Plague of Metaphors

The idea of computer “viruses” make us think machines can be managed

Traditionally, misfortunes have invited moralizing. Job famously lost his children, his cattle, his house, his fortune, and his health on a single page of the Bible, and when his friends heard, their first thought was to ask what he had done wrong: “Surely God does not reject one who is blameless.” Extending this logic from the personal to the plural, plagues are assumed to be sent by the gods for a reason: as punishment or a test. The Iliad begins with Apollo sending a plague because the Achaeans have disrespected his priest Chryses; Thebes is struck with a plague in Oedipus Tyrannus because it is being polluted by Oedipus’s patricide.

Such beliefs did not disappear with the modern era. As Susan Sontag notes in Illness as Metaphor, illness and health have been associated with class and morality: “Responses to illnesses associated with sinners and the poor invariably recommended the adoption of middle-class values … Health itself was eventually identified with these values, which were religious as well as mercantile, health being evidence of virtue as disease was of depravity.” You were ill because you were poor, and you were poor because you were improvident, or foolish, or simply bad. This was retributive logic at work.

When Apollo sent the plague, at least you could believe you knew why. Now one is left with the idea that the plague wants what it wants

These are, Sontag argues, all unhelpful ways of viewing illness: “The most truthful way of regarding illness — and the healthiest way of being ill — is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.” Indeed, illness metaphors often serve to re-victimize the ill rather than clarify their predicament. Nevertheless, we remain ensnared by the possibility of localizing more general concerns in tumors or in bacteria: Our views about disease, “and the metaphors we have imposed on it, are so much a vehicle for the larger insufficiencies of this culture,” whether those insufficiencies are our view of death or our anxiety about our identity.

Attempts to understand disease scientifically rather than morally have produced a different kind of metaphor making: Diseases are represented as having a will of their own. “Plagues are no longer ‘sent,’ as in Biblical and Greek antiquity, for the question of agency has blurred,” Sontag writes in AIDS and Its Metaphors. “Instead, peoples are ‘visited’ by plagues.” Before, plagues were sent by someone familiar; now they come from a mysterious, amorphous somewhere else, for inscrutable or inexplicable reasons. When Apollo sent the plague, at least you could believe you knew why. Now one is left with the idea that the plague wants what it wants.

A similar analysis could be made of the way we discuss and understand digital viruses. The language of infection, infestation, and disease are routine ways of comprehending the digital world: Not only do computers suffer from viruses, but errors are diagnosed, bugs are found in code, and worms parasitically invade host servers. PEN America conducted a survey and found that some of the most frequent metaphors describing digital surveillance relied on the language of invasive biological procedures: “hemorrhaging, implanting, infect, ingest, inject,” and so on. The computer is now perceived as a biological entity; any fault in the system is now a symptom of disease.

And these diseases have been seen as deserved. Your computer was infected because you did something morally objectionable, like torrenting a video game, stealing an album, or searching for porn. In opening an email attachment from a stranger, you acted foolishly and what did you think would happen? To let your machine become infected was to have been at the very least thoughtless and, at the worst, culpable — you sent the plague. The implied lesson of any such infection, then, was that you, the user, needed to be careful and responsible.

As with most moralistic conceptions of physical illnesses, this framing attempts to maintain our sense of control when faced with the possibility of losing it. Our electronic devices are wholly and fully ours — perhaps even more than our bodies are ours. They are machines ostensibly designed to respond solely to our intentions, as our property. As personal objects, they carry our interests, hobbies, professions, and memories in a cohesive manner. This comity goes beyond mere notions of control. In so many words, these machines are made for us.

The way our machines extend us is also how they interrupt us, expose us, make us vulnerable. Its viruses become our own

But viruses disrupt that idea: When infected, our physical bodies are no longer wholly our own. They are revealed as host to more than just our own consciousness and cells but an entire ecosystem of other organisms. Our body betrays us, exceeds our control; our cells are repurposed, hijacked by pathogens.

If computers are figuratively understood as organic bodies, it may follow that your computer is analogous to your body, or an extension of it. When a machine becomes “infected,” it no longer feels as though it was made for us — it no longer stands independent of us and subject to our whim. Instead, the way our machines extend us is also how they interrupt us, expose us, make us vulnerable. Its viruses become our own.

