My article "A History of Virulence" finally published in Body and Society

Sage journal Body and Society vol 16, n. 4 is finally out! Pardon my enthusiasm, but this issue features my 30-page essay A History of Virulence: The Body and Computer Culture in the 1980s: a killer mix of hackerdom, virality and computer nostalgia that also happens to be IMHO one hell of a contribution to the cultural history of the body in cyberculture.

Body & Society

Abstract: The recent turn in ubiquitous computing challenges previous theories of ‘technological disembodiment’. In a mediascape where technology permeates bodies, the current discourse of viral information insinuates elements of fear and risk associated with both physical presence and computer usage. This article adopts a socio-historical approach to investigate the factors underlying the early emergence of such features of our social imaginary by tracking them back to the computer culture of the 1980s. Analysing both mainstream and underground press sources from 1982 to 1991, a discursive core is revealed that revolves around the ‘computer virus’ metaphor. Popularized in this period, this notion came to resonate with mounting moral panic over the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Anxieties about the body in computer culture are then conceptualized (and historically contextualized) along two dimensions: first, the political proximity between HIV/AIDS activists and computer hackers during the FDA clinical trials controversy of 1987—8; and, second, the ideological reinforcement provided by academic progressive elements to these political actions. The implications of these results are discussed.

A few weeks ago, I published a “autor’s cut” version on this very blog (here part1 and part2) and you can download the unread proofs by clicking here (not for citation, please). Of course, if you want to download the published version, help yourself here. You might as well drop me a kind email and ask for a certain attachment 😉 And if you want to cite the article, because that’s what academics do, please find enclosed the complete reference.
Casilli, Antonio A. (2010). A History of Virulence: The Body and Computer Culture in the 1980s Body & Society, 16 (4), 1-31 DOI: 10.1177/1357034X10383880

Virus, viralité, visceralité – Logiques culturelles et processus sociaux en réseau

Voilà la présentation contenant les notes de la première séance de mon séminaire EHESS Corps et TIC : approches socio-anthropologiques des usages numériques : rôle et place de la notion de virus dans la culture du numérique.

La prochaine séance (où il sera question de cyborgs et d’hacktivisme) aura lieu le jeudi 9 décembre de 17h à 19h en salle 5, 105 bd Raspail 75006 Paris. Pour s’inscrire, il suffit de m’envoyer un petit mail gentil.


A History of Virulence: The Body and Computer Culture in the 1980s (part 2 – with illustrations)

From viral marketing to computer viruses, the cultural logic of virality permeates the Web. The December 2010 issue of the Sage journal Body & Society will publish my long-awaited 36-page essay “A History of Virulence: The Body and Computer Culture in the 1980s”. The text that follows is the second  part of the “author’s cut” version of the article: an archeology of computer-mediated moral panic, autonomist marxist hacking, and AIDS activism. Click here for the first part.

Computers – Viral or Visceral?

This ‘viral turn’ in mainstream computer narratives was absorbed in a somewhat paradoxical way into users’ milieus. The symbolic coincidence of the body and computing machinery, as well as the related viral motives, were enthusiastically adopted by computer amateurs. This appropriation can be read as a typical ironic strategy mirroring hegemonic taxonomies (Ang, 1985; Storey, 2006), a way of transcending labelling through self-stigmatization. In this sense, virulence developed into a cultural process of unapologetic ‘counterpride display’ typical of youth subcultures (Richards, 1988). In the context of 1980s computer culture, this can be interpreted as something that aimed not only to empower autonomous social practices through political recognition but also to normalize personal motivations and behaviours through the inscription of technological activity in the intimate sphere of the body. The mimicking of the media hype was not only performed with satirical intent. It also performed a deliberate distortion and amplification of the viral discourse into one of ‘viscerality’. The classical Cartesian superposition between body and machine – implied by the mainstream rhetoric of computer viruses – expanded into a thematic sequence that came to be dominated by the image of the machine penetrating the body.

Understanding how computer culture adopted the stigma of being a ‘virus’ and turning it into an asset requires first understanding the relative place and status of the computer in late 20th-century consumer culture. The process of miniaturization of computing technology that had led from the 13-ton UNIVAC (1951) to the 30-odd kilo IBM 5100 (1975), was also a process of re-territorialization. While the post-war ‘electronic giant brains’ (Berkeley, 1949) occupied military bunkers and industrial basements, the 1980s saw the infiltration of computing machines into the private sphere. Decades before ubiquitous computing, homeand family-computers took up residence inside the houses of a new generation of electronic amateurs1. Commercial names changed in step, evoking everyday life and homely informality. The most successful products had common male and female names like Lisa or Vic2. They conjured up the unthreatening pleasures of family life: children (Junior, Piccolo), small animals (Pet, Bee), and fruits (Apple, Acorn, etc)3. Products designating power, luxury and imposing size were destined to sell poorly4. Specialized press targeting computer users developed these motifs. Home privacy became synonymous with personal, bodily intimacy. In the media, there was an increasing trend to emphasize the association between autonomous computing and bodily performance, beauty and health. The well-known Apple 1984 TV commercial (Scott, 1984)5, for example, staged the liberating power of personal computers by opposing a young female athlete to a crowd of senile users living under the rule of an Orwellian Big Brother.

These initial remarks are corroborated and extended by the analysis of visual sources. At first glance, the depictions of computers associated with sports and physical activities duplicate this buoyant bodily imaginary. For example, Figure 2 clearly places the computer in a family setting. The presence of a father and his son suggests intergenerational unity and family ordinariness. The father wearing sports gear further indicates that computing can be seen as a substitute for physical exercise.

