March 10, 2013

Digital Dualism and the Cannibal Cop

Gilberto Valle, the "Cannibal Cop"

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
                   Bob Dylan, It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)

I've been slightly surprised by the lack of attention paid in tech theory circles to the Cannibal Cop case, now in the hands of a jury in Manhattan.

Certainly it's a remarkably lurid story, but its luridness shouldn't distract us from the fact that it places in stark relief what at first glance might seem some relatively esoteric questions regarding where the line can be drawn between fantasy and reality in the era of the Internet. Specifically it relates to one of the more hotly debated topics in the philosophy of technology at the moment, digital dualism.

For those who haven't been following the headlines, the Cannibal Cop is a New York City police officer named Gilberto Valle. Valle's wife, stealing a glance one day at the browser history on her husband's computer, discovered to her horror that he'd been discussing with his online buddies detailed plans to rape, torture, murder, cook, and eat a number of women, including her. He was also a regular visitor to a fetishist web site that featured videos supposedly depicting acts of a similarly horrific nature.

Valle's wife, Kathleen Mangan-Valle, testified during the trial about what her husband had in mind. "I was going to be tied up by my feet and my throat slit," she said, "and they would have fun watching the blood gush out of me because I was young."

Valle had also discussed online plans to rape two women in front of each other "to heighten their fears," as well as the logistics involved in roasting another woman alive. A computer-forensic examiner subsequently found evidence on Valle's hard drive of searches for “human meat recipes” and “how to cook a human.”   

Courtroom sketch by Jane Rosenberg, New York Daily News

The question at issue in the trial is straightforward: Did Valle really intend to carry out these acts, as the prosecution contends, or was he merely indulging in online fantasizing and role-playing?

Although he did drive by the home of one of the women he'd talked about killing and visited another, no one was ever physically attacked. Nor was there evidence that Valle possessed the tools he would need to carry out the deeds discussed. The jury, which is set to resume its deliberations tomorrow, must decide whether Valle would have acted had his plans not been discovered. If convicted he could face life in prison.

Prosecuting attorney Hadassa Waxman told the jury that Valle's plans were "no joke" and that the evidence showed he had “left the world of fantasy and entered the world of reality.” "The law," Waxman added, "does not require that we wait until he carries out his crime.”

Valle's attorney, Julia Gatto, responded that as "disturbing and disgusting" as her client's online habits might be, they did not constitute a crime. “This is Gil’s porn," she said. "He’s had this unusual fetish for a long time, and no one was ever hurt.”

It seems to me that these two positions articulate in a fairly clear fashion the topographies of "digital dualism" as defined by the best-known critic of that stance (and coiner of the term), Nathan Jurgenson

Jurgenson's basic position is that it's a mistake to think there's a fundamental existential distinction between "online" and "offline." There's nothing more "real" about being offline than there is about being online, he says, despite what many popular writers (Sherry Turkle being a favorite example) would have us believe. In truth, he insists, the digital and the physical are "enmeshed." We carry our offline selves into our online encounters and vice versa. Jurgenson calls our current state of digital/non-digital enmeshment "augmented reality."

In a recent essay Jurgenson expanded this central argument by defining a spectrum of four basic positions people typically adopt on the question of digital dualism: 

Strong Digital Dualism: The digital and the physical are different realities, have different properties, and do not interact.
Mild Digital Dualism: The digital and physical are different realities, have different properties, and do interact.
Mild Augmented Reality: The digital and physical are part of one reality, have different properties, and interact.
Strong Augmented Reality: The digital and physical are part of one reality and have the same properties.
It's a fair guess that the attorneys in the Cannibal Cop case have never heard of digital dualism. Nonetheless it's also fair to characterize the prosecution's arguments as articulating a Mild or Strong Augmented Reality position, while the defense is arguing a Mild or Strong Digital Dualism position.
The Cannibal Cop case and digital dualism both resonate with a number of other troubling issues, from the concerns of women that pornography objectifies them in degrading and dangerous ways, to the claims that habitual exposure to violent movies or video games may help provoke some individuals to act out violently in real life ("IRL," as Jurgenson abbreviates it). Warfare from a distance via drones (or, for that matter, from conventional aircraft) fits, too. 

What constitutes "distance" in an age of high technology is one aspect of what I think is the central question, which is not only what the conceptual, theoretical relationship between online and offline might be, but what we can say about the influence of that relationship on actual behavior.

This is not a question the digital theorists have ignored. To the contrary, the roles social media might or might not play in the promulgation of political movements has been, from the outset, a central concern. From what I've read, however, the question of inter-personal violence hasn't garnered as much attention.

Gilberto Valle's fate presumably depends on specific points of law, points defined, no doubt, long before the introduction of the technologies involved. Regardless of the verdict, it certainly seems reasonable for his wife to divorce him, and for her to be extremely careful about the circumstances in which he spends time with their young daughter. Criminal or not, it would be hard to argue that fantasizing about cooking and eating women falls into the range of what we'd consider desirable mental activity.

When and why mental activity crosses over into physical activity, and the role digital technologies play or don't play in blurring the line between the two, are questions that will be with us for a long time to come. That's why the digital dualism debate is important, whatever the Cannibal Cop jury decides. 

©Doug Hill, 2013


  1. but you fail to acknowledge that he was using police resources to track down real women..this goes beyond him just writing a story or fantasizing about imaginary people

    1. To me the fact that Valle used police resources to track down real women is not the important distinction. There were lots of blurred lines in this case between fantasy and reality. The question of course, is when fantasy becomes a genuine plan. Valle knew several of the women he planned to kill, including his wife. The police resources he used to "track them down" were digital.

      The jury will have to decide if his fantasizing about real women constituted a crime. I wasn't in the courtroom, but from this distance it doesn't seem an easy verdict.