Ebola Virus fears are now being used to bait unsuspecting emailers into infecting themselves with a virus of another kind – the digital kind. Emails with titles like "Ebola Outbreak Now WORSE Than We’re Being Told" and "EBOLA Outbreak — FEMA Storing 250,000 Plastic Coffins" have been popping up in inboxes worldwide, and when clicked on, infect the computer in question with trojan viruses allowing hackers to remotely operate the computer's webcam, keyboard, take screenshots, access data, and so forth.
My moral obligation to condemn this aside, I would first like to note: this is a fantastic extension of the "virus as obligate parasite" paradigm, and the philosophical implications of a digital virus using a psychological abstraction of a real-world virus to spread itself merit an entire blog post by themselves. The digibiology of memes and chain-letters is truly fascinating.
But in reality, this does bring up a troubling notion: that the impact of a virus, or really any other form of pandemic, can extend beyond the epidemiology of the pathogen itself. And the act of doing so is really not all that different from a virus going airborne, or entering any other route of transmission. First, the concept of the virus first infects the minds of a population in the form of fear, then in some minds that concept mutates into fear plus the possibility of exploitation. Then the exploitation potential is isolated by a subset of this population and distilled into some other, more transmissible form (most likely a meme or chain-letter). In most cases this manifests itself in a harmless manner (bit.ly/ZQ3kSc), but in some cases, a meme-progenitor has been "infected" by the knowledge of digital virus design – they see the logical exploitative value of combining the two, and the ebola digivirus is born.
This would all be pointless abstract theory were it not for the fact that these viruses are causing tangible harm around the world. We have officially entered an age in which ideas and information can harm us, and while in the case of ebola the relative harm is small, it is easily foreseeable – say, with the advent of a flu-inspired chain virus – that digital harm could exceed physical.
WELCOME TO THE METAVIROCALYPSE! (® Billman Portmanteaus, Inc.)
By Matthew Billman