Printer Friendly


On November 4, 1988, computers around the ARPANET network began acting strangely. They filled up with extraneous data, became sluggish, and then clogged completely. The odd behavior spread to about six thousand computers across the country and overseas, in a matter of hours. The system, it appeared, had been attacked by an unknown intruder.

Engineers at SRI International in Palo Alto, the firm responsible for ARPANET security, at first thought the intruder was a "virus," a software program that attaches itself to other programs. But the spread of the clogging behavior made it apparent that the intruder was a "worm," a self-contained program designed to invade and disable computers. This second explanation was correct. In computer terminology, the rogue program that invaded ARPANET was a "worm."

The San Francisco Chronicle headlined its November 5th story "Vicious 'Worm' Spreads Havoc Through Computers in U. S." The next day, its headline read: "How 'Worm' Was Defeated."

This was possibly the only newspaper, however, to use the correct term for the rogue program. In the wire services and at least eleven major dailies, the term of choice was "virus." Even the San Francisco Chronicle, in its story of November 6, noted, "The attacking program, alternately called a worm or virus, had been cleared from most places by midday yesterday." (1)

Why was this "worm" so quickly and painlessly identified as a "virus?" What we are dealing with here is a choice of metaphors. An analysis of these metaphors (using the "interaction" perspective of I. A. Richards) suggests a number of compelling reasons for the preference of "virus" over "worm."

Each metaphor, Richards tells us, results from the interaction between two parts: its "vehicle," which is the word selected, and its "tenor," the underlying situation. A powerful metaphor identifies two separate domains in such a way that we are able to explore one domain by tracing the implications of the other domain. (2)

In the case of the computer intruder of November 1988, there was a choice of two major vehicles: the "worm" or the "virus." If the "worm" was chosen as the vehicle, how would this illuminate the tenor, or underlying situation? Indeed, we have few systems of implications for "worms": they appear at night after rain, are good for fishing, and appear on putrefying food. Clearly the "worm" is not metaphorical star material.

The "virus," however, provided metaphorical dividends immediately. With the "virus" as vehicle, many aspects of the tenor could be elucidated using related terms. News stories explained that about six thousand computers were infected as the "virus" proved to be virulent and highly contagious. NASA isolated its computers from the infected network and quarantined them. Attempts were made to sterilize the network. Programmers struggled to develop a vaccine, and to inoculate against new attacks.

The "virus" proved to be a master metaphor that could organize mini-metaphors into a coherent field. It was easy to communicate using one-word mini-metaphors like infect or inoculate. This metaphorical system of implications described events in the unfamiliar domain of a computer network in dramatic, familiar, and structurally suggestive terms.

This system of implications of the "virus" metaphor partly explains, I believe, its instant adoption by most of the country's press, as well as its success against the competing "worm" metaphor. The endurance of the metaphor, however, can be traced to factors beyond the immediate entailments of the "virus" vehicle.

The computer "virus" had its way partly prepared for it by the spread of another virus, heavily covered in the media: the AIDS virus. As the story developed, parallels seemed to develop. Like the AIDS virus, the computer "virus" attacked the "immune systems" of the computers it invaded. Like AIDS, the computer "virus" spread through exchanges between individuals. Instead of body fluids being exchanged through sex, it was software exchanged through electronic mail. This parallel was even drawn explicitly by the chairman of the Computer Virus Industry Association in an article in the New York Times: "The most stringent [protection] procedures--telling people not to touch other people's computers or to use public domain software--is a little like telling people not to have sex in order to stop the spread of AIDS." (3)

In both cases, the entire society proved to be at risk because of the actions taken by a subculture. AIDS, of course, spread earliest through Haitian refugees and the gay male subcultures of the large cities. The computer "virus" originated in that subculture of computerniks known as "hackers." A New York Times article of November 8, "Loving Those Whiz Kids," said, "On balance, the computer hacker appears to be both a national treasure and a national headache." It described "increasing friction between the eccentric wizards who design and maintain these systems and a society that depends on the machines to run everything from banks to hospitals to military forces." (4)

The author of the "virus" proved also to be a graduate student, further cementing his status on the boundaries of respectability. On the first day of the "infection," a University of Illinois programmer guessed that its author was "very likely a bored graduate student." This motif appeared in a later New York Times story about the student, Robert Morris Jr., which described him as "unchallenged by many normal programming activities." (5) (Morris also turned out to be the son of a leading government expert in computer security, adding Oedipal overtones to the already convoluted metaphorical situation--for the father had helped design the UNIX system that the son attacked.)

And yet another parallel: The spread of both the AIDS virus and the computer "virus" produced legal problems and threats to civil liberties, as draconian measures were proposed to curb future outbreaks. (6)

These parallels between the AIDS virus and the computer "virus" surely aided the acceptance of the "virus" metaphor over that of the ill-fated "worm." Other proposed terms, such as computer "letter bomb," as well as "rogue program," "renegade program," and "electronic invader," also lacked resonance.

The case of the computer "virus" of November 1988 offers insight into the process of metaphor selection. The rich systems of entailments of the "virus" vehicle provided terms that quickly and dramatically communicated the structure of the situation through a series of mini-metaphors. However, we might say that the tenor, or underlying situation, also played a key role in the selection of the vehicle.

This master metaphor continued to produce payoffs even after the dust had settled from the original incident. In a letter to the New York Times on November 27, a graduate student in computer science relied on a metaphor of biological infection to argue cogently for computer security through system diversity:
In some ways, computer standardization is akin to the selective
breeding of agricultural products, such as potatoes.... The breeding of
a single genetic strain of potato in Ireland in the 19th Century led to
the potato famine of 1845. Because every potato in Ireland had exactly
the same genetic material, every potato was susceptible to the same
bacterial infection.... Computers are just as susceptible to infection
as plants are.... In biology, successful species evolution preserves
diversity and variation.... So, in computer systems, variation must be
preserved.... The need for variation and diversity exists in computer
systems just as it exists in nature. (7)

Here we see yet another ramification of the master metaphor of the computer "virus." The metaphor's entailments allow us to systematically explore different aspects of a new and unfamiliar situation. Our language in this case does much of our thinking for us. Our conclusions are implicit in our choice of terms; all that remains for us is to follow the analogies down the paths they prescribe. Whether this is desirable in every case is, of course, another matter entirely.

Notes and References

(1.) This article relies heavily on the coverage of the incident in the New York Times, since that newspaper covered it beyond the two days that it was "hot" news. Other terms come from the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune. Details available on request.

(2.) I. A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric (New York: Oxford University Press, 1936). See especially chapters 5 and 6.

(3.) Kenneth P.Weiss, quoted in Joel Kurtzman, "Curing a Computer Virus," New York Times, Nov. 13, 1988, F-1.

(4.) John Markoff, "Loving Those Whiz Kids," New York Times, Nov. 8, 1988, 1.

(5.) Philip Hilts, Washington Post News Services, Nov. 4, 1988; John Markoff, "How a Need for Challenge Seduced a Computer Expert," New York Times, Nov. 6, 1988, 1.

(6.) John Markoff, "U.S. Is Moving to Restrict Access to Facts About Computer Virus," New York Times, Nov. 11, 1988, 12.

(7.) Benjamin Zorn, "In Computers, as in Nature, Variety Is Desirable," New York Times, Nov. 27, 1988.


(*) Dr. Raymond Gozzi Jr. is Assistant Professor of Communication at Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois.
COPYRIGHT 2017 Institute of General Semantics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2017 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Gozzi, Raymond, Jr.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2017

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters