Deborah LUPTON

title: Deborah Lupton
subtitle: Sociology

About the author

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Deborah Lupton worked already in 1993 on the analogy between the communication
of technology threats and of diseases, she presents us the analogy that is
voluntary made between the computer and the body in a hygienic society where we
tend to rely on centralized organisation to desinfect and sanitize our
world. Since then the issue of scale and control.


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  • [Panic computing: The viral metaphor and computer technology][1] in Cultural
    Studies, 8:3, pp.556—568, ISSN 0950-2386

[1]: /library/subRosa - Common Knowledge and Political Love (in Tactical Politics).pdf

Panic computing: The viral metaphor and computer technology

{: #panic-computing }

The unproblematic use of the term ‘virus’ applied to technological artefacts,
inspire ponderings on the wider implications of the viral metaphor. The choice
of phraseology in textual accounts and talk, the discursive devices used,
recurrent lexical patterns in describing things, events, groups or people is
revealing of the latent ideological layer of meaning of such communications
(van Dijk, 1990; Fowler, 1991). In particular, the intertextuality, or the
ways in which texts selectively draw upon other texts, other cultural forms
and discourses to create meaning, indicates the political and ideological
functions of texts and delimits the boundaries within which topics may be
discussed (Fairclough, 1992; Astroff and Nyberg, 1992). The nomination of a
type of computer technology malfunction as a ‘virus’
is a highly significant
and symbolic linguistic choice of metaphor, used to make certain connections
between otherwise unassociated subjects and objects, to give meaning to
unfamiliar events, to render abstract feelings and intangible processes
concrete. In doing so, the metaphor shapes perception, identity and
experience, going beyond the original association by evoking a host of
multiple meanings (Clatts and Mutchler, 1989: 106-7). As Geertz has argued,
‘[i]n metaphor one has…, a stratification of meaning, in which an
incongruity of sense on one level produces an influx of significance on
another’ (1973: 210).

Viruses and the computer corpus

{: #viruses }

The present analysis examines in detail the stratification of meaning evident
in the widespread and largely unquestioned adoption of the viral metaphor to
describe computer technology malfunction in popular texts. It is argued that
the viral metaphor used in the context of computer technology draws upon a
constellation of discourses concerning body boundaries, erotic pleasure,
morality, invasion, disease and destruction. In what follows, the meanings of
the term ‘virus’ in the medical context, the symbiotic relationship between
body and computer metaphorical systems, the symbolic danger of viruses, the
seductiveness of the human/computer, Self/Other relationship and the cultural
crisis around issues of bodies, technologies and sexualities at the fin de
millénnium are discussed to illuminate the ambivalent relationship of humans
with computer technology in late capitalist societies.

Morality and viral politics

{: #morality }

There are no “good” Germs or ‘normal Germs; all Germs are bad’ (Helman, 1978:
118-19). To counter this attack, as Cindy Patton points out, bodies are
visualized as being ‘filled with tiny defending armies whose mission [is] to
return the “self” to the precarious balance of health’ (Patton, 1990: 60). The
immune system is commonly described in popular and medical texts as mounting a
‘defence’ or ‘siege’ against ‘murderous’ viruses or bacteria which are
‘fought’, ‘attacked’ or ‘killed’ by white blood cells, drugs or surgical
procedures (Martin, 1990; Montgomery, 1991). This military discourse, redolent
with images of physical aggression, has become routine and standardized to the
point where its metaphorical origins are erased: it is now a ‘dead’ metaphor
(Montgomery, 1991: 350).

The seduction and terror of cyberspace

{: #seduction }

The viral metaphor has been adopted in computing terminology to express the
meanings of rapid spread and invisible invasion of an entity that is able to
reproduce itself and causes malfunctioning on the systemic level. It is
telling that this alternative use has been so readily accepted that at least
one Australian medical journal has featured articles on computer viruses
devoted to making explicit the similarities between biological viruses and
computer viruses (Dawes, 1992a, 1992b). Just as the immune system is described
in terms of military imagery, popular accounts of computer viruses commonly
employ the terminology of war to conceptualize the struggle between
technological order and chaos. […] Ways of describing computer technology
have both created new terminology which has entered the language and have
drawn upon elements of older, more established lexical systems. In particular,
drawing upon the centuries-old body/machine discourse, there has developed a
symbiotic metaphorical relationship between computers and humans, in which
computers have been anthropomorphized while humans have been portrayed as
‘organic computers’ (Berman, 1989: 7).The immune system is also commonly
described as an information-processing system, communicating by means of
hormones. By this imagery, there occurs ‘the transformation of the human
subject into an object, a repository, or else a collision site, for various
types of detectable and useable information’ (Montgomery, 1991: 383). Indeed,
according to Haraway, bodies have conceptually become cyborgs
(cyberneticorganisms), that is, ‘techno-organic, humanoid hybrids’ (Haraway,
1990:21), or compounds of machine and body theorized in terms of
communications, for which disease may be conceptualized as ‘a subspecies of
information malfunction or communications pathology’ (Haraway, 1989: 15).

The viral metaphor and technophobia

{: #technophobia }

At the fin de millénnium, the body is a site of toxicity, contamination and
catastrophe, subject to and needful of a high degree of surveillance and
control. Kroker and Kroker (1988:10 ff.) term the contemporary obsession with
clean bodily fluids as ‘Body McCarthyism’, an hysterical new temperance
movement. […] ‘Panic Computing’ invokes ‘[t]he underlying moral
imperative … You can’t trust your best friend’s software any more than you
can trust his or her bodily fluids - safe software or no software at all!’
(Ross, 1991: 108). The insertion of an ‘infected’ disk, that is a ‘carrier’ of
corruption, spells disaster for the integrity of the computer corpus. Just as
people are exhorted to grill their sexual partners for details of their past
intimate lives, so as to be ‘sure and safe’ before proceeding to exchange
bodily fluids, so they are warned to verify the source and safety of the
computer disks they insert into their PCs (Sontag, 1989: 167).

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