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A Virtual Life. An Actual Death

A Virtual Life. An Actual Death. Photo credit: markmeadows.com

Carmen Hermosillo (aka humdog, aka wolftone, aka Montserrat Snakeankle, aka Sparrowhawk Perhaps) died on the 10th of August, 2008. She was found in her Northern California apartment face down on her bed. Jack, her black Lab, was waiting at the door when she was found by the building manager. Her death certificate (Santa Cruz County, #08-07590) says that there was neither biopsy nor autopsy, but the official cause of death was cardiac arrhythmia and lupus erythematosus. Other factors were involved. For several years, because of the effects of her lupus, Carmen had been taking medication that kept her heart pumping. Once upon a time she said — as a joke, we guess — that if she ever wanted to die, she just had to stop taking her heart meds.

Was it passive suicide? The evidence is circumstantial, but compelling. Her online accounts, profiles, and avatars — at least 9 of them — had been canceled in the days before she died.

It might be clear what had happened, but the more urgent question is why it happened, and as it turns out, understanding this requires a journey into a deep rabbit hole involving over a decade of online life, virtual relationships, BDSM roleplay, and a virtual island Kingdom. And at the end of journey, one confronts a single frightening truth:

The thing that killed Carmen was the thing she spent her entire online life warning us about.

We met Carmen Hermosillo in 1993 on an electronic conferencing system called the WELL. The WELL (short for Whole Earth ‘Lectonic Link) was spawned by Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue and was populated by lots of granola crunching, fattie-huffing techie visionaries ranging from Howard Rheingold to Mitch Kapor to John Perry Barlow. The official dogma of the WELL was that electronic communities were supposed to move us all into a new utopia of virtual barn raisings, thoughtful online salons, and democratic town hall meetings. Or that was the dogma before Carmen appeared under the name ‘humdog’ and called BS on the whole thing.

In an essay called Pandora’s Vox, she vented:

A Virtual Life. An Actual Death. Photo credit: markmeadows.comThe WELL occupies an interesting niche in the electronic-community marketplace. It markets itself as a conferencing system for the literate, bookish and creative individual. It markets itself as an agent for social change, and it is, in reality, calvinist and more than a little green. The WELL is also afflicted with an old fashioned hippie aura that lead to some remarkably touching ideas about society and culture. No one, by the way, should kid themselves that the WELL is any different than bigger services like America OnLine or Prodigy. All of these outfits are businesses and all of these services are owned by large corporations. The WELL is just, by reason of clunky interface, a little bit less obvious about it.

Carmen offered several critiques of the WELL and virtual life more generally, but two of them were always front and center. First and foremost, Carmen warned against the illusion of genuineness in virtual relationships.  Drawing on an example from WELL history, she laid out how easy it is to mistake the symbols projected in virtual worlds for something real. Or as she put it: we are tempted to “invest the simulacrum with the weight of reality.” In an essay called Pandora’s Vox, she illustrated the dangers.

In July of 1993, in a case that received national media coverage, a man’s reputation was destroyed on the WELL, by WELLpeople, because he had dared to have a relationship with more than one woman at the same time, and because he did not conform to WELL social protocol. [...] the issues held within the topic, called News 1290,(now archived) were very complex and spoke to the heart of the problem of cyberspace: the desire to invest the simulacrum with the weight of reality.

The women involved in 1290 accepted the attention of the man simultaneously on several levels: most importantly, they believed in the reality of his sign and invested it with meaning. They made love to his sign and there is no doubt that the relationship affected them and that they felt pain and distress when it ended badly. At the same time it appears that the man involved did not invest their signs with the same meaning that they had his, and it is also clear that all parties did not discuss their perceptions of one another. Consequently the miscommunication that occurred was ascribed to the man’s exploitation of the women he was involved with, and a conclusion was made that he had used them as sexual objects. The women, for their parts, were comfortable in the role of victim and so the games began.

