The legendary virus Ebola. It's just a bunch of code, if you really think about it. But then, so are the sequences of letters comprising the words you're reading right now, right?

The legendary virus Ebola. It's just a bunch of code, if you really think about it. But then, so are the sequences of letters comprising the words you're reading right now, right?

It’s just a bunch of code, really. A virus isn’t even alive, at least by conventional definitions. It’s a string of genetic material protected by a protein coating. It doesn’t move around on its own accord; it doesn’t make plans. It exists, and because it exists, things happen.

When a virus gets into a cell, its protein capsule can open up for various reasons. When it does, the enclosed genetic code gets a chance to interact with the world around it. That’s the moment of transformation.

Is the virus choosing to transform nearby cells, or are the codes comprising the essence of the overall virus ultimately responsible? The question may be moot, a distinction without a difference. Whether there’s a moment of intentionality when a virus affects surrounding cells or there’s simply an inevitable, unintentional result when viral instructions spill out and start functioning is a question (in the context of this essay) for philosophers. What matters here is that in the world where those viruses simply exist, those snippets of code change things.

The common understanding is that viruses generally damage cells and organisms where they’re found. It’s as if the injection of new rules in the form of viral instructions disrupts a stable system, causing chaos. Think of what would happen if there were a spontaneous infusion of new traffic rules into the middle of a busy city. Sudden calamity would befall a complex system simply because new rules would destabilize expectations. Cars might accelerate as lights turned red, which, in turn, would cause bigger problems.

Often that’s what happens when virus interact with hosts. New code starts running inside a system and various levels of chaos issue. It might not always be calamitous chaos, however.  Evolutionary science suggests something more nuanced, more essential. Where viruses are often injurious, even lethal to host organisms, they may also be forces of profound change over time. New instructions carried by these tiny, nearly inert packages of protein-coated genes can cause adaptation, transformation, and ultimately innovation. New code, delivered in a protected package to the heart of a functioning system, can be the seeds of change. Organisms that can adapt continue. Those that can’t…don’t.

A new idea is like a virus for a creative person. An idea may lie dormant, inert and ineffective, surrounded by ordinary life. It may sit there waiting for a spark to break it out of its shell, ready to be activated, capable of influence. It may sit there and do nothing at all, or it may exert some measure of temporary influence, ultimately acting as an irrelevant force, a mouse pushing on a boulder, going nowhere.

But sometimes, sometimes, an idea gets inside and causes change. Like a virus, it can be transmitted by the most tangential contact or it can be introduced by dramatic events. It can be practically invisible, something that doesn’t look like anything relevant until it fully expresses itself, growing and expanding in unexpected ways. Like a virus, an idea doesn’t look like much without the context of the place and time where it interacts with the world.

An idea is nothing more than coded information. It’s weightless; it exists outside of time and space even as it interacts with us here, in the real world.  It’s a mechanism that takes the world we know and adds something destabilizing. An idea is a source of change. Change can kill you, no doubt. But change can also be the moment that transforms what came before into what comes next.

@michaelstarobin    OR

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