The Plague Years

It’s a good time to be a virus.­

In the introduction to his recent book The Viral Storm, Stanford biologist Nathan Wolfe suggests that “microbial threats will grow in the coming years in their ability to plague us, kill people, [and] destroy regional economies.” His argument — that increased circulation of goods and people amplifies the probability of species-annihilating epidemics — taps into familiar fears about the consequences of hyperglobalization.

But if Wolfe is afraid, he’s not letting on.

The matter-of-fact verve with which he opens every chapter (most begin with breezy accounts of strange deaths or a flu’s eradication of a large number of people) is unnerving. Throughout his book, he jauntily describes symptoms of hemorrhagic fevers and absurd cases of animal-borne influenzas, often in language that makes one nostalgic for Michael Crichton. Here’s Wolfe on the death of a child in Tennessee: “On August 31 Jeremy was pronounced brain-dead and, following the withdrawal of life support, he died of bat-borne rabies.” Or on a London cholera epidemic in 1854: “It was a large city. And it was hit hard.” In some chapters, he describes hypothetical pandemics that could suddenly explode in “let’s say, Manila”:

By the end of the first week, nearly ten thousand individuals have been hospitalized. Over five thousand of these people have died painful deaths. At the end they can barely breathe—their skin blue from lack of oxygen. Eventually septic shock and severe brain inflammation strike, killing most of them. As the number of deaths increase, journalists flock to the scene.

These accounts (real and imagined) don’t do a great job of convincing the reader that epidemiologists are real-life human beings. Wolfe’s sterile vision reveals something of the lifeless math that underlies public health policy calculations. And they certainly don’t make for good post-midnight reading.

But perhaps his deadpan enumeration of grizzly statistics and scarily inadequate prevention measures feels appropriate in the context of our bemused acceptance of viruses in ordinary life — not only in the physical sense (swine flu, avian flu, and the rest) but also in the form of the primary metaphor describing our cultural moment. “Viral Media” defines the way that we consume and spread information. We have become virtual hosts, carriers, vectors for a new sort of pathogen: the Dancing Cat video. And for the most part, we seem okay with it — or at least comfortable with ignoring the notion that it might be bad for us.

I wonder whether a Justin Bieber video with 712,000,000 views is more virus than video and whether it’s dangerous in some way, though this kind of question can be addressed with variations on familiar critiques of mass culture. But a new critical focus on the ties between infection and media can help us think about our relationship to the state. Viral metaphors meant to explain the circulation of capital, pathogens, and information have taken a long time to grow up. If we tie the evolution of rhetoric about viruses to the evolution of trade — from merchant ships to the Facebook IPO — a narrative describing the way that goods and information move around the world virally begins to emerge.

Wolfe provides his own brief opinion on the role of viral communication, suggesting that “social networks like Facebook” (a rhetorical construction that tends to signify: “I’m going to say something general about the Internet now!”) can aid virologists in the study of pandemics. In a chapter called “Microbe Forecasting” he describes the process by which scientists might predict future outbreaks. Wolfe declares (apparently without irony) that social networks are “not designed to help monitor for outbreaks.” Nevertheless, they “have created relatively easy-to-monitor systems that can be mined to determine the frequency of illness […] and perhaps eventually provide predictions for spread of a new agent within a community.” Wolfe’s reading of our addiction to social networks is telling in its simplicity. It sounds as though he expects sufferers of violent and unknown illnesses to post regular Facebook updates about their symptoms and that this will help prevent the spread of disease. The truth is more complicated than this, but Wolfe’s brief foray online suggests that there are productive ways to take advantage of the virality of social networks.

In his concluding chapter, he goes on to suggest that there are good reasons for keeping around some kinds of “gentle viruses.” Certain pathogens can prove to be prodigious killers of other diseases. Some, for example, might eventually lead to cures for cancer. Wolfe writes that “The goal of public health should not be to eradicate all viral agents; the goal should be to control the deadly ones.” To approach something like a methodology for thinking about good and bad virtual viruses, it helps to revisit the origins of the idea of media-as-disease. From there, we can think about how it maps onto contemporary representations of viruses, and what happens when viral media runs up against other pathogens. The stakes of this argument can seem pretty small until we consider that viral media touches just about everything in our networked and increasingly virtual life. It influences how we shop, vote, listen, read, and think.

