Animals & Us

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A Critical Animal Studies Blog Series (1/4)

This semester I am following a course called Critical Animal Studies at Lund University. In this course, we discuss the topic of animals in society from a critical perspective. More straightforward: we discuss how we, human beings, massively engage in the oppression, exploitation, and domination of animals. Apart from the relevance of this course for my research and the political stances I take in my writings, this course had a very big impact on my personal life.

For these reasons I am sharing a series of four blog posts on my main takeaways of this course (let me know if you want to have the full reading list!). Moreover, we all inevitably participate in this oppression of animals and stimulate its continuation by the choices we make on a daily basis. Therefore it might be relevant for you to read along, discuss these topics together, and form your own critical stances. Let me throw in a quote by philosopher Jeremy Bentham to get started: “The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?” (Bentham, 1988, originally published in 1789).

Speciesism

One term that kept coming back throughout the course was speciesism. In one of the readings it was carefully explained like this:

“Speciesism is the view that the interests of members of the human species are more important than the interest of non-human species. Thus, humans are justified in using non-human species in ways that depreciate the interests of non-humans in favor of the interests of humans. As with racism – where the interest of one race are valued more highly than the interests of another race, and sexism – where the interests of males are valued more highly than the interests of females, in speciesism the interest of humans is more valuable than the interests of non-humans.” (Mosely, 2009, p. 2)

Mosely continues to explain how this view is very deeply rooted in the morals and values we usually consider the norm in western society. In our culture, ethical values and ideas have been largely derived from frameworks from both philosophy and religion. In religion, it is usually assumed that men are born as higher creatures (other animals are placed under man’s domination). Likewise, the woman was created from man, to serve as helpmate and companion. In philosophical traditions, speciesist views were largely based on animals’ presumed incapability of reasoning: animals cannot reason, therefore they are inferior (Aristotle), animals have instrumental, but no intrinsic value (Aquinas), animals are no members of the moral community because they are machine-like, lack the ability to speak, reason, and act autonomously (Descartes).

However, some scientists and philosophers (such as Bentham, Mill, and Singer) have challenged these assumptions, by arguing for what we all know by now: humans and animals share the ability to feel things like pain, suffering, emotions, and pleasure. Animals are sentient individuals. Following ethical logic it is therefore morally wrong to ignore suffering caused by humans, solely for habits that are unnecessary to our survival (such as meat eating, entertainment (in zoos, fighting, circuses, etc.), experimentation, and farming). Exactly… we do not need these things to survive, so how can we morally justify the suffering we cause? (for references on this topic see: Pick, 1993; Noske, 1997; Best, 2005; Burt, 2006; Marino, Bradshaw, and Malamud, 2009.

Arguments like, “we deserve better treatment because we are smarter or stronger”, quickly break down, since we still strive to prevent the unnecessary suffering of new-born children, disabled people, or the elderly. So what we are left with at the end is speciesism: we justify our arguments for causing animal suffering, solely because we classify humans, ourselves, as more important (much like the logics of slave-owners, Nazi’s, or misogynists, but more about that later).

Through intellectual reasoning and logic we come to a shocking revelation: what if we were wrong? What if the norms we have created, and widely accept, are built on mistakes? What if we are confronted with unjustified suffering everywhere, on a massive scale, and everyone is participating? If we conclude that speciesism is not justifiable, our thoughts about nearly everything in our lives will find change.

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The documentary called Speciesism deals with these questions in a very elegant way. Without the need for disturbing footage, the filmmaker discusses the logic of the arguments we have used to justify the elevation of humans above all other species. I would highly recommend you to spend 90 minutes of your life watching this enjoyable and thought provoking film. As the reviews say:

“For those unfamiliar with speciesism, there may be no more enjoyable introduction to this fascinating subject than Speciesism: The Movie. For those familiar with the topic, and searching for a way to introduce friends and family to the deeper questions, this film may be the perfect solution.”

Also, please talk to me if you have watched this film and you would like to know or discuss more!

Taking a non-speciesist approach

But what does all of this exactly mean for my research and personal values? In 2011, when I started doing my research about animals, play, and technology, researcher Clara Mancini released a manifesto called Animal Computer Interaction. This has marked the starting point for a recognized and growing research field that seeks to include animals as actual participants and/or users in the technology we develop. In this widely cited document she advocates for taking a “non-speciesist approach to research” (Mancini, 2011, p. 72). Explained as giving animals and humans equal consideration, respect, and care and protecting animals from suffering (Mancini, 2011). But what does it truly mean to take a non-speciesist approach?

