Net bugged by virus of the mind
In recent weeks many newcomers to the Internet have exchanged warnings of a computer virus called Penpals. According to rapidly spreading legend, if you receive and try to read an e-mail of that title, an embedded program will take over your machine, causing your processor to fuse and wiping your hard disk clean.
But the fact is that there is no such virus - and never could be. Instead, Penpals is an example of a "meme" - a virus of the mind, spread by people discussing it. It "lives" by being repeated to more people. And one of the most effective is one which preys on people's fears.
In the past couple of years other memes - including Irina and, most notorious of all, Good Times - have also caused havoc on the Net, not by damaging machines but by tying their users' minds into anxious knots.
The idea of a virus of the mind was first put forward by Richard Dawkins in 1975. "I didn't know about computer viruses when I wrote about memes," he said last week. "But the Internet is an appropriate laboratory for watching them in action."
Ian Whalley, editor of Virus Bulletin magazine, by which virus hunters stay in touch, says that the reason why people are worried is that more have a connection to the Internet, but only understand the technology peripherally. "PCs are becoming more like TVs, in that you can plug them in and they work, and you can be surfing the Net in no time," he says. "If you got somebody ringing you up and telling you not to watch a particular programme on the TV because it would explode, you wouldn't believe them. But if it's 'The Internet', people believe most things."
There are still plenty of genuine computer viruses out there, although anti-virus software can catch most of them - such as Michelangelo, which is due to strike this Thursday, 6 March. Any infected computer could have its hard disk erased - for real.
- 1 Autistic teenager beaten up by bullies makes them watch 20-minute video about autism
- 2 Greece debt crisis explained: A history of just how the country landed itself in such a mess
- 3 People all over the world are getting semicolon tattoos to draw attention to mental health
- 4 Greek debt crisis: Yanis Varoufakis's funniest (and most memorable) quotes
- 5 Swedish minister gives strongest case yet on why EU should stop turning away asylum seekers
Autistic teenager beaten up by bullies makes them watch 20-minute video about autism
Greece debt crisis explained: A history of just how the country landed itself in such a mess
German conservatives are destroying Europe with austerity, says economist Thomas Piketty
Man dies instantly after shooting firework from top of his head
Isis schoolgirl Amira Abase who fled London to join terrorists in Syria mocks victims of Tunisia massacre
More Britons believe that multiculturalism makes the country worse - not better, says poll
Osborne to cap family benefits at £23,000 – announced ahead of his post-election Budget
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture
Sickness and disability benefits could be reduced by £30 a week as part of £12bn welfare cuts
£16000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for individual...
£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...
£40000 - £95000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...
£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Vehicle Inspectors / Pu...