PARASITIC MEDIA: Invisibility & other forms of Tactical Augmentation

Nathan Martin for the Carbon Defense League

A parasite is defined as "an organism that grows, feeds, and is sheltered on or in a different organism while contributing nothing to the survival of its host." The tactics of appropriation have been co-opted. Illegal action has become advertisement. Protest has become cliché. Revolt has become passé. These disputes are the usual suspects. Having accepted these failures to some degree, we can now attempt to define a parasitic tactical response. We need to invent a practice that allows invisible subversion. We need to feed and grow inside existing communication systems while contributing nothing to their survival; we need to become parasites. We need to create an anthem for the bottom feeders and leeches. We need to echo our voice through all the wires we can tap but cloak our identity in the world of non-evidence, and the hidden.

What I am indirectly referring to is operating as an appendage; creating a practice that hops the meta-train of media. In much radical behavior, we struggle, writhe, and scream, but make only a whisper. We must exercise the scream and stretch our vocal chords to make room for the growl. This bite must remain silent - a bite with no bark. The parasite's own existence depends on its ability to remain hidden. The parasite is the mystical computer glitch. The parasite is the bandwidth thief. The parasite is the invisible usurper. The shift that takes place in the host, if any, is one so gradual the parasite will be able to feed and thrive without detection.

The invisibility of the parasite is only through the eyes of its host organism. A parasite may be very visible to other parasites or to those human users that utilize the exploits or extensions that may be created by the introduction of the parasite into the host. It is the host that either cannot detect the presence of the parasite, or who observes the parasite, but only as an anomaly that stays well within the systems margin of error. The parasite flies below the radar of the host's policing system by remaining too peculiar, non-distinct or immeasurable. It is by appearing as an expected and accepted system bug that an otherwise visible parasite becomes invisible to its host. The way a parasite remains within the margin of error of a host system is to work within large expansive organisms that have less ability to control or monitor most of their own structure with any great detail. There is a blurring that will occur in systems where there is a large gap between manager and worker or between operating system and application.

If the standard deviation returned during any examination performed on a host organism is larger than it was before the introduction of the parasite into the host then the parasite will become visible to the host policing system and will be detected and removed. This would be a failure of a parasite in not knowing a host's standard deviation tolerance. It is in larger systems that larger tolerances are given for error. In smaller systems, the monitoring is so direct that standard deviation is already so small that it becomes difficult to introduce a parasite into the host that will remain invisible and still be able to function properly. An example would be the amount of theft by employees that occur at a small business where the owner is a visible source of monitoring being much lower in most cases than a large corporation where the owner is not present and possibly not known. Retail thefts, like employee thefts, increase with the size of a business. Corporations such as Wal-Mart factor the losses they will see due to theft into their financial planning and cost analysis. Usually if the amount of theft grows relative to the size of the corporation, the level of standard deviation will not increase and no alarm will go off that will force the host to change its behavior. This may change with the introduction of surveillance technologies into these environments but that shift will eventually return to a patterned behavior with its own level of standard deviation. A parasite must respect the tolerances of its host. A parasite may grow but only relative to the growth of its host. The parasite must remain invisible to the host.

The practice of parasitic media I am defining is one that is not all together new. It is operation within a pre-defined communication system. It is a plug in - an extension. It is a universal connector. The specialty it contains is that of co-existence and adoption. Rather than operating from the response of destruction, annihilation, or the more eloquent appropriation; we will build ourselves as spy-ware and viruses. These are parasites with a new agenda. We will construct no new systems in exercising parasitic media practices; instead we will only build extensions to pre-existing systems. The ability to create these extensions invisibly relies on large system sizes. The systems become hosts for the parasites. The more complex the host system, the more possibility there is for a parasite to exist unnoticed - until the sickness sets in, and then it is too late. Larger communication systems are only one part of a vast array of media that can serve as hosts. With expansive global communication infrastructures, adding a new appendage that hides itself well becomes relatively simple. By understanding the surveillance practices within the systems we desire to build for, we can understand and define our limitations. While these limitations are sometimes clearly allocated and narrow, they still allow for much play. The ability for play is built into the allowances and tolerances within any system. The margin of error for these systems, both digital and analog, is where parasitic media will operate.