Figure 2. Family computer and physical exercise (Anon., 1983a – courtesy of


  1. The domestication of computers, which some commentators date back to the mid 1990s (Cummings and Kraut, 2002; Frohlich and Kraut, 2003; Kraut et al., 2006), was actually a distinctive phenomenon of the previous decade.
  2. One of the milestones in Apple’s rise to commercial supremacy was a computer christened Lisa, named after Steve Job’s daughter. In the 1980s, another big hitter was Commodore’s Vic20, whose name, according to its creator, ‘sounded like a truck driver’ (Bagnall, 2003).
  3. Among the best-know nexamples of computer names inspired by childhood are: the IBM PC jr, the Japanese Junior100 and the Danish RC Piccolo. Animal and fruit names were also commercially successful: for example, the Commodore’s Pet was followed by BWV’s Husky and by Applied Technologies’ MicroBee; early European competitors of Apple included Acorn computers and Apricot PC.
  4. After 1982, a number of short-lived home computers with pretentious names popped up: the Welsh Dragon Data, the English Atom, the Belgian Charlemagne 999, the French Orchidé́e as well as the American Vixen were all forced out of the market by 1984.
  5. For a complete description see Linzmayer (1999) and Friedman (2005).

A History of Virulence: The Body and Computer Culture in the 1980s (part 1)

From viral marketing to computer viruses, the cultural logic of virality permeates the Web. The December 2010 issue of the Sage journal Body & Society will publish my long-awaited 36-page essay “A History of Virulence: The Body and Computer Culture in the 1980s”. The text that follows is the first part of the “author’s cut” version of the article: an archeology of computer-mediated moral panic, autonomist marxist hacking, and AIDS activism. Click here for the second part.

Ubiquity, Embodiment, Virality

The emergence of ubiquitous media and the focus on pervasive computer networks seem to have introduced a major shift in the way information and communication technologies are practised and represented in contemporary societies. Since the early 2000s, the consensus around theories of a virtual humanity ‘homesteading on the electronic frontier’ – the ethereal cyberspace where users were to be ‘uploaded’ (Lévy, 1994; Rheingold, 1993) – have progressively given way to approaches to computer-mediated social interaction centred on mixed realities. According to these new theoretical stances, digital technologies are to be regarded as a domain of affordances extending and enhancing physical presence rather than superseding it (Hansen, 2006). Significantly enough, the author who popularized the very notion of ‘cyberspace’, William Gibson, acknowledges this momentous development in his novel Spook Country: if the pre-ubiquitous technological paradigm can be described as ‘a state in which ‘‘mass’’ media existed, if you will, within the world’, in the ubiquitous one they ‘comprise it’ (2007: 121).

Ubiquitous computing does not transcend everyday experience, rather it pervades reality by saturating the actual space of the cities and by infusing physical bodies. Featherstone (2007: 320) describes this media ontology by suggesting that ‘as media become ubiquitous they become increasingly embedded in material objects and environments, bodies and clothing, zones of transmission and reception’. After Simondon, Bernard Stiegler defines social and ubiquitous media as a ‘human techno-geographical milieu’ (in Venn et al., 2007), that is, a socio-technological process converting human corporeality into information. Following Stiegler’s emphasis on the need to harmonize symbolic, technical and material milieus, new couplings of the body, social imaginaries and social practices come into view.


Dr. Popp et la disquette Sida. Sociologie d'une affaire hacker

NB: une version légèrement remaniée de ce texte a été publiée dans le numéro de mars 2015 de la revue d’ethnologie européenne Terrain. Pour le citer :

Antonio A. Casilli (2015) Dr. Popp et la disquette Sida. Sociologie d’une affaire hacker, Terrain, 65: 3-17. 

Un savant fou. Un virus mortel. Du sexe. Des gadgets électroniques à la mode. Tous les ingrédients pour un grand feuilleton sont réunis. Il y a exactement vingt ans, éclate l’affaire de la « disquette Sida », l’un des plus importants scandales internationaux dans l’histoire du piratage informatique. Aujourd’hui presque complètement oubliée, elle reste un épisode dont les significations culturelles et politiques méritent d’être approfondies pour comprendre non seulement l’approche actuelle des usages informatiques autonomes (autonomous computing)[2], mais aussi pour restituer les jeux de forces qui – encore aujourd’hui – font de la viralité l’une des formes prééminentes d’agrégation sociale du web[3].


Les rebondissements judiciaires multiples de cette affaire ont rendu difficile la tâche de retracer les témoignages des protagonistes et d’en déceler les motivations. Le compte rendu que j’en propose ici est basé sur une enquête de terrain conduite entre l’Europe et les EU en 2004-2005. Les interviews utilisées – avec des médecins, des experts de la police britannique et des médiactivistes – sont citées dans les notes de bas de page. J’ai à plusieurs reprises sollicité un entretien avec le personnage principal de cette histoire, Joseph L. Popp, mais mes tentatives n’ont pas rencontré de succès  (voir le Post-scriptum à la fin de ce billet).

(Attention ce billet fait 18 pages ! Téléchargez-le en version .pdf ou bien lisez le reste en version .html)


Live streaming from Porquerolles: Viral economy and Social Networks (eng) (fr)

Today, live from the beautiful island of Porquerolle, the Summer School Pratiques des images dans la société de l’information presents Rémi DOUINE, economist and CEO of The Metrics Factory, discussing the « Economie de la viralité ». In the afternoon Domininque CARDON, sociologist at France Télécom R&D, discusses « L’image conversationnelle.

Just in case you missed it, here’s the online archive.