Home > Digital Contagions, Media ecology, viruses > >A review of Digital Contagions

>A review of Digital Contagions


Anthony Enns raises good points in his flattering review of my Digital Contagions-book that just came out in the most recent issue of Leonardo Digital Review. Enns is himself well familiar with the debates in German media theory, having sat in the seminars of Friedrich Kittler and Wolfgang Ernst for years – and being still an avid visitor of Berlin like myself. Hence, it is no wonder that he places more emphasis on my book’s connections with the certain Kittlerian-mindset (but the “old”-Kittler of Discourse Networks and critic of digital culture). Enns is able to pick up on some really good points, but I just want to tackle some questions raised by the review.

1) Enns writes quoting me that viruses work through the principles of bottom-up emergence; I think this is only part of the picture, and I try to place them on the much wider strategic webs of definitions and articulations in which such ideas of emergence are read in their political contexts as well paying attention to the work of stratification that is as important as the idea of any distributed nature of viral networks. Such a focus on emergence is problematic if it is not specified, and instead of thinking virus software as a form of emergence, I try to think “emergence” as a form of interconnected complexity, a media ecology of sorts, where various scales of this phenomena are in constant interaction. We need to steer clear of the old ideas of internet as a distributed random network for emergence, and pay attention to for example the scale-free nature of contagions, as Tony D. Sampson has pointed out very well: we need to specify what kind of topologies are we dealing with in these milieus of accidents.

Later on in the book I refer to Katherine Hayles’s ideas relating to emergence: “Structures that lead to emergence typically involve complex feedback loops in which the outputs of a system are repeatedly fed back as input.” In other words, I also try to articulate how viruses are much a more systemic part of the loops in which software and even malicious accidents are tied to the new software business that was emerging, e.g. in the form of digital security.

2) This is why I want to steer clear of the idea that viruses are automatically vehicles of resistance; It’s not only that I reject that “viruses might represent the resistant logic of hackers attempting to subvert or appropriate corporate technologies” but that again, this image that stems from some 1990s tactical media inspired accounts, as well as a Deleuzian focus on viruses as tools of sabotage and non-communication, needs to be complexified. We need to pay attention to the singular modes of functioning of this specific software type, as well as the uses and misuses of the discursive iterations of its characteristics. This does not necessarily mean a straightforward failure of such programs of resistance, but a recognition of the multiple contextual forces in which resistance always takes place. In the Deleuzian context the idea of virus as a cut in communication made perhaps sense, but not in such contexts where accidents can be turned so easily as part of the strengthening of the security industry in itself – and this of course applies to much wider trends in security, as demonstrated after 9/11.

3) The first point also relates to how I don’t see capitalism as potentially even benevolent force, but as itself “viral” — viral capitalism is characterized less by substance than through its forces of deterritorialisation, variation, modulation. It feeds through differences, it spreads virally to a variety of practices and discourses that might superficially seem contradictory to itself. It’s not enough, as I argue following e.g. Luciana Parisi, to posit a dualism between the living “good” multitude and the big bad capitalism that sucks power out of the creativity of people, but to actually track the modes of invention, change and appropriation inherent in capitalism’s apparatus of capture. In other words, the only way I see capitalism as a living force is due to its powers of/for change. This follows from a variety of Marxist positions as well – and one could find really nice passages from Marx himself about capitalism & crises.

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