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 Engineer pictured fixing plane's engine with 'duct tape' by concerned EasyJet passenger
- 2 Two-year-old says goodbye to bin man best friend
- 4 Remove smartphones from the hands of under-18s and maybe they will grow up to be less dumb
- 5 Tampon tax scrapped in Canada after petition convinces conservative government
Engineer pictured fixing plane's engine with 'duct tape' by concerned EasyJet passenger
Saudi Arabia mosque bombing: Two volunteer security guards hailed as heroes for stopping Isis suicide bomber reaching worshippers
Ancient 2,400-year-old gold bongs discovered in Russia
Porn stars in California may be forced to wear goggles under new legislation
Tampon tax scrapped in Canada after petition convinces conservative government
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
Australian man punched in the face for defending Muslim women from abuse on train
EU referendum: David Cameron to deny EU migrants and under-18s the chance to vote
£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an i...
£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for the ...
£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time Administrator/Secreta...
£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...