All viral everything can seem like it’s changed all of our relationships and the ways that we conceive of ourselves. But it’s been doing this for a long time.

Our fascination with viruses isn’t new, not even when thinking specifically about viral metaphors related to media consumption. Daniel Defoe’s 1772 proto-novel A Journal of the Plague Year is an early example of thinking about information as a contagion. His fictional account of the 1665 London bubonic plague begins, not with a description of the disease itself, but with a reflection on how rumors of the disease’s advance spread along trade routes. The narrator, a middle class business owner telling his story some years after the events, recalls that news of the plague’s progress toward London initially circulated in the “ordinary discourse” of conversations with neighbors. A recently developed media technology, he goes onto argue, would have made things much more efficient:

We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumors and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men, as I have lived to see practiced since. But such things as these were gathered from the letters of merchants and others who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed about by word of mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now.

The narrator conflates pathology with print media journalism, suggesting that rumors spread like disease and that new forms of communication become more efficient carriers. It may be difficult to think of newspapers as a new “technology,” and harder to wrap one’s head around the narrator’s conception of “instantly” compared with our own. But to put it simply, he’s describing the seventeenth century’s definition of viral media. The fact that the news relates to the spread of plague reinforces the parallel, as he literally refers to news reports about disease.

As is very well documented in academic papers and pop-history bestsellers alike, more trade—made possible by faster modes of transportation — exacerbated for a time the spread of plague itself. But information has always seemed to travel faster than goods. Defoe’s book gives us something of a foundation for thinking about a connection between capitalism and viral communication, and between material and information. The benefits of opening trade routes from Asia to Early Modern Europe, and the long transformation from mercantilist to capitalist economic systems, came hand-in-hand with the spread of disease. This simple equivalence (more trade equals more illness) applies to our own time. The symbol of a viral hazard in 1665 may have been the trade ship, but in our own time it’s a Boeing 777 arriving at the International Terminal at O’Hare.

This explains why scenes of ordinary folks coughing ominously in airports after business trips abroad have become de rigueur for movies like Contagion (2011) and its clear predecessor Outbreak (1996). Apart from their basic similarities in premise — a mysterious and highly lethal disease infects a population, and a team of supernerds comes to the rescue — the differences between these two films reveal shifts that have occurred in just the past fifteen years that affect the role viruses play in our cultural imagination. For one thing, the locus of our viral paranoia has shifted from Africa to Asia (oddly, the source of earlier plagues), symbolizing the replacement of AIDS as the world’s prevailing pathogenic bogeyman with that of seemingly endless variations of animal-borne diseases. It also seems to reflect the explosion of America’s commerce with Southeast Asia amid persistent fears about product safety, human rights abuses, and lack of environmental regulation.

But whereas Outbreak concentrates on events that unfold primarily in a quarantined town once the virus arrives from Africa, Contagion portrays the epidemic on a global scale. In 1996, it was still plausible that a government could lock down a California city and prevent information from getting out. In Outbreak, the government keeps information of the imagined virus secret from the public in the interest of maintaining control over the “perfect biological weapon.” The state has a monopoly on the resources both to contain and to exploit the virus. By contrast, the good guys in Contagion work for the government and their main priority is to share information with the private sector to get effective drugs to market. Once scientists discover a cure, a vaccine must be manufactured and distributed via global supply chains, requiring rapid sharing of information and material. As a consequence, the film represents the delivery of the cure in a sped-up montage of assembly lines and container ships, which together symbolize the productive potential of good old-fashioned industry. In other words, though increased exchange of capital sharpens our fear of pandemics, we retain the sense that it also holds the best solution to any resource problem. Herein lies the reversal of the relationship between plague and trade that our ultra-globalized model of capitalism seems to promise. The logic is simple: if we can move goods fast enough, we can beat the viruses.

