I love you
By Franziska Nori, digitalcraft
The I love you computer virus, with its declaration of love accompanied by a destructive code in an attachment and sent by the thousands round the world, has made each one of us aware of the presence of these self-reproducing digital beings. I love you may well have been one of the computer virus family’s first media stars. Periodic reports of viral attacks mean panic-stricken companies and private users, although the general public has only a hazy notion of what viruses are and how they work. At present, around 60,000 such computer viruses are currently known and they keep an entire industrial sector in business.
What exactly are computer viruses? Who programs them and why? What kind of world is hidden behind this daily phenomenon – is it real or ”only” digital? The digitalcraft project group has dedicated an exhibit, a publication and a series of events to interdisciplinary discussion of a phenomenon which encompasses far more than simple subversion.
The Museum as Laboratory
In addition to collecting and preserving objects, a museum’s purpose is to provide cultural contexts and distinctions, whereby the observer is encouraged to rethink his or her own perception of the world of things. Not only do museums serve as a society’s cultural memory, they are also places for communicating and researching the new realities and models which are relevant to society. The paramount question: What is digital culture today and what will it become in the age of the information society? not only determines the direction of today’s artistic production but should also encourage cultural institutions to examine their own task.
The source code is a communication level between the user and the computer, between man and machine; that is, a text which assists the coder in designing executable programs. This text may be prepared in a variety of programming languages, including Java, C, C++, Visual Basic or Assembler, to name just a few. The source code is therefore a product of the human intellect, resulting from our present-day culture, by which means various software applications are developed. Beyond pure function, the source code has its own aesthetics and methods. The source code is a new form of language: programming ”language”, which, as is true of spoken and written language, possesses its own formal logic and form. While the computer virus is not precisely a category of art, but rather a digital object (or perhaps subject?), it too possesses a certain, definite form. It is a product of an experimental approach to language that is still developing.
The computer virus phenomenon, these self-reproducing digital beings, have been in the public eye since the early 1980s. The first efforts in this direction were made within the scope of academic research. These programs had no specific purpose beyond the intellectual challenge of an experiment. The computer virus fit into the discourse on humanity’s dream of ”intelligent machines”, and was developed further in the corresponding scientific field according to principles of artificial life. From this vantage point, a logical analogy could be made to the principles of biological viruses. The primary impetus for individual programmers in developing these various viruses surely included a measure of curiosity: how to sound the Internet’s murky topology, and what might happen if ... .
For years, incorrectly programmed operating systems from commercial manufacturers had presented viruses with the possibility of quickly spreading from one user to the next. Even today, known weak spots have not been rectified, and thus remain targets of criticism and viral attacks throughout the Internet community. In this category, Microsoft has long held the undisputed first-place position.
Information wants to be free
The motivation of most virus coders is the endeavour to maintain the Internet as a platform of horizontal communication, in which a networked community has free access to information which may be exchanged amongst the members of the community. Their motto is ”Information wants to be free” and the basic code of behaviour is ”give and take”. ( http://www.fsf.org; http://www.gnu.org; http://www.ccc.de/hackerethics)
In this context, the relevant terms are ”open source” and ”free software”. Free distribution of software production, applications and source codes as well as their distribution, as long as they are not limited by strict patent law, are all encouraged.
The Linux operating system is based on precisely these principles and is the result of open development. The large-scale dissemination of the Linux system has successfully promoted through the idea of free software. The methods of the first virus coders were unconsciously based on this same idea. Most viruses remain to a large extent in private collections within this milieu’s communities ( http://vx.netlux.org; http://www.coderz.net/29A/) and were deliberately never made public. From the beginning, coders, with their computer viruses and experiments and research-oriented behaviour, have characterised and helped shape the Internet.
Share your knowledge and you will achieve immortality (Dalai Lama)
Adopting this thought as our theme for I love you, we hope to show the largely unfamiliar and manylayered reality which lies behind the computer virus phenomenon. We will be conveying objective background information as well as providing a forum for the presentation of contrasting points of view from representatives of different groups: free software programmers, Internet and software artists, literature specialists and code poets, security experts, cryptographers and media sociologists. Over the past few years, the question of Internet security has erupted into a full-blown war. At present, not only international intelligence organisations have given their full attention to this new reality, but also futurologists and peace researchers who plead for arms control in Cyberspace in contrast to the information war and cyber-terror prophesied by the military (cf. www.ympinfowarfare.ch).
The I love you project is concerned with aspects of free programming which accompany the information age’s new capabilities – in particular the cultural sector. Moving beyond the specific purpose for which executable programs are designed, the source code in its role as a new form of language holds an equal fascination for programmers, artists and writers. The source code has a certain quality about it, comparable to experimental poetry of the early avant-garde. Baudelaire, Rimbaud and the poètes maudits, as well as Apollinaire and the Surrealists also experimented with language and text, just as do many of today’s coders. In the 1970’s, Hans Magnus Enzensberger noted that theory is always lagging behind reality.