But the digital virus metaphor presupposes that a healthy machine is ordinarily a reliable servant. Increasingly, given the advancement of the “internet of things” and “software as a service,” and other means for companies to control apps and devices remotely, our devices don’t belong to us, and don’t serve our aims. How often are operating systems and apps updated for users’ rather than companies’ benefit? Are automatic updates an “autoimmune” system at work, or breaking down? Once our use of the machine is secondary or incidental to the device’s purpose — whether that purpose is making you visible to external networks, or logging your purchasing activity, or monitoring your work performance or health-related behaviors, or tracking your whereabouts — it is no longer under our control.

When a digital virus deprives us of control over our computers and devices, there may be some comfort in believing the attack was our own fault and not simply the random consequence of being connected to a vast and unknowable network that we’ve come to rely on but do not understand. Knowing that you acted poorly gives you the chance to amend your action. “Blessed is the one whom God corrects,” says one of Job’s comforters.

Early digital viruses supported this notion that we could protect ourselves with prudence and circumspection. In 2000, for example, the ILOVEYOU virus spread through an email attachment labeled “LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.txt.vbs.” Opening this attachment would delete every .mp3 or .jpeg file on one’s computer while also forwarding a copy of the email and virus to everyone in your address book. It fits the moral framework of personal responsibility: Only those who failed to follow the rules and opened an unexpected attachment had their computers infected; only those who deserved it suffered.

Disease metaphors fall apart in the face of the systemic surveillance and control digital devices afford. They were never meant to be within our control

The logic of disease as a form of retributive justice offers a narrative of control, responsibility, and moral order in the face of cosmic indifference and entropy. The logic of digital viruses offers something similar, but it is not providing solace for uncontrollable fate but rather masking the very real culprits who could be held accountable. Unlike, say, the influenza virus, digital viruses did not evolve naturally out of their environment; they were created. They are “sent” plagues — Old Testament plagues — with coders and hackers acting as Apollo or Artemis. And these plagues can’t always be prevented through personal vigilance.

When the Wannacry ransomware virus made the news last May, shutting down a number of hospitals in the UK (and suggesting the possibility of literal death by digital virus), it prompted familiar cautions against downloading unfamiliar attachments and comparatively newer warnings regarding not clicking on links and being alert to spoofing and phishing attacks. But these actions would not have necessarily prevented infection by Wannacry, which, according to American internet security company Malwarebytes, sought out and targeted vulnerable machines on the network regardless of who used them, or how. A computer could get infected without its user doing anything, let alone anything wrong.

When our machines become subject to someone else’s designs, one naturally experiences that loss of control as a deeply personal concern. Only, like all disasters, to see it in individualized terms is to see things too close to the ground. To regard oneself as a virus’s specific target is to misapprehend the problem. The ILOVEYOU virus infected tens of millions of computers in a few short days while MyDoom infected just over a million. These were attacks on systems that exploited flaws in those very same systems and created whole populations of victims. The problem is simply far bigger and requires a far more comprehensive solution than individual actions can provide for.

With the collapse of retributive logic, the metaphor of disease does not quite seem so useful to individuals anymore. The notion that there is an intelligence at the root of the suffering may be more acceptable than the alien image of chance or chaos. But even seeing the hackers and their viruses as the problem serves as an alibi for the larger systems of external control built into much of our technology. Back in 2005, the Sony Extended Copy Protection scandal from 2005 exemplifies how corporations can adopt the invasive structure of viruses to take control away from users. When customers played certain Sony music CDs on their computer, they would install rootkits that limited how the music could be copied while also exposing the computer to other vulnerabilities. Similarly, last year, signing up for Apple Music would delete some customers’ entire music library from their hard drives. This logic of external control is built more broadly into products that require users to be online so their use of the product can be policed.

These are not surreptitious infections. The disease metaphor falls apart in the face of the systemic exploitation of the surveillance and control digital devices afford. It makes no sense to think of machines as “sick” when we lose control of them if they were never meant to be within our control in the first place.

Sontag’s Illness and Its Metaphors ends with the notion that the kind of anxieties dealt with by metaphors of illness will likely outlast the usefulness of the metaphor itself. On our computers, viruses cannot stand for themselves — as independent agents, as actors with their own volition. They always stand in for power, and their presence is a reminder of the power that the individual user, ultimately, does not have. When the image of the computer virus is no longer useful, perhaps that apparent powerlessness will become easier to see and confront.

Sam Zucchi is a law student and occasional games critic.