What do computer viruses and science fiction have in common?

Answer: my recent columns on these two topics both generated lively Forum discussions on InfoWorld Electric. So here’s Round 2 on these subjects, based on the Forum discussions.
My column asking whether the risk of computer viruses was overstated created something of a stir in the Forums. Most participants fell into two camps: those who had dealt with viral infections (I’m wrong) and those who hadn’t (I’m right).

Among the anecdotes, two insights stood out:

Insight #1: Distributed object technologies will create a mess. Traditional computing platforms separate data and executable code, so viruses can only hide in a few, easy-to-detect locations. For the most part you’re safe if you never boot off floppies and avoid downloading executables.

Now we have objects and Objects. (The former are object-like but don’t satisfy the purist’s definition.) The MS Word macro viruses are a pernicious form of object virus, and you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. From a security perspective the startup macro is an awful feature to build into a word processor or spreadsheet. Every reader of this column should send a letter to Microsoft asking for an installation option on Microsoft Office that disables startup macros for Word and Excel.

True Objects – downloadable Java applets, ActiveX controls, CORBA-compliant code – are worse. It’s as if we had invented metabolism but not antibodies. This is a messy subject. It’s going to take a lot of exploration to fully understand. Right now, all I know for sure is that the situation has the potential to become big-time ugly.

Insight #2: Viruses aren’t that serious a threat because we view them as a serious threat. Translation: virus hype is a self-preventing prophesy.

The whole idea of self-preventing prophesies is an important one. How often have we scoffed at a prophet of doom when doom didn’t come? In the case of viruses, one reason they don’t cause all that much data loss may be because most of us, listening to the hype, have implemented prudent precautions.

Good point. I stand corrected (I think).

David Brin, who writes really good science fiction, wrote an essay describing the idea of self-preventing prophesies. Nuclear war may be one of them. In the ’50s and ’60s, plenty of authors depicted nuclear devastation and post-apocalyptic societies. Their stories strongly influenced society’s perception of nuclear war, which in turn curbed the worst tendencies of those in a position to start one.

Which brings us to reader reaction to my column on science fiction as a better, cheaper alternative to hiring an expensive futurist.

The Forum discussion on the subject was simply huge. A disproportionate number of you, like me, read a lot of science fiction, and it had a powerful influence on our later career decisions.

InfoWorld’s readers are the greatest. D. W. Miller (I infer from the e-mail address), remembered the story describing wearable computers – “Delay in Transit,” by F. L. Wallace, originally published in Galaxy back in ’54, and reprinted in an anthology called Bodyguard in 1960. The computer was implanted, not worn. Not bad for 42 years ago. Miller points out that the computer’s name, “DiManche”, accurately predicted another future technology trend – the capitalization of internal letters in product names.

Michael Croft was the first of several readers to remind me that the series introducing the “replicator” concept was collected in an anthology called The Complete Venus Equilateral, by George O. Smith, published in the 1940s. Think about this: 50 years ago, a science fiction writer discussed the creation of a service economy out of the ruins of one based on manufacturing.

Charles Van Doren has pointed out that post-renaissance society is the first in the history to embrace the concept of progress – that the world can improve. Many of us, having grown up on science fiction, embrace that idea (which, of course, is why we always buy the next software release).

Every silver lining has a cloud inside it.