If we want to contribute to improve animal welfare with our research, can this be framed within a society that is already deeply entangled in animal oppression, or does this have to start from its roots? If our entire society is built on speciesist norms, how can we escape this as researchers?

The field of Animal Computer Interaction seeks to help the animal, and yet its outcomes (mine included) consist of projects that largely stimulate and support institutions that could be questioned within a non-speciesist approach. These include things like animal enabled technology in zoos that exist for human entertainment, farms that exist for consumption, the use of assistant animals for human purposes, and domestic animals that are owned by someone. These projects seem to emphasize the need for treating animals better, but aren’t we allowing ourselves to continue to rely on speciesist norms?

Our research work (as well as the personal decisions we make in daily life) can have a big impact for the animals and humans in society. But if a non-speciesist approach already starts by not bringing your laptop to work in a leather bag (yep, I felt the need to change my bag), or not participating in projects that rely on – or stimulate – animal oppression, how can we start tackling the speciesism issue at its core? And how can the field of design help with this? I hope that asking these questions could be a start in itself. So let’s use our voice to discuss these relevant issues, instead of avoiding them, as ignorance will only lead to further alienation.

Next post I will discuss how we could look at similarities with other forms of oppression (such as racism, sexism, or classism) to think about our relationships with animals and inform our research.

The picture in this post was taken by Alex Camilleri on our camping trip last summer on a Dutch island called Terschelling, where we met some beautiful animals.

 

References

Bentham, J. (1988). The Principles of Morals and Legislation. Baird, R. M, Rosenbaum, S. E. (eds.), New York, NY: Prometheus Books.

Best, S. (2005). Genetic science, animal exploitation, and the challenge for demovracy. AI & Society, 20(1), 6-21.

Burt, J. (2006). Conflicts around Slaughter in Modernity. In the Animal Studies Group, Killing Animals, p. 210-144. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Mancini, C. (2011). Animal computer interaction: A manifesto. Interactions, 18(4), 69-73.

Marino, L., Bradshaw, G., and Malamud, R. (2009). The captivity industry: The reality of zoos and aquariums. Best Friends Magazine, March/April 2009, 24-27. Available at http://www.english.gsu.edu/pdf/CaptivityIndustry.pdf

Mosley, A. (2009). Expanding the moral circle: From racism to speciesism. Available at http://www.smith.edu/pholosophy/expanding_moral_circle.htlm

Noske, B. (1997). Domestication Under Capitalism + The Animal Industrial Complex. In Noske, B., Beyond Boundaries: Humans and Animals, p. 11-39. Montreal, CA: Black Rose Books.

Pick, D. (1993). The Perfect Abattoir. In Pick, D., War Machine: The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age, p. 178-188, London, UK: Yale University Press.

Playful Encounters with Ants

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How would you describe your relationship with insects? Specifically with ants? As humans we usually don’t relate to the kinds of animals we don’t recognize ourselves in such as snails, anchovies, frogs, or bees. However, ecological systems on this planet are dependent on these animals and we are currently investigating new ways to ensure that these kinds of species do not go extinct. Is our interest in caring for specific species solely based on their attractiveness and the amount of similarities we share with them? What if we can start to change our relationships with insects by exploring their playfulness together?

With these questions in mind I recently started a project in which I try to investigate the possibilities for humans and ants to play together. In order to do this I started a small ant colony at my workspace inside the Malmö University building. The first few weeks I am trying to get to know the ants and their preferred living environment. I will then continue to explore to what extend it is possible to engage in playful encounters together with ants through prototyping different (potentially playful) artefacts.

Part of this project involves a workshop at the 12th Student Interaction Design and Research conference (SIDeR), which will be held in Malmö on April 1-2, 2016. During this workshop we will explore and discuss this topic through the design of playful interactions with ants taking a perspective informed by posthumanism. We will use different materials to rapidly prototype playful interactions and games that aim to be of interest to both ants and humans. Then we will try out the prototypes we created with an actual Lasius Niger colony (the regular black ant) and discuss our experiences and the types of questions that these practices could propose.

