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A virus stalks the Web

Computer viruses behave in the same way as their biological counterparts: they take over an “organism”, make it their own habitat and, in some rare cases, destroy it. All viruses spread in a way that follows to the letter the laws of the preservation of the species and the instinct of survival: a virus is there to EXIST: instinctively and uncompromisingly it wants to EXIST!

In certain cases the comparison between organic and non-organic, or in technological terms we should perhaps use the term ultra-organic, can be taken much further. Although no one has yet ventured to make a classification of the main families of computer viruses or to distinguish between the various bacteria, microbes and pathogenic agents, we can say that computer viruses fall into a series of very distinct structural categories: some are polymorphic, which means that they mutate over a period of time, others remain latent over a long or short period of time before manifesting themselves, while others still are capable of learning how to be destructive and defend themselves from the ways in which they are attacked, and thus manage to immunise successive generations, which soon renders obsolete existing forms of treatment and antivirus software (the IT equivalent of antibiotics). One interesting consequence of all this is the fact that these problems are just as much a part of everyday life for the information technology community as they for the world of medical science.

As was maintained during the spread of viral contagion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, viruses present themselves as a dangerous threat, the manifestation in fact of an insoluble conflict between health and wealth: between the health of an “organism”, or rather of a “social body”, and its wealth or industriousness. Of course the term social body is taken for granted here as being congruous with and indeed equivalent to the Web, although we must also bear in mind the risky consideration that Foucault’s paradigm would have had to take this assumption into account… but how, and in what other way, could we today in 2001 imagine anything more convincingly up to date than this, so masterfully described in a seminal text like Surveiller et punir. Naissance de la prison (1975), other than in the reality of the Web?

By the second half of the 1990s the contradiction between health and wealth in the Web had in fact reached a point where it threatened to undermine its very stability and the process of what until then had seemed to be one of irreversible expansion. A situation of “poor health” on the Web (one that would come about in an immeasurably more rapid way than in the past, quite unlike anything that had ever happened with other media) might cause a scaling down in economic terms.

In the African or Asian colonies of the European powers, doctors would estimate the damage done to crops as a result of epidemics of typhus and yellow fever, because human life was what “fuelled” the creation of wealth in the plantations. Likewise, in today’s ultra-organic, wired-up world, the opportunities for earning money and the expectations behind the massive investments (the fuel) which come from and depend on the Web, could be damaged by the continuing presence of viruses (the epidemics) and the general mistrust this would generate among cybernauts. The almost certain disease and death of the slaves can be seen as an “energy crisis”. In the same way, if the Web loses in quality as it becomes populated with verminous viruses, parasites and the risk of contagion, then the very engine that powers the Web will be hit, and will slow down as it suffers an “energy crisis” similar to those of the 19th century. This high level of risk explains the setting up of legal systems specifically for the purpose of safeguarding and guaranteeing the investments that have been and will be made; a borderline area of law that is having difficulty in asserting itself on a global level and which still seems to be hovering between two institutional systems: the US model and the Continental Europe (German) system. In actual fact this uncertainty appears to be much nearer to a solution in the immediate future than at first seemed to be the case, with the choice favouring the former of the two, a model that is becoming less and less American and more and more anonymously capitalist, or rather imperial, in a “phoney war”, so to speak, between the dollar and the euro, resolved a priori with various means in favour of the former.

It is (and will continue to be) in this “imperial and not imperialistic” context that all the programmes designed to pasteurise, sanitise and discipline the Web will be organised. And all steps taken for the supreme purpose of safety will be based on these guarantees, these key concepts. By safety, of course, we mean the ability to pay by credit card, through the “legitimisation” of user profile systems (name, surname, gender, address, age, spending power, consumer orientation, sexual orientation, cultural interests, etc.), designed to “better serve the consumer” (sic!).

