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 old-computers.com)
- 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. ↩
- 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). ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- For a complete description see Linzmayer (1999) and Friedman (2005). ↩