Contagion’s chief bad guy isn’t an evil corporation or a government entity. He’s Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who shills a phony cure on a viral blog called “Truth Serum Now.” Krumwiede identifies himself as a new media journalist (he declares, “print media is dying!”) that sets about trying to prove the power of the Internet by peddling his snake oil cure “Forsythia” online. Krumwiede posts videos of himself taking the medicine and then monitors his symptoms for the “benefit” of online audiences. When he’s ostensibly cured, his massive international audience goes wild. Like the disease itself, disinformation spreads virally, and Krumwiede uses his blog to distribute panic as supplies of Forsythia disappear in pharmacies around the world. The speed of the viral media plays out as a material problem: demand generated by viral media outstrips supply. Worse for the authorities, it’s impossible to contain Krumwiede at first. Contagion’s portrayal of viral media is not only an opportunity to consider the death of newspapers (whose importance Defoe announced to the world in his own plague narrative), it also reveals how quickly the connection between physical infection and virtual information has evolved. Fifteen years ago, control of a population still entailed the erection of concrete barricades and deployment helicopter patrols; now, the policing of electronic media.

This does not mean that the state’s role in controlling populations has fundamentally changed. Rather, this system of viral media exchange exists on top of, or parallel to the exchange of goods. In Contagion, Krumwiede’s blog multiplies and compounds the impact of the fictional virus. Like a secondary infection, it exacerbates the disease’s symptoms and complicates the government’s efforts to distribute the antidote to patients. While the private sector produces the vaccines under the state’s direction, the government’s security apparatus tracks down and arrests Krumwiede. In this way, Contagion perhaps suggests that one of the consequences of viral communication’s spread is that the state will redraw the borders it regulate – cyber-warfare has already become a central national security policy issue and authoritarian governments have proven capable of shutting down whole sectors of the Internet.

But what about instances in which viral metaphors serve to bring attention to places where the state’s authority has abandoned a population?

For this kind of consideration, we can turn to a film that doesn’t—on its face—deal with an “actual” virus. The Interrupters examines the problem of gang violence in Chicago. For one year, director Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame) and writer/producer Alex Kotlowitz shadowed members of CeaseFire, an organization that attempts to “interrupt” conflicts and prevent them from escalating into violence. The film enacts the collision of several different viral metaphors, allowing us to think about how economics, pathogens, politics, and media collide in the context of an intractable problem.

At the heart of the film (and CeaseFire) is the notion that violence itself is like a virus: that it spreads like a disease and that it can be eradicated if we inoculate vulnerable populations against it. The Interrupters unfolds in four chapters, focusing less on the enormous political, social, and economic problems that lead to violent crime, and more on the shocking courage required to confront the ordinary realities of street violence on a daily basis. To say (as many critics have) that Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra — the three violence interrupters at the heart of the film — put in the best performances of the past year seems inaccurate. Rather, the compassion and conviction that they display in the course of doing their actual jobs stand apart from anything in cinema, fictional or nonfictional, produced in the last year.

But what makes it important to the conversation at hand is the centrality of viral metaphors to CeaseFire’s violence prevention approach. James portrays the effectiveness of this approach in the day-to-day activities of the interrupters. When it comes to preventing violence CeaseFire’s Executive Director Gary Slutkin, a Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Illinois-Chicago, explains the importance of the viral metaphor early in the film:

Violence is like the great infectious diseases of all history. We used to look at people with plague, leprosy, and TB as bad and evil people … They were put in dungeons. What perpetuates violence can be as invisible today as the microorganisms of the past were. For the young people in these neighborhoods, they see violence as their disease. What they expect to die of is this.

To use medical terminology seems apt when addressing the invisibility of the cause and the prognosis of those “infected.” It implies a language of cures, remedies, treatments, and vaccines and has the rhetorical effect of translating that very enormous political, social, and economic problem into a series of tangible, comprehensible, and solvable small-scale altercations.