Of the hundreds of voices heard in this topic, only a very few were astute enough to express the idea that the events had been in actuality caused more by the medium than by the persons who suffered the consequences of the events. Persons of that view addressed the ideas of "missing cues" like body language, tone of voice, and physical appearance. None of this, they said, is present in cyberspace, and so people create unrealistic images of the Other.

A Virtual Life. An Actual Death. Photo credit: markmeadows.comCarmen was attuned to this issue because she had learned these lessons the hard way; she had her heart broken by an online associate. Her semiotics-based ASCII-consummated love affair caused her to leave The WELL twice. Each time she stomped out of the community in a huff and bitched about it for a number of weeks or months, then eventually come back. When she did finally come back after her second departure, she had a new point of view about The WELL. It was then that she saw it was not a comfy little hippie hangout. It was not a writers-den-cum-smoking-lounge. No, she came to see The WELL as a soul-sucking capitalist factory. Indeed, the problem was not simply that people were mistaking the virtual for the real in their relationships, but that by playing out this drama on public chat boards, they were turning their emotional lives into product for the platform owner. They were commodifying themselves.

"I have seen many people spill their guts on-line, and I did so myself until, at last, I began to see that I had commodified myself. Commodification means that you turn something into a product which has a money-value. I created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board I was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment. that means that I sold my soul like a tennis shoe, and I derived no profit from the sale of my soul."

Once again, Carmen went to the WELL archives to document the phenomenon, this time using the example of an outbreak of virtual mothering on The WELL:

In October of 1994, couples topic 163 was opened. In this topic, user Z came on to discuss her marital problems, which involved a daughter who was emotionally disturbed. It began in a very ordinary way for this type of thing, with the woman asking for and receiving advice about what to do. In just a few days, though, the situation escalated, and the woman put another voice on the wire, who was alleged to be her daughter, X. The alleged daughter exposed her problems and expressed her feelings about them, and the problems appeared to be life-threatening. This seemed to set something off within the conference, and a real orgy began as voices began to appear to express their identification with the mysterious and troubled daughter X. The nature of the identifications and the tone of the posts became stranger and stranger and finally user Z set the frightening crown upon the whole situation by posting a twistedly lyrical monologue of maternal comfort and consolation directed at the virtual Inner Children who had appeared to take refuge within her soft, enveloping arms. The more that the Inner Children wept, the more that the Virtual Mommy lyricized and comforted. This spectacle, which horrified more than one trained mental health professional who read it on the WELL, went on and on for several days and was discussed privately in several places in disbelieving tones. When the topic imploded, the Virtual Mommy withdrew reluctantly insisting that only a barbarian would believe that she would commodify her own tragedy.

A Virtual Life. An Actual Death. Photo credit: markmeadows.comCarmen wasn’t finished. Not only were people commodifying themselves, but their commodification had a long tail. Their inner personal lives would remain product for the platform owners long after they had passed on.

Carmen’s vox immediately set off a firestorm of anger. Understandably, people do not like being told that they were commodifying their inner lives, for that puts them on a level with the guests of Jerry Springer and Montel Williams, giving up their personal anguish for the entertainment of the masses and to harvest eyeballs for advertisers.

Soon enough, nearly every discussion thread exploded into flame wars when humdog appeared. Following humdog around the discussion threads on the WELL was like following a pyrotechnic magician. Threads burst into insane flame wars as soon as she appeared.

Many years and hundreds of flame wars later, Carmen found herself in Second Life. Second Life, for those who don’t know, is an online, graphically-based virtual world. Users are given the ability to create whatever content they chose. They can build objects of any shape, texture them, and even script them. Some users buy virtual land, terraform it, and built architectural structures ranging from castles and dungeons to Levittown suburban “little boxes.”

Carmen didn’t just build a house. She enlisted a small army of friends and acquaintances to help her terraform and build a breathtakingly beautiful medieval French city on her private island. It was soon populated with a variety of Second Life characters who took up station in an intricate roleplaying game that had dukes and knights and security personal and even an admiral. The build and the subjects of Carmen’s Kingdom became the subject of the book "I, Avatar" — a real world missive that Carmen contributed to (written by one of the authors, Mark Meadows) — in both plan and execution.

