Interview with Antonio Casilli on Computer Culture and the Body

Photo: Antonio Casilli
(copyright: Ulf Andersen)

Tomoko Tamari interviews Antonio A. Casilli on his article A History of Virulence: The Body and Computer Culture in the 1980s’ in Body & Society 16.4 (Dec 2010), and discusses the links between the discourses of bodily and computer viruses, the roles of intimacy and biopolitics, and the difference between medicine’s and computer culture’s view of the body.

Tomoko Tamari: Your paper argues that a connection between the growing use of personal computers and the moral panic over the HIV/AIDS epidemic in recent decades has increased the mass awareness of risks. You also point out that the discourses of the body and the computer were closely related in terms of the idea of ‘viruses’, which can cause problems or even destroy ‘healthy’ systems. 

Antonio Casilli: There is, in my opinion, a thread connecting contemporary attitudes towards content virality and the first inquiries in computer viruses, back in the mid-1980s. This cultural logic developed during the years of the HIV/AIDS global epidemic, which explains how – very early on – it displayed features of risk and sexual desire. Actually, computer culture entertains an ambivalent attitude in regards to virality. I describe it as a sinister jubilation: contemporary computer users want information to be viral as far as that is useful to its circulation, but at the same time they perceive this very circulation as a danger for their privacy, data integrity, and overall safety. To unveil this ambivalence, it is important to rely on such pieces of “archaeological evidence” as old computer artefacts, press articles, early hacker fanzines. The ones produced by the Chaos Computer Club in the 1980s are particularly noteworthy. They introduced the tropes that you still find thirty years later in such high-profiled stories as the case against Julian Assange: risk, spread of information, cybercrime, unsafe sex, and activism. The very name of “Wikileaks”, with its reference to liquid information seepage echoes the imaginary of the hacker culture I explored within my corpus.
TT: You also argued that the diffusion of personal computers could be seen as having helped to generate a more intimate relationship between computers/machines and human beings.
AC: In the last three decades, ICT interfaces have been designed to be personal, to affect user experience at a corporeal and not only at a cognitive level. Especially in regard to ubiquitous and pervasive computing, the question is to what extent the constant access to connected devices is reconfiguring the locus itself of our intimacy. From this point of view, the Lacanian notion of “extimacy” (extimité) – as subsequently developed and adapted to information-intensive environments by French psychoanalyst Serge Tisseron – is particularly appropriate, as it points to the way networked computers elicit the disclosure of intimate details by individuals, while at the same time stimulating a feedback by connected audiences, endorsing those same details. Intimacy in computer culture is paradoxical. It has, so to speak, a wheel in the private and the other in the public sphere. It comes as no surprise that it is associated to elements of risk. Connectedness endangers just as much as it enriches.
TT: Generally speaking, it is not uncommon for human beings to develop attachments and feelings for non-living objects, and sometimes we clearly anthropomorphise them.  At the same time, we use many machines in our domestic space – TV, radio, fridge, telephone etc. – that do not necessarily work in this way. They don’t become ‘intimate’ machines. Why, then, do you think the computer became an intimate machine for human beings, especially in the 1980s?
AC: It was a combination of technological and cultural factors, actually. Of course reterritorialization of electronic artefacts played an important part in it. Since the late 1970s, computers have been moving out of research centers, universities and military bases and into private households. But I agree – that is not enough. Other technologies have been integrated into the domestic space, without triggering the same cultural processes. I think the other factor at play here is miniaturization. Classic authors, like Daniel Bell, were quick to highlight it, back in 1977 (Daniel Bell, Teletext and Technology’, Encounter, 48, June 1977, p. 9-29). Post-WII “electronic brains” like the UNIVAC weighed 13 tons. That figure dropped to 30 kg by the mid-1970s, and to 1kg in the 1980s. In 30 years, the gap between post-war ‘Big Irons’ to ‘mini-‘ and ‘micro-computers’ was closed. The smaller computers got, the more they were perceived as “personal” technologies, sticking to the users’ bodies, conveying – through the keyboard and the mouse/screen apparatus – a contact based on touch and proximity with the interface. This is obviously not the case for a fridge or a TV set, which tend to be shared appliances. In this sense they are “domestic”, but not personal. And they might come to be anthropomorphised, but they do not develop the same symbiotic relationship to their users. Later in the 1980s, cyberpunk theorist Bruce Sterling famously said that computer technologies are “visceral”: they stick to the body, penetrate under the skin (Bruce Sterling (1986) ‘Introduction to Mirrorshades’, pp. 1–13 in B. Sterling (ed.) Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. New York: Ace Books). This is not intimacy he’s talking about – but actual compenetration. And this trend is still going on today. Just consider the kind of relationship consumers tend to establish with their laptops and smartphones, the way they internalize the battery level or the connection speed of these devices, almost like they were bodily functions…
