by Alphaville Herald on 15/08/08 at 7:09 pm
The Herald is sorry to report that Carmen Hermosillo (aka humdog, aka Montserrat Tovar, aka Montserrat Snakeankle, aka Sparrowhawk Perhaps) has died irl. Below the fold are my memories of Carmen, starting from when I met her on the WELL back in 1993. Others of you will have very different memories of her because you knew her in very different ways. Please feel free to add some remarks in the comment section.
I met Carmen Hermosillo in 1993. That was before Al Gore invented the internet. We used things like telephones and modems and we used 1200 baud modems to call in to stand-alone bulletin boards and we chatted in ascii. Still, it was a thrill. Carmen and I bumped into each other 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 visionaries ranging from Howard Rheingold to Mitch Kapor and John Perry Barlow. It was supposed to raise us all into a universal harmony of well-hole consciousness. And then Carmen, in the guise of her avatar humdog, called BS on the whole thing. In an essay called Pandora’s Vox, she vented:
the 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.
This was the WELL that I knew too. But then there was the Mondo 2000 conference on the WELL. It wasn’t populated by fattie huffing hippies so much as designer drug chuffing yippies and hyper-cynical degenerates, all presided over by Mondo Editor R.U. Sirius and his merry band of sycophants fueled by cocktails of smart drugs, endless nights of lucid dreaming, the music of Mondo Vanilli, and visions of a future in which a nano technology accident would turn the surface of the Earth into key lime pie.
The Mondo conference was her base I believe; it was certainly mine. These were the people that Carmen was drawn to because they didn’t see the developing internet through the rose colored glasses that Howard Rheingold and most well-holes did. These people had a more jaundiced view of what was emerging. They would venture into the larger WELL community to challenge the conventional wisdom, and to engage in some classic flame wars. And oh the flame wars we saw then; back when a flame war meant more than an endless exchange of the words ‘fail’ and ‘yiff in hell, furfag’. This is when people with unbounded energy, stunning literary powers, and absolutely no filters whatsoever would rail at each other for days at a time. Mike Godwin, Mark Dery, Gareth Branwyn, the notorious boswell, the Mondo crew, and others made for one of the most vicious yet enlightened salons in the history of the world.
I would say that Carmen thrived here, but I should also note that she had a knack for pouring gasoline on the fire. She wasn’t trying to be a troll; she just had a tendency to personalize attacks on her position, and to return the attack at intensity X2. Many discussion threads spun out of control with her in the mix. But she never backed down and never walked away from a flame war. It should also be observed that her observations cut straight to the core of people’s online lives and all that those people had invested in those virtual lives. Where many saw love, Carmen saw a confusion of a projected image with an actual person. Where many saw an open sharing of problems and feelings, Carmen saw people commodifying themselves — turning their personal lives into freak shows that would bring eyeballs to corporate owned bulletin boards. In Carmen’s words (from Pandora’s Vox):
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. in the nineteenth century, commodities were made in factories, which karl marx called “the means of production.” capitalists were people who owned the means of production, and the commodities were made by workers who were mostly exploited. 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.
and she illustrated it with some examples from WELL history that tore the place apart. For example:
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.
…Couples 163 was killed. that means it was destroyed, and does not exist at all anymore, except on back- up tape or in the hard disks of those persons (like me) who downloaded it for their own reasons. what i am getting at here is that electronic community is a commercial enterprise that dovetails nicely with the increasing trend towards dehumanization in our society: it wants to commodify human interaction, enjoy the spectacle regardless of the human cost. if and when the spectacle proves incovenient or alarming, it engages in creative history like, like any good banana republic.
I published Carmen’s vox in my anthology High Noon on the Electronic Frontier, and it immediately set off a firestorm of anger the likes of which I had not before or since seen in cyberspace. Understandably, people do not like being told that they are 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.
I drifted away from the WELL and lost touch with Carmen for a while. Then, in early 2004 I was heavily involved with editing The Alphaville Herald in The Sims Online (TSO) and was exhausted from all the abuse coming via Dyerbrook (the proto-Prokofy Neva), Coco, and various forum trolls who had decided that attacks on TSO were ipso facto attacks upon their very lives. The Stockholm syndrome had taken effect, I was the unwelcome messenger, and the daily grind of an endless haters parade was wearing me down. It didn’t help that the Stratics moderators left up the attacks on me and removed my replies. And then humdog appeared out of nowhere and my ass was saved.
Humdog arrived in the headquarters of the Alphaville Herald armed with of boundless energy and, as always, her uncanny perceptiveness about virtual worlds. It was funny that she saw the forrest while I (the philosopher) was obsessing over trees and she wrote a brilliant essay on the phenomenon of board culture, entitling it “The History of the Board Ho.”
In that essay, Carmen spoke about the social structure of gaming boards, the role of the game board “queens” and all the doting attendants who took their marching orders from the queen. She also returned to the topic of commodification, noting that EA and other companies reserved the right to keep our posts and use them however they wished (including data mining for marketing). Once again, the board denizens were being commodified.
people who participate in chat boards like stratics often fail to realize that they are really part of a corporate data mining project in which their posts are scanned for personal information, preferences, buying habits etc. they are, by virtue of their contributions, giving away valuable information about themselves valuable to corporations that build video games and other tech toys. by providing this personal information, they also provide a jerry-springeresque spectacle for the entertainment of others, hopefully drawing more eyes to the board, hence more posts, hence more data for the marketing data crunchers. the participants, by giving away valuable personal information about themselves have commodified their private lives they have become board ho’s. the social structure of these boards is highly controlled to maximize this effect, with certain types of elite posters encouraged and rewarded these are the board ho divas. these posters play a pivotal role in ensuring that the product delivered to the marketing machine will be as useful as possible. in return the board ho divas receive a kind of social capital from the other board ho’s. At least they get something. The rest of us are getting broke off for free.