The viral metaphor demands engagement with individuals on a consistent, case-by-case basis to prevent contagion. Or, as CeaseFire Illinois director Tio Hardiman puts it, “You’ve got to drown yourself with the people and immerse yourself in the bullshit.” Hardiman’s delivery of profanity is a laugh line, but it maps perfectly onto the metaphor of disease—of being covered in biohazard, working in a “hot zone,” and of ministering to the sick in order to heal them. CeaseFire has proven effective, precisely because of a willingness to engage at this level. A recent three-year study conducted with the support of the Department of Justice found that the organization’s presence in neighborhoods resulted in a 40-73 percent drop in shootings and killings while recording a 100 percent decline (total eradication) of reciprocal murders in five Chicago neighborhoods. The model, and its underlying viral metaphor, seems to work. Because of our collective familiarity with viral metaphors, all of this can seem logical, even if it instrumentalizes the interrupters themselves. In the context of violence-as-virus, Matthews, Williams, and Bocanegra, along with their fellow interrupters become not just health workers—but rather human vaccines, effectively infected with a weakened form of the disease.

The metaphor breaks down in perhaps the most important scene for understanding viruses and viral media in The Interrupters. Less than halfway through the film is a sequence portraying the 2009 murder of 16-year-old Derrion Albert, captured on a cell phone and circulated on the web as a viral video. The central problem with using viruses as a metaphor for violence arises from a tendency for it to collide against other equally compelling viral metaphors. That is, the Derrion Albert sequence demonstrates what happens when the metaphor of violence-as-virus runs up against viral media.

National media attention comes to the community when the video of Derrion Albert’s murder hits YouTube. Part of what’s most disturbing about the footage — a clip of which is shown in the film — is the stream of audible off-screen directorial commands. A voice shouts, “Zoom in! Zoom in!” even as we can hear a two-by-four crunch into Derrion’s head. We cringe, not just from the horror on screen, but also because we imagine an implicit directive lodged in the brain of the teenage cell-phone filmmakers. That is: “This video is going to go viral.” The desired object is virus and infection: propagation of the clip across the Internet. The media reward the spread of the virus, bringing days of coverage and the scrutiny of politicians who promise action in response to Derrion’s death. Again, here comes the state to solve what appears to be the various viral threats at the heart of the problem: unemployment, education inequality, drug abuse, and violence itself. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan comes to Chicago and talks about the problem. There are marches. There are cameras. But as Hardiman observes, “Once the media is gone back to wherever they came from, we need to step up and do something.”

In this scene, we see what happens when violence-as-pathogen combines with the set of motivations induced by the existence of viral media. It’s one of the few moments in the film that seems truly helpless, precisely because it exposes the problem with the viral metaphor used by CeaseFire in a local context. It gets swallowed when compared with the larger social viruses at work in producing the conditions that breed urban violence. Viral media, at least in this instant, is not necessarily one of Nathan Wolfe’s “gentle viruses.” It motivates violence, makes it somehow crueler through the act of mediation, and brings unwanted attention to the neighborhood—attention that gets in the way of the work of the interrupters and results in another almost-violent incident during a press conference. I’m ultimately skeptical that viral media can help raise awareness of the complicated problems at play—and uncertain that this awareness will ultimately help bring resources to communities.

There are other examples to draw on, other places where viral media have served to bring attention to social and political issues, and to start national or even international conversations about problems of justice. I’m not thinking of something like Kony2012, where the specific policy goals seem less important than the viral spread itself. In fact, perhaps this is a kind of especially dangerous virus, in which political action is reduced to a Facebook like. But the impact of social media on the Arab Spring uprisings, and the usefulness that it has had on getting news of state-backed violence to the world are real.

Regardless of how much of an impact it has had in the mobilization of populations, it’s important to recognize the ways that individuals and organizations have used viral media precisely to subvert oppressive forms of governance. I wonder how effective various states will be in their efforts to draw new cordons around their populations, and how they will try to invent ways to clamp down on the spread of this particular kind of information We need to think about viral media in the humanistic and political contexts. To talk about media in our current moment and to come up with definitive answers about its best uses, we need to make sure that we have a clear sense of how we’re using viral metaphors to give simple accounts of ordinary life. The most important bugs are not necessarily the ones that we look at under microscopes. They’re the ones we spread on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Foursquare, Google Plus, LinkedIn, YouTube, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Digg, and whatever else. These viruses inhabit (I won’t say, necessarily, infect) every corner of our virtual life. So we can't afford to leave the analysis of viruses to virologists.