In North America, the freighthopper emerged with the creation of the expansive railroad system as a hobo (usually working very sporadically as itinerant farm hands for small amounts of cash) who would sneak onto trains and ride in open boxcars to their destinations. The success of their ventures relied on remaining invisible. They cost the railroads no extra effort - other than the cost of hiring train yard cops, known as bulls, to police the freighthoppers. The freighthopper was known as a freeloader that traveled the rails as an invisible extension or appendage of the trains feeding off of the railways mobility. The freighthopper is the folk version of a form of parasitic media response. This is a concept for conceptual piggybacking. If we take an example host being an existing railway system, we can build parasitic attachments (in the case of freighthopping, this is the hobo) that simply create added functionality. We hop on the train and ride the rails as far as we need to go. We avoid the "bulls" of the communication system train yards at all costs. Here we can use a comparison between freighthopping and hitchhiking to understand the relationship between parasite media and other forms of tactical media that rely on awareness. The tactic of the latter can very effectively make use of mainstream advertising or communication machines to dispense whatever chosen form of manipulation, gesture, or subversion. In The Freighthopper's Manual by Daniel Leen (pp 17-18) we are told that "the police are encountered less often on freights because freighthopping is essentially a private means of transportation, while hitchhiking is essentially public - you've got to stand out there on the side of the road in front of God and everybody." Parasitic media is the freighthopper that makes privacy essential. This privacy is the invisibility or the cloak that forms the definition of parasitic media response. Parasites are hobos that live off the rails of their hosts.

Parasitic response in media does not attempt to reassign function or modify primary usage. There is no threat to consumers of systems. Therefore these responses can fly under the radar of most monitoring systems. If nothing is disturbed, or at least knowledge of the disturbance is not transmitted, what you will have created is a backdoor or trapdoor to a system with your own set of predefined and augmented behaviors. The pattern of use for the system, whatever it might be, is not harmed or altered. This is critical to the concept of the parasite as activist. By adding functionality to a pre-existing system, you make use of only that which you create which in turn remains invisible. This means the parasite can then remain invisible; creating the semi-tangible notion of the ubiquitous backdoor.

It is possible to consider living parasites to be the most substantial group of activists in our world. Parasites make up the majority of species on Earth. Parasites can survive as animals, including flatworms, insects, and crustaceans, as well as protozoa, plants, fungi, viruses and bacteria. It is believed that parasites may now outnumber free-living species four to one. Parasites rule the earth and some believe have the ability to not only participate in evolution but guide it invisibly. We can take our cue for social intervention from the action of the parasite. As Carl Zimmer says in Do Parasites Rule the World? "every ecosystem on Earth is just as rife with parasites that can exert extraordinary control over their hosts, riddling them with disease, castrating them, or transforming their natural behavior" (Discover Vol 21 No.8 August 2000)

Parasites have the ability to manipulate the behavior of their hosts. There are two hosts available to a parasite that wishes to jump species, the upstream host which is usually directly controlled by the parasite and operates as a sort of delivery method, and the downstream host which seemingly behaves normally. It is believed by some that the downstream host is also manipulated by the parasite and may form a unique relationship with a parasite that enables the process of food gathering. This can be seen in certain parasites that infect fish. The parasite temporarily controls the behavior of its host to produce a flailing surface swimming target for birds. The birds benefit from the easy target of fish and as predators are surprisingly willing to ingest the parasitized fish. The parasite does drain a small amount of energy from the bird but that is easily offset by the benefit they provide. The relationship develops slowly and awareness becomes unimportant.

One amazing example of parasitic control of host behavior can be seen in the lancet fluke, Dicrocoelium dendriticum. As an adult, the parasite lives in a cow's liver. The fluke's egg's are spread by the cow through their manure. Snails feed on the manure and swallow the fluke's eggs. The young flukes penetrate the wall of the snail's gut and emigrate to the digestive gland. In the gland, the fluke's produce more offspring which travel to the surface of the snail's body where they are dispensed of by the snail through balls of slime which are left behind in grass. Ants swallow the balls of slime in the grass which are containers for hundreds of immature lancet flukes. The parasites slide into the ant's gut before traveling around the rest of the body. Eventually they move towards the cluster of nerves that control the ant's mandibles. Most of the flukes then leave to return to the gut while a few remain behind in the ant's head. This is where some of the most amazing maneuvering occurs. As the evening approaches, infected ants do not return back to the colony with the other ants but instead climb to the top of surrounding grasses where they clench their mandibles on the blades and wait, motionless, until morning when they join back with the rest of the colony. These ants suffer from a period of temporary insanity where they are awaiting ingestion by a cow - which feed generally in the cool evenings. Once eaten by the cow, the cycle has been completed.

