Viral Phenomenon

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Viral phenomena are objects or patterns able to replicate themselves or convert other objects into copies of themselves when these objects are exposed to them.

The concept of something, other than a biological virus, being viral came into vogue just after the Internet became widely popular in the mid-to-late 1990s. An object, even an immaterial object, is considered to be viral when it has the ability to spread copies of itself or change other similar objects to become more like itself when those objects are simply exposed to the viral object.

This has become a common way to describe how thoughts, information and trends move into and through a human population. Memes are possibly the best example of viral patterns. The 1992 science fiction novel ‘Snow Crash’ explores the implications of an ancient memetic meta-virus and its modern day computer virus equivalent: ‘We are all susceptible to the pull of viral ideas. Like mass hysteria. Or a tune that gets into your head that you keep on humming all day until you spread it to someone else. Jokes. Urban legends. Crackpot religions. No matter how smart we get, there is always this deep irrational part that makes us potential hosts for self-replicating information.’

The spread of viral phenomena are also regarded as part of the cultural politics of network culture or the virality of the age of networks. Various authors have pointed to the intensification in connectivity brought about by network technologies as a possible trigger for increased chances of infection from wide-ranging social, cultural, political, and economic contagions. For example, the social scientist Jan van Dijk warns of new vulnerabilities that arise when network society encounters ‘too much connectivity.’

The proliferation of global transport networks makes this model of society susceptible to the spreading of biological diseases. Digital networks become volatile under the destructive potential of computer viruses and worms. Enhanced by the rapidity of technological networks, the spread of social conformity, political rumor, fads, fashions, gossip, and hype threatens to destabilize established political order. Likewise, financial contagion cascades through the capitalist economy, inspiring speculative bubbles, crashes, and aperiodic recessions.

There is, it would appear, a certain measure of consensus across the political spectrum regarding how the networked infrastructures of late capitalism have become prone to viral phenomenon. On the Left, in their book ‘Empire,’ Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have argued that the age of globalization is synonymous with the age of contagion. This is an age in which increased contact with the ‘Other’ has rekindled anxieties concerning the spreading of disease and corruption since permeable boundaries of the nation-state can no longer function as a colonial hygiene shield.

The spontaneity of contagious overspills thus has the potential to initiate a revolutionary renewal of global democracy. On the Right, the International Monetary Fund, and various leaders of the capitalist world order have pointed to the threat posed to the stability of the current neoliberal political–economic system by the capricious spreading of financial crises from nation to nation. Correlations have been made, for example, between the interlocking of global stock markets, the chaos of financial contagion, and the so-called Islamic threat to justify the ongoing War on Terror (Tony Blair’s speech on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, for example).

Nonetheless, virality is not merely perceived as a threat to capitalism. It also presents certain opportunities for the refreshing of its consumerist models of wealth creation founded on a clearer understanding of how money can follow social influence as it spreads across a network. Indeed, the link between an ever-expanding form of network capitalism and the self-propagation of network virality is explicitly made through a heady concoction of business enterprise, network science, and neo-Darwinian related literature.

Like this, the meme and the viral (the marketing buzzwords of the network age) have been conjured up from an assortment of crude renderings of evolutionary theory, powerful computer-assisted contagion modeling, and business trends. It is via these various contagion models that financial crisis, social influence, innovations, fashions and fads, and even human emotion are understood to spread universally like viruses across networks.

Yet arguably, as intuitive as this new epidemiological paradigm seems to be, the medical metaphors and biological analogies that underpin it present many analytical limitations. To be sure, understood as a metaphor, the too much connectivity thesis offers very little in terms of an ontological grasping of contagion theory. Similarly, the overgeneralization that network capitalism, or indeed resistance to it, spreads like a disease inadequately describes the politics of the network age.

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