TT: Could you expand a little on the ways in which medical and information technology discourses are related? In particular, what is the biopolitical aspect of this process?
AC: From this point of view, one might say, my analysis does not differ from post-Foucauldian and feminist takes on the biopolitical implications of computer culture. The episode I detail in the article, how in 1987-89 hackers helped HIV/AIDS rights advocates to deregulate the FDA drug-testing protocols, is rather representative of the strategic alliances computer culture brought forth – and the way they shaped and mapped biopolitical conflicts between institutional medicine and autonomous social actors, patients and computer users.
TT: How has this relationship changed since the 1980s?
AC: Since then, discourses surrounding ICT and medical knowledge intertwined in very complex and multifaceted ways. Certainly, the medical profession has followed a general movement toward digitization. From that point of view, medicine does not differ from other trades, so to say. But it was not a straightforward process. Resistance was strong. Early experiments in medical informatics and telematics were disappointing, and not only because of poor computer literacy. By the late 1980s, the world of medicine and the new technologies could be perceived as conveying two completely different visions of the body. There was a huge gap between the medically-mediated body (as an object of expert knowledge) and the layperson-turned-computer user perception of the body as a field of empowerment, both collective and individual.
Indeed today we are not in this wall-to-wall situation anymore. I’d say two main trends have emerged in contemporary medicine, both aiming to include ICT use while at the same time preserving the role of medical experts. The first stance consists in what Richard Satava described as an attempt to re-establish the “world order of medicine” (Richard M. Satava (1994) Virtual Reality and the New World Order of Medicine. Virtual Reality Systems, vol. 1, n. 3, p. 6). It emerged in the mid-1990s as soon as biomedicine started appropriating virtual reality tools – and the enclosed narratives of bodily regeneration. The applications to surgery, pharmacology, medical training, or even to physical medicine and rehabilitation that have been progressing since the mid-1990s, represented an impressive effort at preserving medical authority while adapting to the language of computer culture. The other trend, more recent and less maximalist, is attentive to the new advances in e-Health and m-Health. Some influential voices in the medical community, like Gunther Eysenbach and the Journal of International Medical Research, dare speaking about “apomediation”, which boils down to relinquishing the role of doctors as gatekeeper and to circumscribing medical intervention to being just one asset among others for the patients. In this sense, medical intermediation would be over.
TT: You examine the emergence of the virus as a biological metaphor which can be used to indicate ‘the information permeating the body’. However, more recently it is suggested that this could be no longer just a metaphor. BBC news covered a story about the ‘First human “infected with computer virus”’ on 27 May 2010. Dr Mark Gasson, a British scientist from the University of Reading implanted a chip in his hand which was then infected with a computer virus. According to BBC news, ‘the device, which enables him to pass through security doors and activate his mobile phone, is a sophisticated version of ID chips used to tag pets. In trials, Dr Gasson showed that the chip was able to pass on the computer virus to external control systems’. 
He also warned about potential further risks of medical technology such as medical implants devices, which can carry this type of risk (
