Of Bugs and Rats: Cyber-cleanliness, Cyber-squalor, and the Fantisies of Globalization

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Harpold, Terry
Philip, Kavita
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"KAMPALA, Oct 13, 1998 (Reuters) - Thousands of Ugandan students are unsure whether they have won university places after rats chewed through computer cables at the National Examination Board causing the system to crash, a newspaper reported on Tuesday. The New Vision Daily said senior board officials were very concerned that rodents were able to infiltrate areas holding such vital information. The hitch has affected students who were to be placed in teacher training colleges, polytechnics and medical institutions. It is not the first time that rats have eaten away at important installations in Uganda. Earlier this year they chewed through telecommunications wires, cutting off phone links to parts of western Uganda and Rwanda. Last week a workshop on law reform heard that reams of vital computerised court evidence had been lost in the same way." Coiled within the cybercultural discourse that pronounces the ends of history, the nation-state, and anti-modernity, lie tropes rooted in high colonialism. Nineteenth-century Indian social reformer Swami Vivekananda characterised the European view of his country thus: "... three hundred million souls, ... swarming on the body of India, like so many worms on a rotten, stinking carcase." (East and West, 1901) The "cleanliness versus filth" binary that structured nineteenth-century Europeans' experiences in the tropics is repeated, we argue, in certain late twentieth-century narratives of cybernetic progress -- feeding on and quelling anxieties associated with fantasies of globalization, binding tropes of cleanliness and filth to spectres of racialized identity and technological primitiveness. Symbolic of the association of technological advancement with "purity" is the "clean room." The term is widely used to describe both the hyper-sterile environments in which computer hardware is designed and manufactured; and the rigorous engineering control and extreme sequestering of software research projects, so as to reduce defects and provide protection from patent-infringement litigation. We discuss the "clean room" as a figure for a late-twentieth century obsession to eliminate the messy, abject materiality of the "natural," in favor of a dematerialized, sterile space of the "virtual." We describe this insistence on cyber-cleanliness (and on the suppression of its opposite, "cyber-squalor") as a founding concept of cyberculture in general, and in particular, of its depictions of the benefits of cyberculture in the developing world.
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