Given this strategy, and the banalisation (i.e. the simple spread) of the Web on the basis of subjugation to the logic of e-commerce and the Web-economy that is gradually supplanting all other forms of forms of activity (legal or illegal) on the Web, there is little point here in commenting on the Trojan horses (in the negative sense of the term) used to this end, such as the construction and manipulation of the “paedophilia scare”, or the design and launch of petitions (on the Palestinian intifada, the trial of the pharmaceutical multinationals in South Africa, the condition of Afghan women), which, regrettably, have all helped to marginalise and limit this huge “new space of freedom”, which the Web was until quite recently.

So far the description has been relatively simple; more difficult will be the examination of the “other” part, namely the set of individuals who in an organised or non-organised (or perhaps chaotic) way put up opposition to the processes described above. Just three years ago, in 1998, the main antivirus software-house (such as the multinational McAfee) had identified 18,000 viruses, of the matrix or derivative type; by January 2001 this number had risen to 50,000, in other words approximately 15 new viruses come into being every day. Let us consider three aspects: the geopolitical, the technical and the sociological. In the geopolitical area it is interesting to note that dissenting (hostile?) initiatives against the Web often originate in countries where the Web is less well developed and where legal and institutional controls are lacking (India, Russia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Brazil, etc.), although this is not to deny the existence of “historic communities of opposition” in advanced countries (the Netherlands, France, Germany, United States, etc.), where the aims pursued are nevertheless more strategically structured. The technical aspect concerns the fact that the Web – by definition a high-speed resource and community – is more susceptible and vulnerable than other communities and other resources to media hype (introducing a Big Brother aspect almost) and, especially in America, to hoaxes (“If you receive a mail entitled ‘Win a holiday’ be careful not to open it as it could wipe clean your hard-disk. Please inform all your correspondents”). Finally, and most interestingly, we are obliged to note that the creation of computer viruses were not created in one place at one time, although this conflicts with the conspiracy theories so popular in the United States. While the original saboteurs were Belgian workers wearing clogs (sabots) who sabotaged textile machinery by throwing a clog into the right place, quite literally “clogging up the works”, computer viruses – the sabots of the world wide web – are neither Belgian, nor German, nor Russian: they are international, they come from everywhere and anywhere. Today, meanwhile, spontaneity, transversality and nomadism find a visceral programme in a wide range of different subjects that nevertheless operates effectively: the creation and re-elaboration of viruses which those same individual subjects pursue, without, however, taking part, and with a clearly established objective. Like the gangs of Los Angeles or the people of Seattle they are astral distances apart, but possibly because of the fact of being astral bodies they are very close in substance, they are part of a community: the community of refusal.

There are plenty of urban legends about IT experts who on being unfairly dismissed (as if a “fair, well-founded dismissal” could ever really exist) left behind little “IT souvenirs” in their workstations (PCs of course), which only came into action, cancelling and infecting, months after the dismissal itself, when legal recourse was no longer possible. But if these legends (which are in fact true stories) go back essentially to the post-Taylorist working relations, the creation of viruses pure and simple, free of charge and with no ulterior motive, is at worst a way of testing the limits of the Web, and at best a form of global counterpower, a generally pre-political form but one that re-establishes the balance of power by putting up opposition to the major forces, throwing them into disarray and reassembling them. Despite the many inherent contradictions, the idea is gradually developing that “a virus is not simply a virus”, but the forceful entry of the social into the most social area of all: the Web. A virus, any virus, thus represents the “hegemony of the ordinary” in the Web and the immanence of its relative contradiction, which aims to “keep the Web open and democratic”. This initiative objectively sets itself against those imperial multinationals (did someone mention Microsoft?) and their increasingly vertical, monopolistic organisation which not only cultivate profit through the Web but also seek to achieve a position of dominance. In conclusion, what ordinary thing do those who create viruses have in common: the right to a kind of exchange that is not mediated by money, and the refusal to reduce to credit card terms, i.e. to the level of simple consumer, the right to peer-to-peer freedom, the right to an open source, to Napster, to music and news, in short to a collective awareness that cannot be reduced to mere consumer spending.

Giampaolo Capisani [epidemiC]

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