Viruses are the ultimate spammers

5 June 2008

I am always fascinated by how virological terms and concepts are used by the field of computer science. For example, a computer virus is a program that can copy itself and infect a computer without the knowledge or permission of the user. And viral video is content which becomes highly popular through internet sharing, email, IM, blogs, and other websites. Both terms use ‘virus’ to imply uncontrolled spread of an unwanted file. A virus infects a cell, it automatically reproduces and more copies are released. A virus infects a computer with the same results.

Several years ago I was amused to see the following cartoon by Bill Amend, which capitalizes on the use of the same term in two very different areas:

Just as the field of computer science has borrowed from virology, so virology can give back. In Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson wrote “…self-replicating organisms came into existence on this planet and immediately began trying to get rid of each other…by spamming their environments with rough copies of themselves“. Spam is the abuse of electronic messaging systems to indiscriminately send unsolicated bulk messages. The idea that organisms are engaged in spamming is completely accurate. Viruses, of course, are the ultimate spammers: they send millions of unsolicited copies of themselves.