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  • Writer's pictureJena Ball

Going Viral - Part I

“Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace, and power in it.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I remember the first time I saw a 3D replica of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Up until that point everything I knew - and could imagine - was clinical, based on articles, slide decks, and videos with colorful illustrations of the virus's life cycle. As Karuna's* creative lead, tasked by the National Library of Medicine (NLM) with creating a virtual space to educate the public about HIV/AIDS in Second Life, it was my job to know. I understood what the virus was, how it functioned, and the devastating effects it could have on the human body. But it wasn't until I commissioned one of Second Life's best builders, Madcow Cosmos, to build a giant 3D replica of the virus, that HIV became real and personal to me.

The day Madcow delivered his creation, I was working on a meeting space for HIV/AIDS support groups. There was an open area beside the building that I thought would be a "nice" place to display the model. As you can see, I was still thinking of the virus as a kind of "objet d'art" to be seen and admired by visitors to the island.

"You told me I could use as many prims (pieces) as I needed," Madcow said.

"That's right," I agreed. "I wanted it to look as real as possible."

"I took you at your word. It's done," said Madcow, "but I can't say I like the results."

"Let's see," I said.

Madcow opened his inventory and dragged the model onto the ground. Because of its complexity, it took several seconds for my computer to render, but when it did I gasped and took a few steps back .

Roughly twice my avatar's height, the virus was a dull, semi-transparent turquoise-gray and circular in shape. The circle was studded with a couple dozen spikes, each with what looked like a suction cup at the end. Madcow had animated the virus so that it turned slowly, giving me a 360-degree view of its red and bright green center. "What are those colors in the middle?" I asked.

"The viral envelope is the red part. The green is the capsule inside it that holds the RNA," Madcow explained. "Click the top."

Clicking the top caused the virus to open and reveal its center. "Wow," I said. "Well done."

"Like I said, I did what you asked, but I don't like the results," he said. "This thing is creepy."

I understood what he meant. It was one thing to understand what a virus is, and another to confront it - to see it as a sophisticated, living entity that survives by invading and co-opting the body's immune system. And, like any successful life form intent on survival, it was masterfully engineered and adapted for that purpose.

"There is no greater danger than underestimating your opponent," I said quietly under my breath.

"Excuse me?' Madcow said.

"There is no greater danger than underestimating your opponent," I repeated. "I was quoting the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu. It seemed appropriate."

"You got that right," said Madcow. "That thing is a killer."

"Agreed, but I think the opponent we've underestimated is ourselves. There is so much ignorance and fear related to HIV/AIDS. We need to find a way to get help people get past their prejudice and want to help. They need to understand that this virus doesn't discriminate. Anyone can get it."

"Well good luck with that," Madcow said. "Gotta run."

"Okay, thanks again, Madcow."


That conversation, which took place more than ten years ago, has been replaying in my head for days now. There are too many similarities between what the HIV/AIDS crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic happening today for me to ignore them. Too many similar questions about how to move forward with empathy and awareness; how to celebrate the courage, dedication, and successes happening all around us (from the incredible medical professionals to the thousands of teachers reaching out through digital media to keep their students engaged); and most important of all, how to ensure that the stories of those we've lost will be celebrated and preserved?

In Part II of this series I will offer some thoughts on those questions, share insights gained from working on Karuna, and ideas about how we might collaborate moving forward. Stay tuned.

*Karuna is an ancient word from the Pali language that means compassion. It was the name chosen for the HIV/AIDS project in Second Life. To read more about Karuna, visit the Resources section of this blog where I've posted the final report submitted to the National Library of Medicine.

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