The I love you project is a part of digitalcraft, a three-year research project of the Museum of Applied Arts Frankfurt (mak.frankfurt). Its objective is to establish a collection of digital artefacts which will help ensure the survival of daily phenomena from today’s media and information society for our descendants. In the process, a multitude of questions arises, and the answers are to be found both in theory and in experimental practice. How can objects which in essence will never reach a stage of completion be collected? What criteria should be used to determine an object’s historico-cultural relevance? In view of the speed of innovation in software and hardware, how can digital objects be preserved on a long-term basis?
Today’s society is in a state of upheaval. The socalled information society has given birth to changed production conditions, which have already drastically changed the requirements for present-day producers and their accomplishments. At the same time, we are witnessing not only the creation of material objects, but intangible ones as well. The Internet offers a platform for changed working conditions, has set new standards in communication and promoted new approaches to a transterritorial society.
The Internet’s origins can be found in the U.S. military (ARPANET). It was necessary to ensure continuing data transmission in the event of failure in individual transmission nodes. The distribution strategy was based on the idea of an integrated network. Some years later, this system moved into a civilian environment and was utilised by universities and research institutions. It was not until the early 1990’s that the Internet reached the general public. In university circles, the Internet had a liberal orientation, but the tendency is now towards stronger regimentation. (cf. Eben Moglen, http://emoglen.law.columbia.edu/)
The Internet remains (thus far) a medium which is truly democratic in its accessibility, whose information is simultaneous and not bound to any particular location, thus ensuring a global presence (whether it is truly a ”medium” is a matter of heated debate). Yet today the course is being set for a future reality of a computerised, networked society. The original idea of the Internet was based on selfregulation and the free exchange of information and knowledge. However, just as has happened in the history of all new media, commercial and political interests have altered the original intent. Globalisation, equal access, the digital divide, Internet copyright, open source and free software are just a few of the catchwords whose underlying concepts and attitudes will force today’s society to revise its values and interests and put them into concrete terms.
The cultural sphere and its institutions now have an opportunity to help shape this new reality, and its protagonists will play a prophetic role and design new experimental models. For, unlike other areas of society, the cultural sector still endeavours to work independently new visions of society and to present for public debate.
I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to Jaromil and Luca Lampo (epidemiC). Without their assistance with content planning and the personto- person network, this project’s many-layered orientation would never have come into being. Jaromil, a free software programmer as well as performance artist and multimedia theatre specialist, works in a variety of milieus in which he is known by his pseudonym Jaromil ( http://www.dyne.org).
I would also like to thank the Epidemic artist and programmer group, which is presenting their newest, controversial work ”AntiMafia” on the occasion of the ”I love you” exhibit and publication. This is peer-to-peer software which is a communication platform within the context of the cyber-rights and civil disobedience debate ( http://www.epidemic.ws).
Alessandro Ludovico has long been known for his writings and expertise on digital culture, new media art, electronic music and hacktivism. We would like to express our appreciation for his written contextualisation on computer viruses and Net.art.
We would like to thank Sarah Gordon for permitting us to print her essay. For many years, Sarah Gordon has explored the hacker culture. Out of their great respect for her attitude and work, anonymous virus coders have dedicated a virus specially designed in her honour. Through Sarah Gordon’s sociological research and her role as advisor for companies in the IT security sector, she supports the concept of a different perception of responsibility and ethics in the Internet.
Jutta Steidl is a specialist in German studies. Within the context of this exhibition, she explores parallels between experimental Internet art and classic literary forms. She uses selected examples to present a series of questions which consider the correlation between the source code and digital poetry.
Florian Cramer is a research assistant at the Freie Universität Berlin’s course on General and Comparative Literature. The majority of his work concerns itself with the comparative arts and text theory, literature and other art forms of the early modern period and the 20th century, as well as literature and information science. He coined the term ”code poet”, which we present for public debate as part of the associated exhibit events on the subject of ”digital bohème”. ( http://userpage.fuberlin.de/~cantsin/homepage/).
Special thanks go to the digitalcraft team, who stayed with our project through good days and bad. None of this would have been possible without them. Many thanks to each one of you!
Finally, a special word of thanks to our partners who have, over the past few years, supported and accompanied the digitalcraft research and collection project’s activities: SUN Microsystems, Nokia, Andersen, Deutsche Telekom, Deutsche Börse and the City of Frankfurt am Main.
"Learn the rules so that you will know how to break them" - (Dalai Lama)
Franziska Nori, born in 1968 in Rome, has been digitalcraft's Project Director at the Museum of Applied Arts Frankfurt since 2000.
In 1998, Ms Nori was appointed by the European Commission, DG XIII to deliver an expert appraisal on future strategies to be employed by European museums in working with new media as part of the "Multi-Media Access to Europe's Cultural Heritage".
Since 1994, she has worked as an independent curator for modern and contemporary art, at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Vienna, the Museo Nacional Reina Sofia in Madrid and the Fundación la Caixa in Palma de Mallorca.