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Transmission, one of the best reads I’ve encountered this semester, intertwines the divergent paths of several characters, however, two men stood out the most. Arjun Mehta is a programmer from India eager to leave behind his average home life to live out the American dream of success and wealth.Guy Swift is a marketing visionary from London, struggling to sustain his affluent lifestyle and startup company.Aside from the obvious international birthright, they had one major connection: Leela01, a cleverly conjured viral computer structure created by a disparaged Arjun:

“All I wanted was my job back. All I wanted was to work and be happy and live a life in magic America.” (p.414)

Arjun’s simple plan to prove his credibility as a qualified computer programmer by crafting an “innocent” computer virus turned him into a terrorist! Arjun had coded a monster that the world was not ready for. It terrorized all sectors, destroying water purification systems, government files, financial institutions as well as virtual realities, Bollywood and a startup company.The book exposed the after-effects of a digital pandemic that overpowered grandiose microscopic bacteria and virulence of days passed.

Guy’s struggle with winning client accounts, largely due to his inability to connect his corporate vision with older, established companies as well as his substance abuse problem and poor management skills, was only amplified by the Leela01 virus, courtesy of Arjun!  At the peak of the storyline, when things looked like they were going in a positive direction for Guy, it all comes crashing down when his computer’s hard drive starts to give way to Leela’s devious eradication  in the middle of a client presentation!

Arjun merely wanted to bring honor to his family by attaining a high salaried position and an attractive mate in the United States. Conversely, his anger and desperation only brought shame and humiliation, as well as worldwide panic.

Towards the end of the book, Kunzru reiterated the effects of the dreaded virus:

“Leela’s noise passed effortlessly out of the networks into the world of things. Objects got lost: a van carrying armaments from a depot in Belgrade; a newly authenticated Rembrandt. Money in all sorts of physical forms dropped out of sight, but also money in its essence, which is to say that on Greyday a certain amount of money simply ceased to exist. This is a complicated claim. Money tends to virtuality”.

Leela, like any virus, created great panic and fear, linking strangers in a web that can be visualized as “six degrees of separation” via viral terrorism. Leela’s intangible existence created tangible turmoil effecting flights, package deliveries and the disappearance of large sums of money. Every business, person, being, agency had some form of connection surrounding this viral structure.

It’s interesting to see how this fictional work provides such an interesting framework with which to analyze viral media. It makes you realize the effects a YouTube video or even a .gif in an email can potentially have on the world. Granted, it cannot create as much havoc as Leela01 or her variants, but it can definitely have a far reaching impact, as we have seen in a lot of the class case studies. The digital photo frame epidemic of 2008 brings this scenario closer to home for most.

Articles online today are raising the question if social media is in fact “helping or hurting terrorism” as terrorist groups are utilizing YouTube and Facebook as a recruiting mechanism.

I just hope that we (we meaning the world) will be better prepared for the next viral mutation.


About everchangingL

Currently a graduate student at The University of Texas at Dallas


2 thoughts on “Transmission

  1. The effects of the Leela virus on activities – big and small – in the offline world reminded me once again of the long history of viruses playing major roles in many of the major world events, decisions and economies. In a world as connected as ours, even things that aren’t directly “plugged in” are still at the risk of falling victim to online viral activity. Who would think that the disappearance of a genuine Rembrandt – a physical piece of art created centuries before the Internet – would be spurred by simple bits of code?

    We live in a time when connectedness is unavoidable. With everything from traffic lights to power grids to water purification systems now plugged in to the grid, connectedness is now necessary in order for us live our lives everyday. Even the most disconnected node or individual isn’t immune to the effects of online viral structures. When a virus goes airborne, the threat of infection and full-on pandemic increases exponentially. Kunzru’s detailed rundown of how the Leela virus spreads and ultimately infects physical, non-virtual phenomena like Rembrandt paintings, vans carrying armaments, and physical monies illustrates excellently how a computer virus – a viral structure – can very easily become “airborne”, requiring zero “physical contact” to spread.

    Excuse my excessive use of air quotes. What I’m really trying to say is that one of my takeaways from reading Transmissions is that with the increasing trend of moving every single subset of infrastructure online and “into the cloud”, mutation – in the pertinent cases of computer viruses and online viral structures – will only become exponentially easier. Nothing is immune or out of reach anymore.

    Posted by wordtoyourmedia | March 3, 2012, 9:37 pm
  2. I’m glad you brought up the issue of terrorism, since it is a concept that features so prominently in our national vernacular. Its prolific use and abuse by politicians and media pundits since the events of 9/11 echo the machinations of the Leela virus as it multiplies and spreads to virtually all corners of the earth in the book. Granted, I have no idea if a virus could be as effective as Leela; my sense it that the book greatly exaggerates the capabilities of a computer virus, especially as it practically mutates into an almost physical embodiment that affects the lives of Guy Swift, Leela Zahir, and others. Resemblance to reality or lack thereof not withstanding, the virus serves as a plot device that ratchets up the excitement and drama in the book while simultaneously becoming elevated to the status of another character in the book, one that possesses nearly godlike powers.

    So, back to my point about terrorism. How quickly that authorities leap to that label once the havoc begins to be wreaked by Leela01. [It also doesn’t hurt that once Arjun is identified as its creator, he is foreign and he is brown. American military exploits that are extensions of the muscle flexing and saber rattling of privileged, upper-class white males of the political class more often than not reveal a national propensity to fear (and consequently attack) those who are outsiders with the wrong shade of skin. But I digress.] When an unknown entity attacks, ‘terrorism’ or ‘terrorists’ is a great fall back, a crutch, for the scaremongers. This echoes the evolution of the cultural perception of viruses Parikka told us about many weeks ago in our previous reading. ‘Terrorism,’ such a nebulous concept at this point that it becomes nearly meaningless beyond being a hot button device, permeates 21st-century culture everywhere.

    Of Leela01’s many significations, its most prominent encompasses this overblown notion of terrorism and terrorists. The novel plays on this absurdity [to such an extent that I regard it as a novel of the absurd, a comedy of the absurd] as it grants such far reaching powers and character-like status to Leela01. Why, how could anyone not see the Leela virus as another character? It is immediately given personality and human traits just by its very name. Much as it functions as an ‘absurd’ plot device, the virus is depicted in one of the more entertaining, sometimes thought-provoking accounts – this fiction – that we have run across (certainly a 180-degree switch from ‘Outbreak’). I believe Deleuze and Guattari would recognize Kunzru’s effort as a kind of aesthetic artifact that brings into focus multiple overlapping planes, as they say – turn or the 21st century techno-geek culture, a techno-thriller, modern romance, critique of consumer culture and venture capitalism, a fish-out-of-water story, and many other layers too numerous to list – and one more understanding of the ‘rhizome’-like object of the virus.

    Posted by mattutd | March 4, 2012, 8:48 pm

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