(featured image from Flickr user Yogendra174)

The First International Congress on Animal Human Computer Interaction

On the 11th of November, the Advanced Computer Entertainment (ACE’14) Conference took place in Funchal (Madeira) hosting the first international conference on Animal Computer Interaction (ACI). Unlike previous ACI gatherings, this one played host to a mixing pot of ideas and frameworks which aimed to put formats into a currently sparse and often exploratory area of animals within computer technology.

Unfortunately I could not attend this congress myself, because I was part of a panel and presenting a paper at the Philosophy of Computer Games conference in Istanbul. Luckily my friend and researcher with common interest Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas was going to present her work in Madeira and agreed on presenting my paper as well. She wrote this blog post as a summary of the congress.

The themes of the congress were mostly dog driven but did also play homage to apes and cats. This blog post will map the questions raised during this conference to help give a more indulgent representation of the day with the references given.

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Heli Väätäjä. Animal Welfare as a Design Goal in Technology Mediated Human-Animal Interaction – Opportunities with Haptics

Heli skillfully presented a paper which contained a framework for measuring interaction in ACI with animal welfare as a design goal. The framework included synchronization, awareness and input/outputs to name a few measurements. This interaction was haptic based with questions raised on what stimuli a dog would prefer. Another key question raised during the discussion of the paper was what is animal welfare and if it is an animal ‘feeling good’ how can this be measured?

As designers within ACI we do not have that functionality to simply ask the end-user for an evaluation and with the standards of animal welfare ranging vastly in diffracting contexts, this paper frames key points of thought for any dog designer dealing with haptic interaction.


Claire Micklin. DogTracker: A Mobile App Engaging Citizens and Officials in Addressing the Stray Dog Crisis

Claire presented a conceptual idea for a mobile app which allowed citizens to photography and possibly geomap a stray dog’s locational data in order to create a heat-map of the stray’s movements. The idea of long range RFID tags (300ft) feasibility within this study was also discussed along with collective ownership. The idea of collective ownership over strays is a debatable one as many academics within the conference argued it could encourage a lack of responsibility and result in the dog not receiving the best possible care. This ideology did however allow the culture of the local populous which was studied fit the dog rather than vice versa as it did not force the community to change.

A key argument against this app being open source would be that while this app could generate heat-maps to allow people to help the dogs it could also do the contradictory and allow those who did not like dogs to harm them. For this reason the availability of the data crowd sourced was discussed.


Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas and Janet C. Read. Who Is Really In the Centre Of Dog Computer Interaction?

Ilyena presented an article on creating more dog-centered interaction with questions being raised around the differences in dog-centered and human-centered interaction in ACI and ultimately who they benefited. This was done by splitting the interaction into Humanization (making the animal fit the human model), Domestication (value for human and animal) and Playful with a sliding scale on animal to human benefits.

While this paper was quite open to discussion it was noted that it can be hard to define playful behaviour without preconceptions and while the paper aimed to grasp a big ideology it could maybe by only fitting this model into certain contexts this can be answered.  However it did open up important question in ACI: Who is in the center of design in ACI?


Patricia Pons, Javier Jaen and Alejandro Catala. Animal Ludens: Building Intelligent Playful Environments for Animals

Patricia presented a paper aiming to model features of interactive environments with their benefits and faults using measurements such as human participants, control and single/multipurpose activities. This paper presented a much indiscriminate outlook on ACI which the authors planned to use in later studies. The key question that arose within this research: do animals like games? While currently there is no form of consent the common understanding of consent in ACI appears to be non-participation, with many ACI researchers allowing the animals to simply walk away and show no interest in the interaction.


Sarah Ritvo and Robert Allison. Challenges Related to Nonhuman Animal-Computer Interaction: Usability and ‘Liking’

Sarah presented a touch-screen interface split in half to allow apes (orangutans) to choose to listen to 30 seconds of music (country) or listen to silence to try and understand if apes like music. The interaction was done through a stylus in the animal’s zoo and found the animals often preferred silence. The authors also tried more natural animal sounds and video but this only lead to the animals being scared which the researcher speculated was to do with their unnatural environment.

Emphasis of the research was put on cost benefit analysis of ACI work with the author wanting to develop generalized guidelines for animal interactions with specific animal concerns. Inquiries were raised on how these guidelines aim to be gathered and if in fact you could create rules for all animals.