Might we be able to control media or our hosts in the same way as the fluke that drives the ant to temporary insanity? These parasites, that some consider to be the dominant forces in evolution and adaptation, are completing revolutions on a daily basis. They work with limited opportunity and utilize what might be seen as their disabilities, to not only control their host but also social behavior. If we can adapt this understanding to our own infiltration of media systems we could use the power and the relationships that already exist as our carriers. As subversives and workers, we could mutate our hosts through an invisible invasion.

In an article entitled "Horizontal Gene Transfer," Dr. Mae-Wan Ho (New Evidence, May 12, 1998) examines a study conducted by researchers at Indiana University in 1998 that found a genetic parasite belonging to yeast that only recently was jumping into unrelated species of higher plants. "The parasite is a piece of DNA called a "group 1 intron" that can splice itself in and out of a particular gene in the genome of mitochondria." When the intron injects itself into a genome, it is able to add an extra stretch of DNA that does not belong to the host. The genetic parasite must overcome genetic barriers in the host that maintain distinctions in species. This same process may be responsible for the rise of diseases resistant to drug and antibiotic treatment. The parasites are learning. Genetic engineering uses artificial genetic parasites that operate as gene carriers. The carriers perform a horizontal gene transfer between unrelated species. The artificial genetic parasites are constructed of parts from the most aggressive naturally occurring parasites of which the group 1 intron is a member. It is still unclear what has caused the genetic parasite to leap onto higher level plants only recently, it does make us aware that parasites have learned the skill of adaptability for survival - so must activists and artists.

In parasitic computing, CHECKSUM running over a TCP (transmission control protocol) connection between multiple nodes or machines on the Internet is used to force solutions to mathematical problems. All the tasks are performed invisibly over the connected web servers. This operation is similar to the work done by the SETI@home program. SETI uses the computational power of computers that download its' software to search through immense amounts of radar data for intelligent extraterrestrial life. A program like SETI differs since its hosts are aware and volunteer to submit their resources to reach a common goal. While this is a useful tactic in some situations, it is not what we are developing with a parasitic response. A parasitic computational response would act without permission and would serve as a passive interaction of unawareness. In a natural environment, permission is not necessary. Parasites are criminals that violate the artificial construct of permission. Parasites rely on their ability to remain undetected or at least not worthy of concern. Don't ask, don't tell, and don't bother.

Here it is important to make a distinction between two types of parasitic media response; incident-based and generative. The first and most commonly practiced form is incident-based. Incident-based parasitic media response takes place in a very specific time and space. There is no need for the parasite to live longer than a few days or even a few seconds. The more complex system is generative parasitic media response. Generative parasites must adapt and grow with their host system. This growth creates an allowance for greater sustainability of backdoors or hijacks. A parasite need not take advantage of its host's vulnerability to hijack. It is in the best interest of the parasite to live and feed alongside its host. There might be other forms of parasitic response and media that will evolve with practice and discourse but for now it is critical to stress the separation of these two forms of behavior. The reason to create the separation is that while identifying both types of parasitic media responses, it is the generative or long term parasite that provides us with a tactic that has yet to be fully explored. It is important to detail and understand examples of incident-based parasitic media responses, but it is the generative parasite that has yet to be used as a tactical media response. This is the genre of parasite that coexists with its host and functions best over a long-term relationship. Both host and generative parasite grow together. It is the invisible parasite that feeds slowly off its host or extends abilities to its host that becomes accessible to outside users. The parasite either operates as an undetected and slowly emerging cellular shift in the organism, or as a backdoor to a host that provides extended functionality through invisible means. It might also be possible for a parasite designed to be incident-based to slowly evolve into a generative organism. Alternately, a parasite designed to be generative could die too soon or miss a level of adaptation. It will have served some function up until its point of separation from the host even in the event of an untimely demise. It is likely that given the speed at which communication systems and media reorder, many generative parasites will live fast and die young. It is the older media that might create better hosts for generative parasites. In using the term older media I am generically referring to anything from radio to electric companies to light bulbs to humans to insects to dirt to DNA. These may or may not fit all definitions of media, but they do have the possibility to become hosts for parasites.

