Bugs: Rethinking the History of Computing

McKinney, Cait; Mulvin, Dylan
Communication, Culture and Critique

This paper argues that scholars of computing, networks, and infrastructures must reckon with the inseparability of “viral” discourses in the 1990s. This co-assembled history documents the reliance on viral analogies and explanations honed in the HIV/AIDS crisis and its massive loss of life, widespread institutional neglect, and comprehensive technological failures. As the 1990s marked a period of intense domestication of computing technologies in the global North, we document how public figures, computer experts, activists, academics, and artists used the intertwined discourses surrounding HIV and new computer technologies to explicate the risks of vulnerability in complex, networked systems. The efficacy of HIV as an analogy is visible in the circulation of viral concepts, fears surrounding interdependence, and emergent descriptions of precarity in the face of a widespread “infrastructure crisis.” Through an analysis of this decade, we show how HIV/AIDS discourses indelibly marked the domestication of computing, computer networks, and nested, digitized infrastructures.