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REVIEW: "Digital Contagions", Jussi Parikka

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  • Rob, grandpa of Ryan, Trevor, Devon & Han
    BKDIGCON.RVW 20070923 Digital Contagions , Jussi Parikka, 2007, 978-0-8204-8837-0, U$35.95 %A Jussi Parikka users.utu.fi/juspar juspar@utu.fi %C
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 29, 2007
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      BKDIGCON.RVW 20070923

      "Digital Contagions", Jussi Parikka, 2007, 978-0-8204-8837-0, U$35.95
      %A Jussi Parikka users.utu.fi/juspar juspar@...
      %C Moosstrasse 1, Postfach 350, CH-2542 Pieterlen, Switzerland
      %D 2007
      %G 978-0-8204-8837-0 0-8204-8837-2
      %I Peter Lang AG
      %O U$35.95 +41-32-376-17-17 fax: +41-32-376-17-27 www.peterlang.net
      %O http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0820488372/robsladesinterne
      http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0820488372/robsladesinte-21
      %O http://www.amazon.ca/exec/obidos/ASIN/0820488372/robsladesin03-20
      %O Audience i Tech 1 Writing 1 (see revfaq.htm for explanation)
      %P 327 p.
      %T "Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses"

      Buried in the mass of verbiage that makes up the introduction there is
      an indication (far from clear) that the intent of the book is to
      examine the topic of computer viruses from a cultural, rather than a
      technical perspective. Further, the material Parikka proposes to use
      is not related to actual events or activities, but to reports, essays,
      and even fiction. (Hence the reference to "media archaeology" in the
      subtitle. The "contagion" of the title is intended, by the author, to
      refer not only to the reproductive spread of viral programs, but also
      the new ideas prompted by the existence of these reproductive
      applications.) The idea of examining what people think computer
      viruses do (instead of what they actually do) and how the programs are
      perceived (rather than how they actually operate) could possibly lead
      to some interesting observations. (I recall, in early seminars on
      computer viruses and discussions with the general public, how
      frequently I had to explain that viruses were programs and had
      authors, and correct the misperception that the applications had just
      evolved out of the general computer environment.) Unfortunately the
      introduction also indicates that while Parikka has done extensive
      research, he probably hasn't understood it all. There are a number of
      mistakes even in this early listing of events, including an extremely
      simplistic definition of viruses and worms themselves, and therefore
      the results of his analysis are suspect right from the start.

      (In response to the draft of this review, the author stated that "the
      point exactly was to question [as the intro says quite clearly] who is
      able and allowed to produce knowledge concerning viruses, what is
      acknowledged as a "truth" in this context, what kind of alternative
      approaches one might be able to come up with. So beyond any ideas of
      relativism, it proposes an approach of relationalism: how viruses are
      part of broader structures of producing knowledge concerning digital
      culture [always in relations, that is.]" Again, I would have to say
      that this is a potentially fascinating study, but that it isn't
      articulated clearly, and that the resulting opinions are severely
      limited in value due to a lack of distinction between perception and
      technical reality.)

      In chapter one, the author states that viruses have created fear in
      computer users. Unfortunately, he gives computer users too much
      credit in terms of their understanding of the processes involved, as
      well as overstating the concern felt by the majority of information
      security professionals. It is only in the past two years that surveys
      have started to show the overarching magnitude of the situation, and
      only in the past year that "endpoint security" has become a product
      selling point. His background analysis is also slipshod: insects
      didn't get into the Mark II because of lights at night, but due to
      (humanly inaccessible) windows that had to be left open for
      ventilation. (The use of this particular example in Parikka's work is
      rather fascinating, since the Mark II used Harvard Architecture, and
      would have been immune to viruses without a major shift in the
      underlying operational model.) The use of the term "bugs" for errors
      in Morse code was more likely due to the use of the term "bug" for the
      telegraph key: it was the user interface. (A similar term exists in
      the computer world to describe errors: pebkac, or "problem exists
      between keyboard and chair.") Parikka has not sufficiently understood
      the culture of the technical communities he is studying. In
      subsequent discussions, the author fails to appreciate the importance
      of the distinction between independent malware, and the more directly
      utilized blackhat programs such as network mappers and rootkits, as
      well as the distinction between malware activity and computer
      intruders. The historical overview seems to end rather abruptly circa
      1995.

      Although there are occasional mentions of, and references to, computer
      viral programs in chapter two, in general Parikka seems to turn away
      from the topic in order to explore cultural ideas of the body,
      biological viruses, AIDS, the face, and immunity. He does finish off
      with a section exploring the idea of virus writers as psychologically
      abnormal, but even here much of the content falls prey to the all-too-
      common confusion between virus writers and other blackhat groups.

      Chapter three discusses ideas of artificial organisms and ecologies.
      Again, while viruses are remarked on, they are not central to the
      deliberation. It is, however, interesting to note Fred Cohen's
      comment that the Morris worm was possibly "the most powerful high-
      speed computation event" up to that date, particularly in light of
      estimates that the Storm botnet was, at one point, potentially the
      second most powerful supercomputer in existence.

      A "Conclusion" is entitled "Media Archaeology as Ecology." The point
      seems to be that writings not only record what people have thought
      about certain events and conditions, but what they will think in the
      future.

      Parikka seems to go out of his way to use abstruse words that are
      seldom used, and therefore probably poorly understood. The text is
      heavily larded with esoteric cultural references and unusual (and
      frequently poorly defined) terms or constructions. One gets the
      feeling that the author is possibly unsure of his own propositions,
      and is attempting to convince the reader by a kind of verbal hand-
      waving. The bibliography, and extensive footnotes, is impressive and
      even intimidating. A couple of my own works are cited frequently.
      Because of that, I know that statements and passages supposedly from,
      or supported by, those references sometimes are not buttressed by the
      credential in question. In any case, there are definitely errors of
      fact even in the "Timeline of Computer Viruses." No version of the
      Dellinger Apple virus of 1981 spread via the "Congo" game, although
      one variant interfered with it.

      Another point that the author made in response to the draft of this
      review is that he is writing from a perspective in social science, and
      that what I dismiss as verbiage would make sense to his colleagues.
      Unfortunately, I have to believe that this attitude betrays the
      obligation a writer has to his readers, not all of whom may be from a
      specialized field. A creator of technical literature (aside from
      documentation or textbooks crafted specifically for a limited
      audience) has to be prepared to explain, in basic language, the intent
      and major concepts being presented. This requirement is as applicable
      to social science as it is to computer science, and Parikka has not
      addressed it sufficiently. If he is, indeed, to make a contribution
      in this field, presumably he has to be able to make his points clearly
      to us dummies in the malware research community, too.

      Parikka's aim, in examining the influence of computer viruses on
      popular culture, as well as the prejudices that popular culture might
      impose upon attitudes toward viruses, is a good one, and could have
      resulted in some interesting insights. While other authors (despite
      the exaggerated claim by at least one reviewer) have addressed the
      history and development of viral programs, I cannot think of another
      work so dedicated to the "people" side of the problem. Unfortunately,
      the lack of rigour in Parikka's research and analysis (possibly
      exacerbated by his limited understanding of the underlying
      technologies) restricts the confidence one can have in his
      conclusions.

      copyright Robert M. Slade, 2007 BKDIGCON.RVW 20070923


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      Sometimes I worry about being a success in a mediocre world.
      - Lily Tomlin
      http://victoria.tc.ca/techrev/rms.htm
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