Blog post

Viral terminology, technology and capitalism

Viral metaphors abound in the cultural and corporate spheres. The AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s influenced the way we spoke about the burgeoning internet technology sector – replete with computer "viruses" and "bugs" – and in doing so helped to entrench existing heirachies. The language of the Covid-19 pandemic is already infiltrating how the crisis is written about and, as Nathalie Olah argues, the way we narrate a crisis has fundamental implications for how it is seen, and who is hit hardest by its effects.

Nathalie Olah11 April 2020

Viral terminology, technology and capitalism

There are some events that go beyond an isolated news story, becoming absorbed into the language of the age and even having the power to permanently alter our perception of reality. One such event that permanently transformed the modern world, as well as its existential anxieties, was the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. The threat of an invisible autoimmune infection - a grave diagnosis at the time - sparked a global scare, and the opportunity for homophobes in government to further stigmatize LGBTQ+ communities disproportionately affected by it.

While dramatically different in biomedical and cultural terms, the AIDS crisis can provide us with some clues as to how the current pandemic might be reported, and illuminate many of the ways in which it is already being absorbed into the long term cultural and social tapestry. This leads us to the niche but fascinating corner of academic study that is devoted to the semantic links between the AIDS crisis and the growing democratization of technology, exposing how corporate interests were prone to commandeer the language of the global health crisis to further their own agendas.

Language surrounding technology and computing throughout the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s borrowed heavily from the AIDS epidemic. Reaching for ways to describe these new devices that we had allowed into our homes, tech companies found metaphorical terms such as ‘virus’ and ‘bug’ close to hand. Layman’s terms for the immense technological advancements that had allowed us to communicate with anyone in the world at the touch of a button weren’t exactly forthcoming. Yet, however innocent such terms may appear, these analogies were not always so benign, having effects on both our understanding of technology, as well as the disease itself, and by proxy sex, relationships and society more broadly.

In ‘Bugs: Rethinking the History of Computing’, academics Cait McKinney and Dylan Mulvin argue that during the 1990s, “HIV...marked technological discourses and the ways [that] networked computing was explained.” Throughout the AIDS crisis, the medical community and mainstream media had developed a lexicon for explaining scientific phenomena, and at a scale that had never been required before owing to the relatively new development of mass media. If the public already had a fairly well developed sense of how complex diseases spread, then despite the fundamental paradoxes, and the dehumanizing implications, we can perhaps understand the temptation to borrow from it in the language that was used to describe novel technology.

From the outset, the equation between technology and the autoimmune infection permeated the highest ranks of public discourse. As early as 1989, representative Wally Herger (a man who would in 2009 run into controversy again for his failure to distance himself from a “proud right-wing terrorist” at a town hall meeting) described an attack on the ARPANET in his address to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, as being like “the AIDS of the computer world”. In a 1999 report by the National Research Council, the sharing of data through “open networking environments” was likened to the “spread of AIDS…”

As soon as the connection was made, it was harnessed for more explicitly sinister purposes, such as the creation of the AIDS computer virus which first appeared in 1990. Its message, which would have appeared on the screens of PC users running MS-DOS, made allusions to intercourse, with the line, “ have accidentally ¶HÜ¢KΣ▸ yourself over; again, that’s PHUCKED yourself over. No, it cannot be; YES, it CAN be, a √ìτûs [virus] has infected your system.”

The metaphorical connections between technological systems, sexual intercourse and the transmission of disease would continue apace throughout the decade, forming part of a ‘safe computing’ culture as alarmist and censorious as the earlier safe sex campaigns. Of course, no failure of household technology could ever have matched the severity of an HIV diagnosis during the early 1990s however, and by conflating the two, anti-malware companies were able to overstate the necessity of their product offering. By reverse, the technology industry and its partners in government were able to further stigmatize queer culture perceived as being divergent and therefore ‘harmful’ and ‘destructive’ to the neoliberal hegemony and a work culture that was steadily expanding, and encroaching on the home.

As vehicles of pornography, household computers and their percieved role in shaping the sexual development of teenagers in particular, can also never be overestimated. The threat of AIDS was now in the home, or so it seemed, with a global network of malicious and tainted individuals, extending its reach into the close confines of the nuclear family.

As McKinney and Mulvin explain: “These episodes frame a story about computing in this period: using a computer is risky, being connected to other humans is risky, and the more we rely on computers—and in particular, networked computers—the more we put ourselves at risk. There is also another familiar story about this period. When we reach for analogies to explain the risk involved in trusting our networked connections, we often light upon the language of sex, the technical and biological dangers of infections, and our fears of vulnerability.”

