The Journey of Creativity from Cancer to a Computer Virus

(a collaborative hyperdrama and research project directed by Dr. Julia L. Keefer, copywright 1997)



Before beginning our fictional journey of creativity from cancer to a computer virus, let's read what student and computer expert Ed Nichols has to say about computer viruses: Writing Workshop II Professor Julia Keefer Spring/97 Submitted by: Edward M. Nichols Objective: To describe the similarities between the way people are affected in the workplace by a computer virus and an actual biological outbreak. First, without getting too technical, we'll need to define a virus. A virus is a microbe which cannot grow or reproduce apart from a living cell. It is smaller in size than a bacterium. Viruses cause most of the common human infections, but are also responsible for causing many rare illnesses. Examples of viral illnesses include the common cold and acquired immunodeficiency disease syndrome (Medicinet). Generally speaking, biological viruses are natural. They usually develop without help from a laboratory and mutate naturally as a result of evolution and competition. The Computer virus on the other hand, has more in common with the rarer engineered viruses. Arguments have been made describing them as harmless pranks to even simple life forms. Here we'll define A Computer virus as: A cracker program that searches out other programs and infects' them by embedding a copy of itself in them... When these programs are executed, the embedded virus is executed too, thus propagating the `infection'. This normally happens invisibly to the user(computer science dict.). It's the purpose of this paper to describe the similarities of the effects the appearance of these two problems can have on people in the workplace and in the community. The effects of computer and biological viruses are profound in their respective domains, but the reactions to them by the people involved are strangely consistent. While the definition very simple , it should be pointed out that there are different types of Computer viruses just as there are different classes of their biological counterparts. One example would be a Boot Sector virus that attacks a specific section of a disk the computer uses to start up . Diskettes also have a Boot Sector which is the first thing a computer reads when it reads a disk. This means the virus can travel almost immediately from one machine to another(Ludwig, 19). Not that different really from the common cold. Another type is the Trojan Horse. This virus is the type that masquerades as free a version of a program or as a publicity copy of new software. Trojan Horses usually announce themselves and cause damage from the beginning. The designers of Trojan Horses are usually targeting the type of people who hope to obtain a copy or update of a commercial product illegally from the Internet. A computer with this one in an office may become a target of speculation and suspicion by co-workers and Supervisors. Not unlike the Stigma attached to some types of Social Diseases. A closer example than these would be a new type of virus called a Macro virus. This is a virus type that has been spreading more and more quickly through computer systems because of its ability to hide in documents and memos rather than in computer systems themselves. It represents a major change in the way viruses are encountered and dealt with simply because infectious code is hidden within Word Processing files. Another reason for this particular virus§ proliferation is because of it§s ability to spread via email and on-line services while escaping detection by anti-viral applications(Computer incident). Originally developed as a political protest tool, some hacking groups like the ˛Modern Day Delinquent Anarchists ˛ (creators of the MDMA virus) have created over a hundred variations over the past 18 months. Now that I've started naming names, this leads us to an interesting question. Who creates these things? There are many different theories. None of them as simple as the "Nerd in the closet" or "Mad chemist" characterization we see in the media so often. Some theories point to a Criminal or Vandalism mind-set. The idea being that the writer of a virus likes to create something that would allow him/her to leave a mark on a society that would otherwise ignore them (not unlike a graffiti artist). Others use the ˛Con Artistˇ justification that if they could get away with a crime, the victim deserved to be victimized. Therefore they are teaching the world to be more careful. In a reference guide for virus creation Mark A. Ludwig wrote this about that: As long as computers have been around, men have dreamed of intelligent machines which would reason, and act without being told step by step just what to do. For many years this was purely science fiction. However, the very thought of this possibility drive some to attempt to make it a reality. This "artificial intelligence" was born.. The computer virus is a radical new approach to this idea of "living machines." Rather that trying to design something which poorly mimics highly complex human behavior, one starts by trying to copy the simplest of living organisms (Ludwig,23). So now we know what viruses are and we know who would create them but the original question was: How would they affect people in the same way biological viruses do? For the answer to this we can look at the kind of places people use computers in. In spite of a growing home-based employment market most people still work in environments where they must spend time and interact with other people. Not unlike the marketplaces and trade routes in Renaissance Europe. Computer based and Biological viruses have both been found in places like this. Another similarity appears in the routes of transport. The Black Plague for example traveled along well established Trade routes that were used often. It can be argued that the Internet is one big established trade route. People are also using the same kinds of software across different walks of life and business. The same way people used the same modes of travel back then. This also creates fertile ground for any problems with the software to spread to a great number of people quickly. Not unlike the way people in the distant past had the same vague understandings of trading and personal hygiene during travel that lead to the quick spread of epidemics. A still greater problem is gossip. Still a universal past-time, people tend to discuss things and to place them out of context. Leading to overreacting in some cases and fear leading to denial in others. In Biological viruses and Computer-based ones, the talk can spread faster than the reality. The kind of paranoia this causes serves security experts well for a time but people have tended in the past to overreact to situations where they don't have complete information (Solomon, 23). By themselves, these points may seem benign. If some people in an office gossip about a few machines not working,what 's the worst that could happen? Let's take an example from the most famous virus in history. The Black Plague. Here's an example of what things were like then. Marchione di Coppo Stefani was a writer born in Florence in 1336. He wrote this Florentine Chronicle in the late 1370s and early 1380s. Child abandoned the father, husband the wife, wife the husband, one brother the other, one sister the other...and many died of hunger because when someone took to bed sick, another in the house, terrified, said to him: "I'm going for the doctor." Calmly walking out the door, the other left and did not return again (Calvi 63). That may not seem like what's going on today; While people aren't abandoning their relatives, there's still a dangerous sense of absolutism about computer viruses. People fail to realize that most viruses can be prevented or safely removed. This is no accident. The sources people use for viral information are frequently the closest rather than the most reliable. Here's a quote from a web page devoted to accurate viral reporting written by Rob Rosenberger. A recognized expert on viruses . I once lectured about viruses to a small group of businessmen in 1991. A network Administrator stood up at one point and proclaimed his company (a law firm) would literally close its doors for good "if a destructive virus of any type gets on our system." They would sell the office equipment; the secretaries would find new jobs; the lawyers would take their filing cabinets to other firms. The company would fold if even one destructive virus infiltrated their network (Rosenberger). Both anecdotes relate a reaction based on misinformation. System Administrators forr example frequently act on warnings from sources in the press who get their informationn from