Software updates are flu shots


A nice metaphor for software updates.

Flu shots attempt to immunize people from the influenza virus, by exposing their immune systems to small doses of weakened or dead virus molecules. The idea is that this gives the immune system a “practise run” with a less-dangerous version of the influenza virus the patient might run into, later that year.

The situation is complicated by the fact that there are countless strains of flu, because the virus isn’t actually very good at copying itself accurately. When people with the flu sneeze, the viruses they expel will have already mutated from when they contracted it. To use the scientific jargon,

“…each daughter virus has an average of 1.34 to 1.52 mutations! The superfast mutation rate of influenza is what fuels its ability to evolve and adapt, overcoming the immune system’s method of recognizing old pathogens.”

Software updates — anti-virus updates in particular — serve much the same function: they create a moving target, which hopefully stays a step ahead of software viruses, which can take control of a computer in much the same way that parasites can “hack” their hosts, and change their behaviour.

Parasites “hack” human behaviour too — toxoplasma gondii is a well-known example — with all the collateral implications for the concept of free will. In addition to a host of terrible diseases, the parasite may make people more likely to take risks, not unlike what it does to rats. (Infected rats seem to behave more recklessly, among other things losing their fear of cat odours: getting the rat eaten is a way for the protozoan to get back into a cat, its favoured host species.)

On a personal level, given the “don’t-try-this-at-home-kids” characteristics of my investment strategies since we adopted our cat, I wonder if I’m one of the roughly one-third of people who host this “friend”-with-benefits…  :)

And just as a flu shot gives our immune system a chance to develop antibodies which will detect and defeat the flu strains to which we’re exposed — as well as close mutations — updates give our O/S or software the ability to neutralize the viruses / trojans / malware which they target, as well as any closely-related variants which run closely-similar scripts.  (If my understanding is correct.)

This is probably a good time to remind readers that the historical/mythical Trojan Horse was not a big wooden horse, but more likely a wooden battering Ram. Switch mammals and you get a wooden battering Horse, then add a few hundred years for legends to accrue in a Greek society which lost all its siege-warfare skills — seriously, they were hopeless besiegers — and you can see how tales of a wooden Horse ending a siege could be re-imagined as some sort of horse made out of wood.

The software update / flu shot analogy is imperfect — among other things, genetic variation among life-forms has no software analog — but is probably good enough to be functional. Or at a minimum, drive a bit of thought about the ways biology reflects and refracts itself, in our innumerable human endeavours.

I do wonder if people would be more likely to install and/or update anti-virus software, if it were marketed with a flu shot analogy.

Admittedly, given the nonsensical, false superstitions about vaccinations some people hold (which seem to be a case of people’s distrust of Big Pharma companies metastasizing into a distrust of evidence-based medicine — preventable flu deaths rose by the equivalent of twelve 9/11 terrorist attacks per year in first-world Japan, after mandatory immunization programs fell prey to fearmongering) … software firms might think twice about such a marketing strategy.

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