We can see then, how the visceral fear towards illness can be adopted through language to serve commercial ends, and it doesn’t require us to look too far to see how this could also play out in the months and years following the outbreak of Coronavirus. Already, we have seen online conspiracists making the connection between technological advances and the outbreak, in the hysteria that encircles the instalment of 5G networks. No matter how fanciful these ideas are now, should other developments run counter to the interests of the corporate and commercial sphere, government and business leaders inclined towards conspiracy theory could easily harness the language connected to the virus in similar ways.

The seeds of this phenomenon are already being sewn. Yesterday, I received an email from Halfords, the car maintenance company, urging me to stay ‘safe and secure’. Once opened, the body of the email read: “it is more important than ever that we keep ourselves and our vehicles safe and in good working order.” Two days before that, an email from my bank urging me to ‘protect’ myself during hazardous times, revealed itself to be about credit card fraud. In the first instance, we witness a case of clear opportunism, in harnessing the language of the virus to incentivise us towards parting with our cash. But in the second, we start to see how something more complex could evolve, not just playing to our fears, but making a semantic connection between the virus and organised crime. It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see how this could be rolled out in other ways - stigmatising anything that poses an existential threat to the corporation, by summoning images of the biohazardous.

This has two worrying implications. Most obviously, by transposing a commercial and market value onto the terminology associated with the infection, we devalue the victims and trivialise their suffering. The more the language of Coronavirus is used to describe acts of ‘carelessness’ in other areas of life, the more it also stigmatises those sufferers, tarnishing them with a certain sense of recklessness and disorganisation.

We might console ourselves that Covid-19 is at least transmitted by droplets, and not by sex, with all of its associated politics and stigmas. But by dint of the neoliberal project that has minimized protections for workers, as well as a pernicious class system that subjects key workers to a state of perpetual insecurity and financial instability, this is a disease that will disproportionately affect the poor. It is this demographic that stands to become further maligned through a corporate culture in overdrive as it resorts to whatever means necessary in order to stimulate consumption, growth and kick-start the economy.

The equation between the AIDS crisis and home computer systems was overwhelmingly the product of coincidence - of the two things occurring at broadly the same time - as anything else. As we consider the long-term social and cultural impacts of Coronavirus, we must also look at the other events taking place around us. If a contracting economy and the battleground of ideas in how we respond to it, is what characterises the next few years, then it is here that we can expect to find the most vivid analogies.

The second worrying implication, is that as the crisis grows, and the economic implications deepen, how will disturbances to the market, and forces that stand to further impede financial growth, be narrated? As Coronavirus threatened the health of the individual, do growing calls for a universal basic income, threaten the health of the markets? This is not just a worry concerning straightforward biological terms, but the language that attends it in the way that we speak about managing the crisis, and protecting ourselves. With corporate self-care enjoying such a wealth of airtime in the years leading up to the crisis, can we expect it to emerge on the other side with a whole new attendant jargon comprising ‘lockdowns’, and periods of self-imposed ‘isolation’ and ‘social distancing’. Measures taken in order to fend off that most harmful of modern ailments: low productivity.

While language may not seem the most pressing issue at present, we can see from earlier examples, how a lack of vigilance towards it can create a long shadow over certain demographics and marginalised groups, quietly entrenching certain bigotries and forms of discrimination. This is testament to the power of semiotics, its role in shaping our worldview and the ways that we relate to one another. When the outbreak is brought under control, the struggle for how we move past these events in every material way, will begin in earnest. But those decisions will be dependent on how we are interpreting events already, in the present.

How they’re narrated therefore matters, and it’s a battle that is already being fought. The more alert we become to the ways in which the corporate sphere is already co-opting the language of this devastating disease, the better chance we have of ensuring that those economic forces responsible for devaluing certain lives, and putting them at greater risk, are unable to profit further from the suffering and loss of life.

‘Safe computing’ was an abomination, an analogy that should never have been allowed to happen. Of the many valuable lessons that were learned in the way that the AIDS crisis was mismanaged, this is one that we can at least guarantee will be acted on. Never again, will the sanctity of human life - and the devastating impact of its loss - be used to further the ends of a system that can only survive by denying its very existence.

Nathalie Olah is a journalist and writer based in London whose work focuses on the intersection between politics and contemporary culture. Her first book, Steal as much as you can (2019) is published by Repeater.

Filed under: covid-19