Hyperrhiz 05: Reviews

Jussi Parikka, Digital Contagions

Wieslaw Piontczak

University of Central Florida


Parikka, Jussi. Digital Contagions: A Media Archeology of Computer Viruses (Digital Formations Series). New York: Peter Lang, 2007.

The author of the book Digital Contagions, Jussi Parikka, is a Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK. He is also an Adjunct Research Scholar at the International Institute for Popular Culture (IIPC), University of Turku, Finland . The IIPC is an interdisciplinary program "open to methodologies and theoretical insights, but it places special emphasis on the questions of popular culture as heritage and the social role of popular culture" . Parikka seems to be taking his methodology from IIPC, because his book is a reflection of the modern epidemic of computer viruses and the HIV and AIDS viruses as a cultural phenomenon. He calls his methodology "media archeology," which "does not represent history, but instead works with materials that are deemed historical to come up with a piece of writing that consists of different but coalescing lines of materials and texts" (11).

Starting from the cover of the book, which takes the reader into the mysterious and shocking world of computer viruses, to the very end of the book, Parikka depicts a troubling picture for the reader who might not fully understand the rapidly developing digital technology. The book has an informal tone, and includes several film and popular culture references. For example, the greenish cover of the book might bring to the reader's mind scenes from the Wachowski bothers' Matrix movies about a digital world simulating the real world, where vicious programs (viruses in the form of Agent Smith, who once said "human beings are disease, the cancer of this planet") can instantaneously and indefinitely multiply.

However, Digital Contagions is not only about computer viruses. From the beginning of the book, Parikka draws an analogy between diseases sweeping through Europe over the centuries and the late twentieth-century proliferation of computer viruses and worms. As Parikka argues, because "diseases are symptomatic of ways culture interacts, the digital virus is not solely an internal computer problem but a trace of cultural trends connected to consumer capitalism, digitalis, and networking as the central platforms of the 20th century" (2-3).

Additionally, Parikka directs the reader through a disturbing and displacing collection of facts that provoke fear and suspicion, and similarly to the Matrix, lead one to wonder if computers are taking over the world. Digital Contagions matches the geo-political and cultural environment with digital viruses, and draws an image of a potential Armageddon where "a single technological accident, a computer virus or a bug could wipe out major parts of Western cultural memory" (7). To scare the reader even more, Parikka refers to several science fiction movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), Westworld (Michael Crichton, 1973), and WarGames (John Badham, 1983), in which computer viruses almost destroy the human race. However, running on the same bandwagon of sci-fi movies, one wonders why he does not mention Roland Emmerich's Independence Day (1996), in which the world was saved by a computer virus.

Although the movie The Matrix is not referred to directly, I see the movie's flavor in Digital Contagions. The tone of the book brings to mind some characteristics of a "conspiracy theory" in which Parikka lures the reader into the digital world through analogies to unfavorable characteristics of the physical environment. He draws a chronological evolution of digital machines and digital networks, as well as outlining a parallel appearance of computer viruses that at the beginning were just "innocent" parts of code (40-1). Then he draws a picture of the similarity between computers and humans. He states that "CPUs are referred to as brains" (120). Similarly, the human body, like computers, can be infected with viruses. The end of the twentieth century was marked with the appearance of not only computer viruses but also HIV and AIDS (121). Are we going to share the same fate as computers? If so, what fate would that be?

Furthermore, because diseases might be symptoms of a lack of hygiene, by analogy, Parikka introduces the themes of "digital hygiene" and "digital immunology" (147). As humans' immune systems serve as protection against bacteria, viruses, and toxins, "computer networks' similar multilayered protection systems could detect and eliminate foreign particles, and thus, protect the integrity of the system" (155).

Parikka tries to demythologize the fear of viruses as a result of irrational generalization, or what he calls the "psychologization of culture" that "assumes the self-identical individual, the indivisible, to be the atomic basic unit of society" (173). Furthermore, the author argues that although in every society there are good, healthy and rational individuals, there will be always "spoiled apples" who will produce fear in that society. People should not fear viruses, but should fear "spoiled apples" in the form of hackers and virus writers, who turn originally written pieces of experimental and self-reproducing software into malicious and vandalizing tools because "as terrorists, communists, and pedophiles, virus writers [are] on the dark side of network culture" (176).

Parikka tries to analogize two phenomena — digital viruses and biological viruses — as parallel cultural phenomena resulting from people's and computers' interaction. Digital Contagions is a book saturated with fear and suspicion, reflecting the way we should feel about the unknown and invisible entities of viruses. However, toward the end readers can feel that the book also contains some sense of hope, which is to save culture and society from potential digital Armageddon.


Notes

  1. "Jussi Parikka." University of Turku 2008. «http://users.utu.fi/juspar/».
  2. International Institute for Popular Culture 2008. «http://iipc.utu.fi/index.html».

DOI Permalink

https://doi.org/10.20415/hyp/005.r06