sources who are not completely qualified to provide good information. Many citiess and communities during the time of the plague were thrown into hysteria and Xenophobiaa on even the rumor of a neighboring city having an outbreak. Both these situations havee something else in common. They both created fear and confusion. Any Capitalist will telll you, that fear and confusion are fertile ground for moneymaking. Here's another excerpt from Marchione: Physicians could not be found because they had died like the others. And those who could be found wanted vast sums in hand before they entered the house. And when they did enter, they checked the pulse with face turned away. They inspected the urine from a distance and with something odoriferous under their nose (Calvi 128). This is of course, assuming that the Doctor in the house actually had some medical training. Medical Schools and Residency programs were not that common then. Dentistry was considered something Barbers did on the side to make money. The study of Anatomy and Surgery were considered barbaric. and unnecessary(Zeigler, 98). Things haven't changed much in this regard. One Federally funded report's authors came from what is known as "the Moynihan commission," a group of Congressional and Intelligence agency experts tasked with critiquing and assessing the maze of classification and secrecy regulation currently embraced by the U.S. government. The commission also devoted significant print space to the topic of information security and network intrusion. In a report delivered to the Senate floor: "One company whose officials met with the Commission warned its employees against reading an e-mail entitled Penpal Greetings. Although the message appeared to be a friendly letter, it contained a virus that could infect the hard drive and destroy all data present. The virus was self-replicating, which meant that once the message was read, it would automatically forward itself to any e mail address stored in the recipients in-box." The Penpal joke is one in half-a-dozen or so permutations spun off the well known Good Times e-mail virus hoax. Variations on GoodTimes have appeared at a steady rate over the past couple years. Real computer security expertsđas opposed to the Moynihan commission'sđnow occasionally worry in the press that they spend more time clearing up confusion created by such tricks than destroying actual computer viruses(Rothenberg 55). These types of incidents seemed largely harmless, and didn't really hurt anyone. However a recent innovation in email software within the past year now allows a person to email documents directly from the one Word Processor to another. These new type of email documents can carry viruses like the word Macro Virus across networks and countries unnoticed. The need for Competent support will be critical when these files start to show up. That§s not what§s happening now. What is happening now, strangely enough, is that the symptoms of a computer virus and a person coming down with an actual virus are very similar. The reaction of the average person to an infection is to try to cure the superficial symptoms just to keep going. Computer users also try to simply treat the symptom so that they can continue working. Both types tend to lead to specific patterns of behavior. They both tend to cause a certain level of paranoia or denial, depending on the individual. The denial in the case of a sick person can lead to "Typhoid Mary" type behavior. In a similar fashion, people frequently use a diskette they suspect might be infected with a virus for as long as possible until they can't continue going from Computer to computer. One saving grace is that it's a different story for a business. Not only do many software providers have to maintain their machines but the damage to their reputation would be hard to repair should infected files be distributed. It's not unusual for a group or organization to be regarded as having a "dirty site" on the discovery of a viral infection of just a few machines in a network. One site that would suffer would be, which carries no software but simply assists a user to find an archive where software can be easily found (Zeigler 88). In situations like this someone always profits. One case in point helped make the Television career of John Mcafee, the President of Mcafee associates, a Famous Anti-Viral Developer. In 1992 word got out that a virus called Michaelangelo had been designed to appear on April 15th and on the 15th of each month after that. The virus moved some system files and was immediately hailed as a major threat to the computing industry. The big danger about this particular virus was that it had (what was then) the unique ability to lie dormant for more than a yearđenough time to be archived. In this case files that had been cleaned were in danger of being reinfected by restoration copies. John Mcaffee spoke long and loud on news and talk shows about the dangers of a virus that actually infected less than 200 computers in the United States and 20,000 machines worldwide( Rothenberg) N.Y.U. has 35,000 computers. So what action is the correct action? As with any infectious disease, the basic guidelines apply. It's important not to panic. That does more damage than anything else. Both the site of a biological infection and an Computer Viral infection tend to lead to house-cleaning behavior which wipes clean any trace of how the infection happened and increases chances of reinfection. Not panicking also includes stopping other people from not panicking as well. As we have seen rumors travel faster than facts (Zeigler,188). An accepted method for handling outbreaks among health professionals is to inoculate the population one person at a time reducing the infection rate to controllable numbers as soon as possible. Attempts to fully eradicate a virus are rarely successful in large populations or organizations(Bennet, 110). It's important to note that Viral infections are always the fault of the consumer. Many Antiviral packages don't mention the need for regular updates after the initial purchase. In fact, many programs won't tell you when they're dangerously out of date with the exception of F-prot (a Swedish package) which will shut down if it is used more than 4 months after installation without an upgrade. It's always good to pay close attention to qualifications of an Expert. Just as people are commonly cared for by Nurses Aides instead of actual RN's. Many of these people who are called System Administrators are simply professionals who perform maintenance tasks like installing softwaređnot removing viruses (Rothenberg). Finally, just like during the time of the plague, cures are readily for sale. It's a buyer's market for antiviral software out there. Research is important. Many Companies offer free trial packages (oddly enough, from many of the same sources on the Internet where viruses are found). Just as an AIDS patient can now choose from a group of treatment options, an individual is now free to make the informed appropriate choice. Works Cited Leeson, H. Lynn, Clicking In: hot links to a digital culture. Seattle, Washington: Bay Press, 1996. Bennet, L. Claire, Communicable Disease Handbook. Vancouver, British Columbia: John Wiley &Sons, Inc.,1982 Computer Incident Advisory Capability. CIAC.1995. HTTP:// (23 February 1996.) Computer Science Dictionary. 19966 HTTP:// Burger, Ralf, Computer Viruses: a high-tech disease Grand Rapids, Michigain: Abacus, 1991. Newton. Computer Virus Information Online. Internet HTTP:// (20 March 1996) Rosenberger Bob, Computer Viruses and False Authority Syndromee Jones, Les. Good Times Virus Hoax FAQ. 1995. HTTP:// (28 March 1996) Calvi, Giulia,, Histories of a Plague Year: The Social and Imaginary in Baroque Florence. Oxford, England: University of California Press, 1984. Louw, Eric and Duffy, Neil, Managing Computer viruses. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Medicinenet Online Medical Dictionaryy Sieghart, Paul,, Microchips With Everything: The consequences of information technology. Manchester England: Comedia Publishing Group, 1982 Solomon, Alan. PHD, PC Viruses: Detection, Analysis and Cure.. Hertfordshire England: S&S International Limited, 1991 Hoffman, Lance J. Rogue programs: viruses, worms and Trojan horses. Melbourne Victoria, Australia: Van Nostand Reinhold, 1990 Ludwig, Mark. The Little Black Book Of Computer Viruses Volume One: The Basic Technology. Tucson, Arizona. American Eagle Publications, Inc. - 1991 - Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. Phoenix Mill, Far Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: William Collins Sons,1969 Simons, G.L., Viruses, Bugs and Star wars: The hazards of unsafe computing. Manchester England: NCC Publications, 1989