AC: This news story raises a lot of interesting questions, although of course it is partly a media construct. In a way this is far from what I studied. I am attentive to the results of cybernetic research, but the way I understand virality is more as a cultural logic – or even a social process – at work in computer-mediated interactions, and not only as a result of the development of human-machine interfaces. Gasson and his colleagues from the Project Cyborg, on the other hand, seem to apprehend virality in a more deterministic way, as a side effect of what is perceived as the upcoming fusion between organic systems and artificial ones. In this sense there’s a difference between how the story was related in the media and its actual significance for computer culture at large. That looks like a story about viruses, but it actually might read as one about the revenge of Haraway’s cyborg: the hybrid, contaminated chimera sprung from 1980 computer culture, as opposed to the masculine cyborg conceived by those at the forefront of the reseach in human implants. Ten years ago, Gasson’s colleague Kevin Warwick, published his controversial essay in Wired magazine (Kevin Warwick 2000 “Cyborg 1.0”, Wired, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 144-151). That text was clearly a U-turn from Haraway’s appreciation of the promises of virality. Here we have a scientist taking a stance and reversing, in a very positivistic and voluntaristic way, what Haraway had described as an “ironic myth”. Warwick reassesses medical authority by putting himself in the hand of a surgeon to have its chip implanted. Moreover, he indulges in an all-male militaristic and capitalistic fantasy while describing himself as an explorer of the unknown, subjugating nature. Just look at the list of applications foreseen for Project Cyborg: “airplanes, locomotives, tractors, machinery, cash registers, bank accounts, spreadsheets, word processing…” It comes as no surprise, that this male cybernetic organism perceives virality as a risk. And it’s ironic, in the Harawayan sense of the word, that, ten years later it has to surrender to the fact that it might become a vector of virality…
TT: Could you elaborate on how you see the information technologies, such as VR technology, generating ‘an alternative corporeal modality’?  An anatomist in Japan recently argued that they can visualize the whole structure of the human body, but it could be very difficult for them to visualize the human body’s ‘complex functions’, even though we can use MRI or CT scan examinations.
AC: This is an interesting point to raise, especially if you think that the medical-industrial complex has deeply impacted the bodily imaginary of computer culture in the last decade. Before the mid-1990s, before the whole “Medicine meets virtual reality” trend, the body in computer-mediated environments was conventionally represented as an ethereal, shell-like entity. Think Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, a 1992 novel. When he describes an avatar in virtual reality he says “[…] no flesh, blood, or organs are visible through his body. He is nothing more than a thin shell of epidermis, an incredibly complex inflatable doll”. Yet the perception has changed dramatically, both in popular and in scientific culture, since the massive application of 3D computer-generated imagery and data communication in the medical field. I’d say the turning point is 1994, when the Visible Human Project revealed the first anatomically detailed human body obtained through CT scans and digital tomography. Surprisingly, this first “virtual human cadaver”, to be used for anatomic 3D modelling, was not empty, did not lack organs, blood, guts and other “complex functions”. I remember that Body & Society itself featured an article by Catherine Waldby insisting on the macabre details of “open wounds demonstrating the anatomical substrate beneath the flesh” (Catherine Waldby (1996) ‘Revenants: The Visible Human Project and the Digital Uncanny’. Body & Society, vol. 3, n. 1, pp. 1–16). I’d say this points to the main difference between the medical perception of the body and the one conveyed by computer culture. For the former the body is a field of symptoms, of internal floods, of uncanny beats which call for the mediation of the medical expert to be interpreted. The latter is, on the other hand, a body which is entirely visible – and it can thus be appropriated by any layperson, any user, without medical intermediation. It complies with some kind of Leibnizian principle of intelligibility, if you like. The embarrassment of living tissues, the mystery of deep organs, the viruses lurking in the cavities of the body: all this is representable, understandable. This has to be apprehended, in my opinion, as a cultural strategy dealing with the fear trends of contamination, both informational and biological, that have shaped computer culture since its beginnings.
Antonio A. Casilli is a sociologist at the Centre Edgar-Morin, School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS, Paris). is the author of Les liaisons numériques. Vers une nouvelle sociabilité ? (Ed. du Seuil, Paris). He is a sociologist at the Centre Edgar-Morin, School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS, Paris). He runs the research blog and tweets under the handle @bodyspacesoc.
Dr. Tomoko Tamari is Managing Editor of Body & Society and book review coordinator for Theory Culture & Society and Body & Society. Her PhD thesis is on consumer culture and women in Japan. Her interests include consumer culture, visual culture, space and architecture and food culture.  She is currently working on two main areas: the relationship between animation and human perception; domestic living space and architecture design.

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