Let's take a moment to appreciate the brutal sexual politics of the love virus.

Published May 10, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

In the days after a computer virus is unleashed, we've come to expect the same scene. A hacker is led away in handcuffs. Detailed accounts are released about his dreams of mayhem (typically petty), his juvenile erotic fantasies, his pathetic life. He never has ideas or ambitions. He's just a boy, staging little battles against authority -- and women. There's a vaguely rapist mentality at work in such incidents: The perpetrator is bent on forced intrusion. But in the history of crime, these guys are barely worth mentioning.

The 'ILOVEYOU' virus has changed all that. It's important to take a moment to appreciate the most costly "bug" in the history of cyberspace. Real psychological insight went into the design. Emotions were used and manipulated with precision. No lone masturbatory hacker was behind this one. It was, very likely, a woman. And if it wasn't a woman, it was a creature even more dangerous: a man who thinks like one.

The computer virus, to date, has suffered from a lack of finesse characteristic of ordinary men. A year ago, for example, the "Melissa" virus (named after a stripper) presented itself as an "important message" from a friend. Once opened it said, "Here is the document you asked for ... don't show anyone else." The attached document showed a list of passwords to porn sites. So tedious. So banal.

More prominent viruses since then have been, in artistic terms, even worse. One virus imitated the Y2K bug -- yawn. The "Bubbleboy" virus (named after an episode of "Seinfeld") featured striking technical innovations but was aimed only at mocking the defenses of Microsoft Outlook. Virus authors, en masse, seem to think that the dominance of Bill Gates in cyberspace is the one issue worth making a statement about. They have no largeness of purpose, no sense of mission.

But the virus that crippled the world last week was sheer art, a poem enclosing a disease. Every detail was perfect. Even the capitalization and lack of spaces -- ILOVEYOU -- made the apparent confession seem rushed, urgent, heartfelt. And underneath was the cruel awareness that for love -- or, rather, the promise of love, the thin hint of love -- the defenses of maturity fall away. Love will conquer all, and the lover first.

"The people who got bitten by the lovebug virus remind me of a 15-year-old girl whose boyfriend promises to love her forever if she'll just have sex with him," says Wendy Keller, author of "The Cult of the Born-Again Virgin." In this virus, we see a time-tested truth illustrated once again: Passion regresses us to childhood. Everyone from diplomats and generals to lowly office workers fell prey to this Freudian magic.

Great statements on love recognize this duality: We see a path is wrong but take it anyway. "And though I never cease complaining of her/I swear I cannot manage not to love her," Alceste says in "The Misanthrope." We are not compelled to love -- the rub is that we act on our own. And the danger even intensifies the wish.

Such themes have largely fallen out of public consciousness. The love virus hints at older truths. For the ancient Greeks, as Bruce S. Thornton writes in "Eros," "sexual desire is a plague, a syndrome like AIDS that attacks the body and mind on several different fronts, ultimately leading, as with Heracles and Phaedra, to death." Or to $10 billion in damages, which actually impresses us more.

Reports over the weekend indicated that the virus' author was a woman. Now the Philippine police say they suspect that the virus was created by a group of people. The crucial question facing us, then, is who will play the enamored hacker in the movie version.

I really think the role belongs to a woman.

In the history of art, great manipulators have always been female. Think Catherine Tramell in "Basic Instinct" or the Marquise de Merteuil in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." Women, not men, are the masters of treachery, ruse and the attending heartbreak in the history of love. They're truly impressive. And even when men rise to such levels of craft, they give credit where it's due. "Oh, women, women!" Valmont says to the marquise. "Every treachery we employ is stolen from you."

I, for one, want to give this person a hearty thank you. With this latest virus we were reminded of things we'd rather forget. "Happy love has no history," Denis de Rougemont tells us in his great, dark tome "Love in the Western World." In cyberspace, despite the space between bodies, that history will be no different.

By Jonathan Poletti

Jonathan Poletti is a freelance writer in Seattle.

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