Viruses, Plagues and History by Michael Oldstone

Virus Goes Viral

In order to better understand a discussion of viruses and/or anything viral, we need to understand the definitions of the words. Virus means:

vi·rus [vahy-ruhs]  noun, plural -rus·es. 

  1. 1. an ultramicroscopic (20 to 300 nm in diameter), metabolically inert, infectious agent that replicates only within the cells of living hosts, mainly bacteria, plants, and animals: composed of an RNA or DNA core, a protein coat, and, in more complex types, a surrounding envelope.
    2. Informal; a viral  disease.
    3. a corrupting influence on morals or the intellect; poison.
    4. a segment of self-replicating code planted illegally in a computer program, often to damage or shut down a system or network.
 Viral means:

vi·ral    [vahy-ruhl] adjective

1. of, pertaining to, or caused by a virus.
2. pertaining to or involving the spreading of information and opinions about a product or service from person to person, especially on the Internet or in e-mails: a clever viral ad.
3. becoming very popular by circulating quickly from person to person, especially on the Internet: the most memorable viral videos; a book that’s gone viral.
4. pertaining to a computer virus.

The words virus and viral were first used to describe illnesses. As technology has advanced and people now have instant access to information, the words have morphed into technological references.

Since the words have morphed into other meanings it is thought provoking with the entendres they connotate. First, we have the traditional sense of the word:  In the readings, virus is defined by Nobel Prize winner, Peter Medawar as “a piece of nucleic acid surrounded by bad news.” This kind of virus enters the body, may undergo multiple mutations and end up as a disease, potentially very harmful. This is an example of a virus going viral within the body.

Since these diseases are contagious, as people spread the disease it becomes “viral.” Oldstone discusses the concept of disease becoming viral throughout history. Small pox goes back as far as 10,000 B.C.; plagues were in China in 48 A.D and in Japan by 585 A.D. By 1000 A.D. smallpox had spread from Japan to Spain to Africa and to the Mediterranean Sea.  Europe had outbreaks of Smallpox by the 16th century. It went on to Cuba then Mexico. Smallpox reached Hawaii by 1853. In North America the settlers even used the virus as a very early form of biological warfare by giving infected blankets to the Indians to wipe them out.

The first entendre is the use of the word virus for the infection of a computer. The first time the word virus was used in this sense, it was defining a self-producing program in a short story in Galaxy magazine by David Gerrold. He also used the term in his novel, When HARLIE Was One. “In that novel, a sentient computer named HARLIE writes viral software to retrieve damaging personal information from other computers to blackmail the man who wants to turn him off.”

The term virus eventually became the “catch all” phrase to describe all malware.

It is not known when the word viral was first used to mean circulating very quickly. The earliest use of the word was in reference to viral marketing and believed to be attributed to Tim Draper and Jeffrey Rayport from The Harvard School of Business. Rayport popularized the term in an article, The Virus of Marketing in 1996 for Fast Company. Then the term was used by Tim Draper and Steve Jurvetson of Draper Fisher Jurvetson in 1997 to describe Hotmail adding advertising to outgoing mail.

Now the word viral is connected to anything that is spread very quickly, however it is used mostly with videos. An example of a video that has gone “viral” with 88,841,994 hits since May 1, 2011 can be seen at:


The second entendre of the words virus and viral are the words themselves. Over time, since the words were first used to define a corruption in a computer and the rapid spread of information people have clung to the terms, making the words themselves viral.

It is interesting to me that the word virus alludes to something bad, but the word viral, as it is used in the digital world, alludes to something good.

As Oldstone relays in the readings, we still have new diseases that now can be spread very quickly with the rapid travel we have today. We also have the threat of biological warfare with countries housing numerous viruses, some manmade. In today’s world we will continue to have computer viruses and information becoming viral; Unfortunately  the same is true for disease.

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5 Responses to Viruses, Plagues and History by Michael Oldstone

  1. Mr WordPress says:

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  2. Tricia S. says:

    Beginning your analysis by defining the key terms, virus and viral, is critical to any comprehensive look at the interplay of Oldstone’s work and the current use of the words in the digital context. I agree these have morphed. They now carry meanings that early researchers and solution finders like Edward Jenner would likely find interesting and unexpected.

    Technologically speaking, the acceptance and use of viral, as discussed in this week’s class, is largely considered a positive action. Virus, on the other hand, a corrupting force that can attack digital systems, leading to loss of both person and professional data, can be expensive to recover from and leave content generators in despair. In that sense, virus is still, centuries later, a negative occurrence.

    As with biological forces, such as smallpox, yellow fever, and flu viruses, infection and spread of a virus is greatly feared among many computer users. It has created a lucrative enterprise for companies that generate products, antivirus software, to combat unwanted installation of spyware, adware, etc. that could be damaging to computers and compromise confidential information.

    According to Wikipedia, who created the first such product is in dispute. However, Intel’s McAfee and Symantec’s Norton, both companies founded in the 1980s, were this writer’s earliest encounter with security software. On the other hand, reports of viruses by users of Apple’s Mac systems are seemingly less common than PC owners. The company says their computers don’t “get PC viruses.”

    I believe there could be an underlying mistrust that prevents individuals from seeking immunology. Some early humans who were susceptible to viruses debunked scientists who, for example, discovered vaccinations that could render one immune to smallpox. Nowadays, there is a ‘movement’ underfoot of parents who resist vaccines for their children, fearing it will hurt rather than help them. Conversely, in the computer world, there are likely users who believe installing security software could actually yield the opposite result, infecting rather than protecting their data.

  3. Pingback: The good and bad | Streaming EMAC

  4. sara says:

    I’m only slightly exaggerating when I say that I live in fear of getting a computer virus. Spam emails actually do send me over the edge. It’s the post-virus aftermath—changing passwords, or worse, dropping-off the computer with the Geek Squad—that really gets me down. This is why terrihh’s blog post and Oldstone’s book are so interesting. By looking at the history of viruses and examining viruses themselves more closely, I have such a better understanding of why we are wary and fearful of viruses. Uncontrollable, once they are unleashed, computer viruses have an infectious nature that is incredible, which Oldstone illustrates by chronicling viruses spreading throughout history. And in some ways, it’s ironic, that when it comes to computer viruses, to a degree, we actually are actively responsible for infecting each other. We push the send button that delivers the virus to our friends, usually unintentionally. I’m interested to learn more about the control of viruses, medically, and how we’re doing when it comes to controlling them in the digital world. Do the same methods of control apply?

  5. Terri, you do a nice job connecting the reading to the history of computer viruses and thinking through the way the language itself has “viral” qualities. In fact in 1962, William Burroughs wrote that words are viruses. What are the implications of this for media consumption? How do these multiple meanings of the term connect back to your paragraph on Oldstone?

    For future posts, continue to make connections between the reading and outside examples. Also, don’t forget to consider how images and/or video might add a bit of visual interest to your posts.

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