I am not a microbiologist and I cannot claim that bird flu does not represent a real danger for the world population. However, I have noticed that the media formulate this threat in a way similar to the Millennium Bug campaign. In our digital society, operating on the notion of global connectedness, fears are also experienced in networked form.
Let us remember Hitchcock’s film The Birds (1963), where crows and seagulls attack people for unknown reasons. In a crucial scene, the heroine is sitting on a bench, waiting for her niece to come back from school. While she is smoking a cigarette, birds flock around the playground beside her. When after a few seconds the woman looks towards the playground, she sees that countless birds have gathered around it, ready to pounce on the schoolchildren.
The scene is replayed in the current press reports on bird influenza. Judging by Western TV, the trouble started in Romania. This is where the first infected bird appeared, and now we are facing the threat that the virus might crawl through the window of the developed world. All across the planet, from Croatia to Madagascar, there are ominous signs in the sky. An infected hen has been found. The virus could be dangerous for humans. Several people died in China, but we do not know whether they had been vaccinated. The European Union warns that the influenza requires ”coordinated international effort”.
The conspiracy has a comical dimension, for the gathering of birds recalls the Eurovision song contest. The victims of the attack invariably populate the same region (Romania and Turkey, then Greece), while Eastern countries are usually defined as originating. Since the Balkan hygiene standard is lower than that of the developed countries, I expect that the Northern neighbours will vote for each other. In addition, there is no doubt that the Western countries will join hands to sell us new medication against the illness. Predictably, ”Western organisation” must control ”Balkan irrationality”.
The paranoid script draws its inspiration from the concept of clear and present danger: although it is by no means inevitable that the virus of the bird influenza would mutate to some infectious form, the danger is certainly lurking in the background. Just as in 2000, we used to live in permanent fear that the Millennium defect could bring down computer systems, causing a domino effect with apocalyptic consequences for the world economy.
Of course, paranoid scenarios are nothing new, and neither are the debates on the subject of which pharmaceutical companies might profit from the generated fears. The new element is the implied idea of a conspiracy taking place in the digital sphere.
In the supernatural thriller The Ring (1998), we find a good example of networked paranoia. Whoever dares to look at an accursed video tape becomes the victim of a digital demon. Using her telekinetic powers, a raven-haired witch managed to possess the tape. When one watches her film, the digital recording materializes and the witch comes out of the television set to kill you. The only way to break the curse is to offer the tape to another victim. To save himself, the victim then gives the tape to a third-party and so a ”digital curse” is created.
In a similar way, the carriers of bird influenza are no longer real birds, but their digital versions, ones that can fly out of the television set. When the user enters the circle of avian damnation, he becomes part of an invisible network. Events in Romania come to his room, colonizing his private universe. Turning off the media doesn’t help: if the user disconnects from the internet, the birds might attack him from advertising boards.
The reasons to fear are more virtual than real, as bird influenza indicates that our lives are increasingly determined by the dramaturgy of the media.