Some of the members of the kingdom, like her, had deep experience with telecommunications technologies and semiotics, and, like her they were looking to engage and be engaged. There was much to be built; and many of these people were inventors. If you were hanging around in there, it was likely you would eventually run into someone interesting. One of the interesting individuals Carmen met was a fellow named Riz.

Physical-world Riz, or whomever drove his avatar, was, from what we can tell, one of these silver-backed, deep-geeked tech heads, an old-school D&D dungeon master who had gotten hold of a technology that allowed him to put his considerable abilities to work in a world that he was helping develop. One of the things he was helping develop was a role-play system. But the two of them were soon sucked into an already extant massive roleplay community known as Gor.

Strictly speaking, Gor is a fictional place in a series of science fiction novels written by John Norman. The best known book is titled The Slaves of Gor, and the novels are about a planet where there is institutionalized sexual slavery. The impact of these books in online worlds like Second Life is mind blowing. There are around 300 islands in second life dedicated to Gorean roleplay, and by some estimates around 50,000 unique individuals engaged in Gorean roleplay. But what is Gorean roleplay?

A Virtual Life. An Actual Death. Photo credit: markmeadows.comGorean communities in Second Life vary widely in their practices (by which we mean by the strictness with which they adhere to the Norman canon), but certain themes dominate. In general, Gorean masters take slaves who are to serve them sexually (in this case via cybersex). The Second Life slaves are attired in I-dream-of-Genie attire, and kneel at their masters feet until such time as they are asked to speak or otherwise service their masters.

Some Gorean communities keep scriptoriums with important documents that include ownership papers. Beyond that, a rich set of cultural practices has emerged, including the development of Gorean language (for example, the Gorean word for female slave is ”kajira”), protocols for interacting socially, dances, and music. Perhaps the most telling cultural product is the “collar” –- when a master takes a slave he collars her (or him in the case of a male slave) in a robustly detailed ceremony. Carmen and Riz became deeply involved with Gor (he the master and she the kajira).

Carmen’s relationship with Riz extended out of the virtual world and into the physical world (they spoke on the phone, sometimes several times a day), and it is clear that Carmen fell deeply in love with Riz . Her friends waited for the relationship to collapse and for her to leave Second Life, and she was warned more than once about what seemed to be looming.

She was quite conscious of what she was doing. In fact, she seemed to be pushing herself further and further into the relationship and into the Gor lifestyle so as to see it more and more deeply. She wrote an article for the Second Life Herald titled “Confessions of a Gorean Slave” in which she detailed her experiences as a slave in Second Life. As always, her vision was from the inside and unflinchingly personal.

“The psychological and emotional requirements exacted by the [slave] collar are such that they are also not easily left in-world, if, in fact they can be left in world at all. One astute Master has written: ‘You should realize that when you put a collar on somebody, even online, you are, in fact, fucking around with a person’s real life.’ I am not going to dispute the words of an experienced Master. I am just going to say: so much for the myth of in-world only."

Simply put, Carmen spent way too much time in there, and things were getting weird.

For example, Carmen had become arm-wavingly passionate about setting up a sort of halfway house for abused slaves that the Gorean play groups had chewed up and spit out. Carmen went so far as to hire — and pay — a psychologist to come in-world and talk to these “girls” (they may well have been men), to help them get over the misuse their “masters” had played out on them. So, like a world made of onion skins, psychological layers of role-play were wrapping around the already visually layered “worlds” that everyone agreed were real because, well, they were.

A Virtual Life. An Actual Death. Photo credit: markmeadows.comCarmen finished the above essay, “Confessions of a Gorean Slave”, with the following line:

"Several people in SL have commented to me that they expect, at some point, to hear that someone has committed suicide over events/relationships in SL… Think about it."

Of course, in a fictional psych ward on a virtual island in a make-believe France in a replica of a science fiction slave-trade world based on John Norman’s novels — well, there was plenty to think about. But Carmen’s warning rang clear through the cacophony.

Two years of this emotional tension went on. Many advised her to back up… “Unplug. Rest. Take a break.”

