclear war, I can’t imagine a better time to read Parikka’s alternate viral history of computing. Digital Contagions is a powerful reminder of the impossibilities and dangers of so-called “full security,” particularly in a moment when nationalist and purist fantasies are infecting any possibility of a progressive future.

References

Eggers D (2013) The Circle, New York: Knopf.

Kirschenbaum, M (2016) Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Lester, R (1983) Superman III, Warner Brothers.

Levine, K (2013) Bioshock Infinite, Irrational Games.

Parikka, J (2015) A Geology of Media, Minnesota: U of Minnesota Press.

Parikka J (2010) Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology, U of Minnesota Press.

Parikka J (2014) What Is Media Archaeology?, Cambridge: Polity.

Poletaev A.B. et al. (2012) Immounophysiology versus Immunopathology: Natural Autoimmunity in Human Health and Disease, Pathophysiology 19, 221–231.

Savina A and B Bratton (2017) Encountering the Other Mind: How A.I. Will Shift Our Design Process, And in Turn, Our Cities, Freunde Von Freunden (March): Available at: www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/encountering-the-other-mind-how-ai-will-shift-our-design-process-and-in-turn-our-cities/.

 

Roger Whitson is Assistant Professor of English at Washington State University, where he also teaches in the Digital Technology and Culture (DTC) program.  He is the author of Steampunk and Nineteenth-Century Digital Humanities:  Literary Retrofuturisms, Media Archaeologies, Alternate Histories (Routledge 2016); William Blake and the Digital Humanities:  Collaboration, Participation, and Social Media, with Jason Whittaker (2013); and several articles on William Blake, the digital humanities, and steampunk appearing in Romantic Circles, Essays in RomanticismRhizomes:  Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge, The Journal of Interactive Technology and PedagogyDigital Humanities Quarterly, and in Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall’s edited collection Like Clockwork:  Steampunk Pasts, Presents, and Futures (2016).