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Flexible Infections: Computer Viruses, Human Bodies, Nation-States, Evolutionary Capitalism

Stefan Helmreich
Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 25 No. 4, Autumn 2000, pp.472-491
ISSN 0162-2439
July 2000

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This article analyzes computer security rhetoric, particularly in the United States, arguing that dominant cultural understandings of immunology, sexuality, legality, citizenship, and capitalism powerfully shape the way computer viruses are construed and combated. Drawing on popular and technical handbooks, articles, and Web sites, as well as on e-mail interviews with security professionals, the author explores how discussions of computer viruses lean on analogies from immunology and in the process often encode popular anxieties about AIDS. Computer security rhetoric about compromised networks also uses language reminiscent of that used to describe the "bodies" of nation-states under military threat from without and within. Such language portrays viruses using images of foreignness, illegality, and otherness. The security response to viruses advocates the virtues of the flexible and adaptive response - a rhetoric that depends on evolutionary language but also on the ideological idiom of advanced capitalism.

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