Michelle Westerlaken and Stefano Gualeni. Grounded Zoomorphism: an evaluation methodology for ACI design 

The authors presented their work on a new method of evaluating interactions of ACI with a playful artifact using Felino, a tablet game that aims to provide play for both cats and humans. Their method relies on a Grounded Theory approach and aims at guiding design and research in ACI in a way that is better focused on the experience and needs of the animals interacting with playful, digital artefacts. While Felino is still within early developments, they started to implement iterations that the authors found, such as a parallel in cats curiosity at hidden items on screen and off screen and choices in size/colour of playful artifacts.

Inquiries were raised on the relationship effect between the changes made and iterations but this could not be answered yet at such an early stage within the research.

PANEL “Animal Human Computer Interaction – The Future”

After the presentations there was a panel discussion on where the organizers (Oskar, Clara and Yoram) discussed what direction they see ACI going and why they are interested in ACI. After this, a discussion was held on how to advance ACI as a community as currently it is a very niche area presented within various conferences. It was decided that a facebook group was going to be made allowing researchers to keep in touch: https://www.facebook.com/acisig

 

Thank you very much Ilyena for writing this post! It seems like you all had a very interesting and productive day in Madeira.

NordiCHI 2014 Workshop

On the 27th of October, I participated in a workshop on Animal-Computer Interaction at the NordiCHI 2014 conference in Helsinki (Finland). Next to hearing about the interesting projects of other researchers in this emerging area, I got to meet some great people that share a similar passion: the research and design of technology that can improve the lives of animals.

Most of the papers that were presented had a distinct focus on dogs. For example, Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas’ research at the University of Central Lancashire investigates how dogs watch TV and she presented a method of face tracking for dogs. This could open up for possibilities to develop interactive systems in which the dog’s facial recognition could be used as natural input to, for example, turn the TV on or off, and play specific content.

Researchers from the Open University UK presented their work exploring the use of (dog) personas for designing with dogs. Next to this, they are prototyping and testing interfaces for assistance dogs that are trained to detect cancer from smelling human cell-samples (see picture below). These interfaces are designed to make the communication between the dog and the human easier and more accurate.

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Researchers from Georgia Tech presented a dog collar device that could make it easier to find the right job for the right assistance puppy. By looking at the physical activity of young dogs in foster families, they could obtain more objective and accurate data that can help trainers to choose which profession might suit the dog best (such as dogs trained for guidance, police work, children with impairments, etc.).

Another research that involves assistance dogs is done at the University of South-Brittany. Their paper reflected on a prototype that could improve the communication between an assistance dog and their disabled owners via remote communication using tools such as audio and GPS.

Other papers investigated the field of Animal-Computer Interaction from a more theoretical angle. Heli Väätäjä from Tampere University of Technology presented issues and measures that can help humans to assess the animal’s experience and the impacts of the technology that we develop. Other papers focused on animal-centred ethics (Clara Mancini, Open University UK), the influence of animals on the digital narratives of humans (Northumbria University), and inclusiveness in Animal-Computer Interaction design (Georgia Tech).

I also got to present my own research. For this conference, we focused on reflecting upon the user testing procedure that we followed in order to test our game for cats and humans, Felino. 

In the afternoon of the workshop we worked out a couple of scenario’s in which Animal-Computer Interaction could play a role to improve the lives of animals in the context of agriculture. Afterwards we had a very interesting discussion about how we could advance our research field and establish a strong community.

All in all it was a very productive and valuable day with a lot of interesting research projects. It was also a great chance to meet very nice people that share similar interests!

Co-Designing with Dogs – Open University UK

The Open University’s Animal Computer Interaction (ACI) lab organized a workshop on the 12th and 13th of April 2013 on Co-Designing with Dogs. This workshop is part of the More-Than-Human Participatory research project, led by the University of Edinburgh. This project has the aim to “explore how a broader account of community – one that recognises the active participation of non-humans – might challenge understandings of how research can be co-designed and co-produced“.

The objective of ACI research is described on the ACI Blog by Clara Mancini, Research Fellow and head of the Animal-Computer Interaction Lab at The Open University:

One of the aims – perhaps the most important aim – of Animal-Computer Interaction as a research discipline is to develop a user-centred approach to the design of technology intended for animals. Not only does this mean developing technology which is informed by the best available knowledge of animals’ needs and preferences. Crucially it also means involving animal users in the development process as legitimate stakeholders, design contributors and research participants“.