In the comments to that article she had her first encounter with Dyerbrook/Prokofy, which she took in stride, welcoming Prok to the discussion as only humdog could:
first of all i am glad that my writing has such an invigorating effect on you and i thank you for taking the time to make the attempt towards a coherent reply.
In the guise of humdog, Carmen produced a number of other memorable articles, including a short but important review of a performance of “Waiting for Godot” in The Sims Online, and who could forget her incisive interview with Mrs. President Chomsky of PETSA (people for the ethical treatment of simulated animals) back in the dark days of pet culling in TSO?
Carmen also wrote under the name of Montserrat Tovar, and produced perhaps the best and most chilling interview with Evangeline ever. She began by describing Evangeline’s property to a T:
eve, on the surface, is a lovely sim. dark haired, poised, she presides over her world with a firm hand. eve is a film director and her house is all about making movies. at the center of this world is a blue room. eve conducts auditions for her films in this room and once a sim enters this room there is no way out. there is a bathtub in the room, a reclining chair, lights, a toilet, and a wardrobe closet. sims entering the blue room in most cases seem to enter without fully understanding what they?ve signed up for ? scamming, sexual humiliation, verbal and psychological abuse, and simulated physical abuse.
i saw a sim named holly enter the blue room thinking that she was about to make a lot of money as an actress for eve. she entered the blue room and changed into the gold bikini outfit [which will display her as naked to those wearing the Kingsware Software Patch --uri]. all the female sims in the blue room are required to wear the gold bikini outfit sooner or later. eve likes it. then eve told holly to do certain things: “show me your p”; “take a bath”. the male sims were told to urinate and “show me your d”. some of them were asked questions like “how long is your d”?. one sim was engaged in hot kissing. it was apparently not voluntary because the sim kept asking if she had done enough to get her money. she had been promised 100,000 simoleans. after a few rounds of this, which were accompanied by threats of various sorts, the sim rebelled and became more insistent about getting her money. the exchange became heated and the sim got slapped around. during this exchange several sims entered the blue room, fought hard to get out and finally gave up and disappeared.
Later she contributed to an article on the epidemic of cloning in TSO, and collaborated with me on a play-by-play analysis of the Alphaville presidential debate between Mr-President and Ashley Richardson (an election that made national media and caught the attention of Henry Jenkins in his book Convergence Culture). This particular debate generated a scandal when Ashley left early claiming illness and Mr-President charged she was really off to watch the Sopranos. This was my favorite contribution of hers, because it reminded me so much (and still does) of the kind of free banter we always had together.
When she came to Second Life she began writing under the names Montserrat Snakeankle and Sparrowhawk Perhaps, and she produced a number of important stories, including an interview with Anthropologist Tom Bukowski (Tom Boellstorff irl).
As Sparrowhawk she once again interviewed Mrs. President Chomsky, this time over the horrific scandal of prim babies that were left at home home while their blingtard mom’s went out clubbing. On a more serious note she broke a story about Mafia extortion attempts on Gorean islands and wrote some penetrating analyses of the Gorean lifestyle in her “Confessions of a Gorean slave part 1 and part 2.
She even put in an appearance as a post six grrrl.
In 2006 I took a sabbatical and sold my island to her. When I returned six months later, she had converted the island, now named “Shivar” into a an amazing virtual mico-world. Shivar fused the building skills of Yadni Monde with a interdenominational RP community that had coalesced around Carmen. Goreans, vampires, SL Military, real life nuns and various French tourists passed through, hung out in the chapel and rested their weary virtual bodies. Carmen, Shivar, and the denizens of Shivar eventually figured prominently in the book “I, Avatar” by Mark Stephen Meadows (or as she knew him, “pighed”). The island remains under my protection as a monument to Carmen and her amazing energy.
Although I knew Carmen for many years I never got to know that much about her real life. I vaguely know that she had a college education from somewhere, that she had a sister and a dog and and that she was devastated by the death of her mother earlier this year. I know that sometimes she worked for computer companies, but I forget where. On matters of philosophy I detect she was mostly self-educated. I guess I didn’t want to know about that because it didn’t seem important to me. I didn’t want to judge her by what she was doing irl, because I didn’t want it to color her importance to my understanding of virtual worlds.
You see, Carmen showed me that it is still possible for there to be amateur philosophers and still possible for them to make important contributions — that a working mom with no graduate level academic training can step into the mix and engage at the highest level of discourse with the likes of Howard Rheingold and Mike Godwin and Mark Meadows and offer serious corrective criticism. Indeed, two hundred years from now, when historians comb through the endless chat logs and board postings and blog archives of the early 21st century, they will read her warnings about our spinning headlong into virtual commodification, about our conflation of the real with the virtual, and the perils of virtual identity, but at the same time they will see how she demonstrated the possibility of serious virtual friendships and virtual communities, and they will say:
“humdog got it right.”