Going Viral

Going Viral: Constructing, manipulating and generating forces of infection across digital and biological media.

Funded through the Social Science and Humanities
Research Council of Canada

Principal investigator: Tagny Duff
RAs: Antonia Hernandez and Geneviève Ruest

In the popular mindset, the viral is seen as a force of contagion to be combated, an impending crisis to be prevented. Yet there is research in both the arts and sciences suggesting that the viral is a necessary aspect of life. Viruses are, in many cases, generative of symbiotic relations across species and systems. Revisiting the viral at a point in time when fear of contagion is escalating to new levels, this research aims to demystify and emphasize the importance of viruses.

Contemporary understanding of viruses is often inscribed through either the biological, as in the cold virus, or the digital, as in the computer virus. Arguably, the viral exists at the intersection of the digital and the biological, as digital technologies have become an integral part of the imaging and construction of biological viruses, while the biological has become a necessary metaphor in conceptualizing the movement of malicious digital code.

This research proposes to explore how the viral may be considered from multiple perspectives: as a generative and productive force in the replication of living systems, as an entity that is constituted across and by digital and biological platforms, and as a threat and potential avenue for migration and evolution. How can the viral offer us new insights into the intersection and symbiosis between digital and biological media?

Rapid growth in digital media, information technologies, and consumer electronics has proliferated ideas of viral contagion that mimic older notions of biological viral infection. For example, computer viruses are said to ‘corrupt’ data through infection of binary code. Or, with the notion of viral video: the rapid proliferation of video files distributed through peer to peer networks across the internet. The idea is that opening a digital file can make one susceptible to infection based on cause and effect encounter. In both these cases, a biological entity has migrated across discourse to become a digital and metaphorical entity.

Scientific laboratory research on HIV and retroviruses has progressed since it began in the 1980s, and has changed how we understand viral infection. Current research radically subverts contemporary cultural assumptions about what the viral is and what it can do. Scientists have the ability to make retroviruses synthetically within a laboratory context, and to transfect genetic information into living cells. The manipulation and construction of retroviruses in the laboratory involves computational sequencing and cellular growth in vitro. The viral, in this case, is not conceived as a counteractive force, rather, it is produced and grown in order to promote the regeneration of cells. The practice and technique of constructing retroviruses in life sciences opens new doors for thinking through current concepts of the viral as it is applied across the disciplines. Specifically, it introduces the potential to consider how the movement of infection is not a relation of cause and effect, but instead involves complex environmental and evolutionary interactions across micro and molecular organisms, humans, and digital media.