This workshop focused on assistant dog training and specifically aimed to explore how animals can contribute to ACI research and interaction design processes. The ACI lab is planning to design “a series of plug-on, dog-friendly computing interfaces for various domestic appliances to support assistance dogs in their tasks, thus improving their welfare and professional life”. This includes, for example, dog friendly interfaces for washing machines, light switches, and door handles: devices that are currently not informed by the perspective of the dog.

The video that summarizes this workshop can be watched below. The ACI lab follows a meaningful approach that, besides the play-element, is very much in line with the research I am pursuing. I am convinced that it will give a valuable understanding of the needs and preferences of assistance dogs. Furthermore the other workshops of the More-Than-Human Participatory research project could show new examples of participatory design with animals as the intended users.

Animal Computer Interaction on National TV

Yesterday evening during the Dutch TV program De Wereld Leert Door (The World Keeps on Learning) game professor Marinka Copier from the HKU (Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Utrecht) explained more about the Playing with Pigs project I wrote earlier about on this blog.

The show is aired in Dutch but I wrote a summary in English below.

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Game professor Marinka Copier is leading a research for new game opportunities on the HKU. This includes the challenge of finding a way to allow human an animal to play together. Since the Netherlands is a leading country in the field of game development, according to Marinka there is a logical connection with scientific research that provokes a change in behaviour through games. This is what the research on the HKU is focused on. This project is carried out in collaboration with multiple academic disciplines including applied philosophy (Clemens Driessen),biology, medicine, education, and entertainment.

The HKU is developing a videogame for pigs. This project was started because of the EU law that prescribes environment enrichment in the living environment of pigs. The farming industry is looking for ways to enable this with the right materials. Marinka shows different elements that are currently used in sheds, such as ‘Pig Chewing-gum’, a chain that resembles pebble stones the pigs like to chew on, or pinewood sticks, also for the pigs to chew on.

The development of videogames for pigs requires a different kind of approach. This has first been shown in the nineties by Stanley Curtis, who researched a computer game designed for apes on pigs (video footage of this is shown at 00:04:01 ). In this game the pig needed to use the joystick to move the cursor into a white area. The pig was doing this to earn a reward in the form of food (an extrinsic motivation). In this research the pigs were better at this task than dogs and also learned it faster than apes.

The idea for a videogame for pigs developed by the HKU came from a farmer. The goal of the game is to move the pig towards a specific area. This is done by showing light-bulbs on a glass wall that the pigs can follow with their nose. The player is in control of moving the light-bulbs and gains more points if he succeeds in bringing the pig to the target area. In this game the pig is motivated through intrinsic motivation to play. This means that the research (described as ‘research through design’) focused on finding out how the pigs responded to certain sensor triggers such as playing keyboard in the shed, showing moving images, providing contact with different objects, and finally offering play with laser lights. Then they discovered that pigs like to play with light in the same way that cats like to do this. According to Marinka, this was not yet discovered by animal scientists, which means that through design it is possible to get more insights into other fields of knowledge as well.

The game will be playable for people from their own home next year. The purpose of this game on the human side is to trigger questions. All pigs with which the player is allowed to play eventually go to the slaughterhouse and it is left open to the player on how to cope with this. Maybe it will provoke a change in behaviour? Or maybe the meat will taste better with pigs that have played this game? Or the score of the game can be displayed on the package of the meat? This might sound heartless, but it enlarges the impact of the game and the connection with different scientific areas. This project wants to trigger durable changes in behaviour with actual play.

The project can be followed online. Next to this the exposition Ja Natuurlijk will open on the 14th of March in ‘Gemeentemuseum Den Haag’ in which, next to Pig Chase, more projects related to humans and animals can be seen.

The program closes with Marinka giving a tweet about her research to the next generation: ‘Challenge: do you want a durable change in behaviour? Create a playful society.

Graduation Project Delivered

After 10 weeks of full-time thinking, reading, and writing, I handed in the graduation documents for my Master in Media Innovation at the NHTV Breda (the Netherlands). Allthough the timeframe was relatively short, it was without a doubt the best and most interesting personal project I worked on during my study. I was able to extensively improve my capabilities as a student and researcher and it provided me with the encouragement and hopefully the opportunity to continue my research in the area of digitally mediated animal interaction.

The main part of this project includes the research thesis: Design Methodologies for Embodied Play in Canine Digital Interaction

This thesis proposes a theoretical framework based on embodied play, a phenomenological approach, and the avoidance of superficial forms of anthropomorphism. Furthermore it provides a critical review of existing literature in the area of animal computer interaction.