Carmen was too engaged to have any of that “unplug” silliness. It’s like someone telling you to stop talking with humans for a few weeks; it’s not something we do. Too much of her life was there, too many lessons were being learned, and, most of all, she was discovering what she needed to warn us about. It was her job — she was sniffing out, as a dog does.

But the first to warn are the first affected.

In July, 2008, things were going bad for Carmen. Work was not going well. Her mother had died. She’d recently moved, and she was not getting along with her sister (who had no idea what Carmen was doing in Second Life or the many other virtual worlds Carmen frequented, calling them “That computer puppet-game you play”). Carmen was applying for jobs and waiting to get some response, but nothing was coming. She was finding herself in an increasingly tight space in the physical world. Consequently she turned to her virtual world for the space she needed.

We all need distraction and entertainment when we’re down. Culturally speaking, entertainment media have made fat cash in fiscally lean times, and during wartime, too. When we humans get depressed, we go see films, read, watch television, or log into Second Life to relieve our hearts from the burdens of the physical world. It happened in the 1930’s, and it has happened during every economic slowdown, depression, or time of cultural decline. (During the Great Depression,box-office receipts in 1933 bottomed out at $480 million, but as the Depression continued they recovered to nearly double that ($810m) by 1941.) So Carmen did just that; she escaped a bit. Or tried to.

The escape to the virtual world came crashing down on her when Riz disappeared on her — in effect, he dumped her. She had been rejected by her Gorean master. Riz would leave her hanging for weeks at a time, unclear whether he was coming to spend time with her in their fictional world, vague about his health, and non-committal about his investment in the relationship. The result was that Carmen became increasingly panicked and off balance.

A Virtual Life. An Actual Death. Photo credit: markmeadows.comTwo weeks later, during the afternoon of August, 8, she began deleting her accounts and then (apparently having gone off her heart medication), passed away on the bed in her California home.

One’s first thought is how could she — off all people — come to this end? How could she not see that she was following in the footsteps of the women in topic 1290 on the WELL. Carmen’s own words seemed especially poignant.

[They] accepted the attention of the man simultaneously on several levels: most importantly, they believed in the reality of his sign and invested it with meaning. They made love to his sign and there is no doubt that the relationship affected them and that they felt pain and distress when it ended badly. At the same time it appears that the man involved did not invest their signs with the same meaning.

But of course Carmen’s tremendous vision — the reason she understood the dangers of virtual life so well — was that she was intimately involved. Her warnings were not the warnings of an outsider, but the warnings of someone who knew. She was not above it all; she was wrapped up in the drama and the dangers and just as susceptible to mistaking the simulacrum for the real as the women in 1290. What set her apart was her ability to tell the story from the inside. She could not escape the siren call of the simulacrum, but she could warn us of its pernicious effects.

As noted earlier, before she died Carmen wiped a number of her online accounts but as she herself warned, the things we say and do have a way of lingering in cyberspace. Her island still stands in Second Life, maintained by friends. Her writings survive in chat logs, on bulletin boards, and of course (the irony is not lost on us, nor would it be lost on her) in this online article. Her story continues to draw eyeballs to online sites, even in her death.

Almost exactly one year after Carmen’s death, Pixeleen Mistral, the editor of The Second Life Herald was on Facebook and received an automated friend suggestion: Facebook was suggesting she friend Carmen (Carmen’s account was apparently still alive).

Pixeleen could not help but note the irony herself, and posted a story about the Facebook suggestion complete a link to Carmen’s Vox, written after one of her departures from the WELL. The piece was written in 1994, but it was like Carmen was speaking from beyond the grave.

I suspect that my words have been extracted and that when this essay shows up, they will be extracted some more. When I left cyberspace, I left early one morning and forgot to take out the trash. Two friends called me on the phone afterwards and said, hummie your directory is still there. And I said OH. And they knew and I knew, that it was possible that people had been entertaining themselves with the contents of my directories.

Mark Stephen Meadows is an American author, artist and engineer. Peter Ludlow is a Philosopher at Northwestern University.