Parasitic media does not need to occur within the realms of the electronic or computational; it can, and should exist at the cultural level as well. This model for tactical response can operate within all ranges of culture: the arts, the sciences, law and government. The criticality is to remain media unspecific and fluid. Each response, each parasite must understand its host prior to any form of invasion or invasive procedures. It is through an understanding of the operation of a host that a parasite can co-exist and adapt to its environment. The parasite does not attempt to change its host through destruction since its own survival is dependant on the existence of its host. It instead must learn to adapt to changes in the host's structure. The structure can mean its cellular makeup, its organization, or its bureaucracy. This is where a unique value can be understood for parasitic attacks. Because of the nature of the parasite, primarily I am referring to the needed invisibility; responses can be slow to develop. The growth of the parasite does become an exponential one; or at least has the power to do so. With an augmentation, the device or system as host will continue to grow. A critical part of parasitic response is its need to interpret and react to environmental variable shifts that might occur. Parasites would benefit from being able to adapt to changes in their host entity.

We must begin to radicalize our definition now. We must take the mundane parasite and split it into an attack across all medias. We must seek out hosts wherever they might be breathing. We must define now the industries and areas where parasitical media might be used as a form of response. I shall propose several names for distinctions between the genres of parasitic media that might be created: Slicing Parasites, Human Host Parasites, Soft Parasites, Hard Parasites, Memetic Parasites. Ideally these distinctions will blur themselves and new criteria will emerge. This exercise is used as a method for stimulating concrete thought of what a parasitic media response could actuate itself as. These are only sketches of deployment methodology. In any war, the weapons but be chosen appropriately and creatively. The parasite becomes both consumer and producer.

Parasitic media response is a practice that may not need such definitions. It has existed forever and at the same time is an infant. Finding new tools and choosing our weapons appropriately is the charge of the tactical media activist. Our weapons in the case of the tactic of parasitic media response are non-traditional. They are hidden from the views of the public and of the institutions of academia and the arts and sciences. They must remain hidden - their development and survival depend upon it. Parasitic approaches to media manipulation or extension is an area that demands much further experimentation. These experiments need not be technical. They can be as simple as vocalizing a concept or as difficult as creating transgenic organisms. These are all acceptable tactics for radical and parasitical behavior. We are in a period of tactical expression that is undergoing a transformation from an engineering model to a biological model, from logic to interpretation, from hard to soft. As this shift occurs, we are given an opportunity to reassert the aims of our practice while claiming the tactics of the parasite as our own media creation tool - a parasitic media.

In a time of renewed repression of political dissent, we must look to bacteria as our key to survival. Our fight is theirs. While radicals might appear to lack the capital or the voice afforded the ruling body, we are a critical appendage. We can invade our hosts as parasites. We can turn traitor and rise up in violent fashion with a gun held against the head of a genetic strand. We can mask ourselves as parasites. Invisibility is our savior. We can slay the beast from the inside out. The criticality is in remaining hidden when inside the belly of the beast. The beast is not the host itself but the functionality of the host. The parasite can operate within the host to slowly create a cellular shift in its' primary usage. It is through a long cancer-like growth that the parasite can slowly alter the construction of its host. The generative parasitic media response that I am defining may not affect many immediate results. The incident based parasitic media that creates additional functionality or added usage for a host may eventually build its adaptation into the base makeup of its host. Rather than rely on an immediate revolution, these tactics are a form of molecular revolution that take much planning, skill, and patience. There value will be determined with time. Like the mythical Jonah who was swallowed by a whale, we will tear our way out from the inside and survive longer than three days and three nights inside the belly of the host creature. This is the cry for a parasitic revolution.

I leave you with a quote from Dumont in the 1982 Disney techno-classic movie Tron. "All that is visible must grow beyond itself, and extend into the realm of the invisible."

September 2002, revisited April 2003. The extended version of this essay includes examples of actions that fit into the categories of Slicing Parasites, Human Host Parasites, Soft Parasites, Hard Parasites, and Memetic Parasites and is available online at www.carbondefense.org. Carbon Defense League is part of the Hactivist Tactical Media Network.

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