The VX scene
By Massimo Ferronato, [epidemiC] crew
A virus is a program capable of altering other programs, including a copy of itself, through infection.
The term virus proposed by Fred Cohen at the seminar on safety held at UCLA in 1983, although now inadequate to cover the numerous variants of viruses that currently exist, is accepted as standard. The study proposed a model for a program that could self-reproduce and spread and which could be used to attack any computer system. Some computers were infected by a series of programmes specially created for the occasion, demonstrating the speed and effectiveness with which they spread.
While Cohen was clear about the risk of introducing viruses into the world of information technology, he could never have imagined the sociological impact they would have in a matter of years. 1987 saw the spread of the first virus outside a laboratory, or ”in the wild” to use IT jargon. Viruses are the most complicated programmes, partly because of their small size. The sheer quantity of knowledge used in their compilation puts them out of the reach of most programmers. It takes the top minds in the world’s programmers’ clubs to cope with such a high degree of difficulty.
The top minds in the top clubs: the scene
The scene is the term commonly used to refer to groups of programmers considered together. Various scenes exist, the best known being Demo, which creates programmes for the production of sounds and images, Warez, which circulates software, and the VX scene, which produces and circulates replicating programmes or viruses.
The Demo scene, probably the most interesting in terms of the quality of the results, catalogues the production of the various groups in watertight categories, where programme size and the architecture employed cannot be chosen at random. Each scene comprises a large number of groups – rarely individuals – that have a passionate interest in advanced programming techniques. They have their own deontological code, failure to respect which leads to their work not being recognised.
The scenes have no central organization, but are linked to Internet portals, which make possible information exchange, the circulation of their work, and their consequent identification by the other groups. Unlike the illegal scenes (VX and Warez) Demo also has a life outside the Web. The members of the various groups meet at periodical gatherings organized by the main group of the host town or city, to exchange information on latest technologies, organize seminars and take part in various competitions for the selection of the best work projects of those taking part.
The scene creates its own legends
Anyone wishing to becoming a member of one of the top (or ”elite”) groups must be able to demonstrate their skills and expertise, and admission is by no means easy. Forming contacts with the VX groups is clearly difficult, requiring a long period of training and independent production. Aspirants do not ask to become members, but are invited to join. Those who are admitted are in a position to acquire the common core of cultural knowledge that has been built up over the years by the various members.
Features common to all the groups include an excellent level of knowledge, a profound esteem of the elite groups, a passionate desire to find the best techniques for solving a given problem, and an aesthetic approach to programming that can be described as the assumed link between the beauty of the code and the result it produces.
Programming is not seen as a means for producing art but an art form in its own right, valued using criteria of beauty, elegance, proportion and effectiveness. The scene enables these aesthetic tools to be shared with others, and creates a strong sense of belonging to a minority group, avoiding all forms of proselytization. Beginners are not admitted to the scenes; a good capacity for self-teaching, a set of knowledge and a degree of total involvement are required. Anyone failing to meet these requirements is excluded as someone unable to perceive the movement and its values. The scene ignores the production process, the results obtained cannot be marketed, no one expects to derive any income from the work they put into it. Events are publicized through precise, recognized élitist mechanisms. ”Assembly”, the main gathering of the Demo scene is held annually in Helsinki, convoking over 4,000 people through website messages of the member groups. The scene creates its own legends, the ”sceners”, and their own language, the ”code”; they are difficult to locate and comprehend from the outside, where the names of the most famous groups and programmers are unknown.
The sense of belonging to a world apart is further reinforced by the use of technologies superseded in the official information technology world, such as extremely difficult-to-learn programming jargon (Assembler). The choice is not that of adopting the most sophisticated technology, but of working in a sophisticated way on the technology, with a virtuosity that shuns simplification and redundancy, creating the best solution, the best program, and the most elegant code. The viruses are a manifestation of creative brainwork, which projects the name of its creator in the scene and in the outside world, a replicant capable of travelling in a way that sends out a message about the accomplishments of its inventor.