The following is an interactive play, using the features of hypertext such as interaction, encyclopaedic story lines, timespace relativity. The subject matter is not literal, nor is it a reflection of the author's ethics or morals. If you find the writing too satirical, dark, sexual or violent, (or even tame and anaemic), feel free to write your own version in the guestbook. As a hyperDRAMA, the author allows each character to speak in her own words, even if some of those words might offend. We should be offended by murderers, rapists and other criminals. This hyperdrama is a work of imaginative fiction and is meant as a catharsis for negative feelings, not a how-to manual. We begin with the monologue of:


It's beautiful in here: an amusement park of cellular ferris wheels, blood red roller coasters gashing through fields of fibrous corn silk, organs opened like blackened tuna, eggplant, juicy tomato. I rollerblade across this magic carpet spread with caviar and rotten bouillabaise. I suck on cells like lollipops and spit out gunpowder. I bet you never had so much fun throwing balloons of fat around.

Do you like this house I made? An exquisite osteosarcoma with more intricate molding, crevices and alcoves than any house of yours. You have to travel to the center of the earth to find such a well-endowed rainforest. I just jump off this bone.

Wow, that really turns me on. I'll make love with myself for a few more hours, my striped shadows shimmying on the cell wall, squirming through to devour the next fallen phagocyte. I erupt like succulent lava bordering precariously on astral projection and then my eyelashes form a prism distorting the light, creating aqua blues and pale ice greens, crimsons, marigolds and lilacs, transforming THE BODY into a rainbox of color. Then I vibrate the internal organs with a genital thunder. The more excited I am the more ideas I get and the more things change. They say my ideas hurt. I say cancer is the most creative thing that ever happened to the body.
Photo credit: Myrna Changar
Click here to see what THE BODY has to say.