“Each mammalian brain functions as a biocomputer with properties, programs and metaprograms. One biocomputer interlocks with one or more other biocomputers above and below the level of awareness any time the communicational distance is sufficiently small to bring the interlock function above threshold levels.” – John C. Lilly
It was a pleasant surprise to get some really great and thoughtful feedback in regard to last week’s post, including one message in particular that I think illustrates the bleak complexity of what’s lurking just beneath the surface of the digital immigration pool, excerpted here: “I grew up in a very quiet, reflective, immersive reading environment. This is hard-wired into me in a way that surpasses most others, I believe. That said, I find that I read very little these days, and this deeply troubles me: I have my formative years steeped in books, but now I seem to spend most of my time in another place . . . I think books in the physical sense are going to become more and more of a niche, artifact market, kind of like vinyl records. I wonder, as we age and the younguns start their ascent to power, what this means. Will we have a serious communication breakdown, a generational gap exacerbated by overstimulation? Or am I ascribing too much power to technology, and will it ultimately foster empathy in new ways, connecting a kid in rural white Alabama with a South Sudanese refugee camp and bringing that kid into a meaningful dialogue with power, privilege, race, etc. in a way that his parents never would have?”
Well put, my friend, and as it turns out, technology is doing a lot more than just fostering empathy between antithetical ethnic groups that wouldn’t otherwise converge – it’s encouraging us to play with pigs on our iPads and, consequently, foster empathy not only between groups of humans, but between entirely different orders of mammal. Inter-species apps, in real time.
Get this: the European Union passed a law in 2001 that requires animal farmers to “provide some form of entertainment to their livestock as a way of keeping them in good emotional health,” according to writer Stephen Messenger, “which in turn helps curb aggression and anxiety.” Hmm . . . Can you conceive of a similar law being passed in the US? Probably not, because we’re so far from it over here: factory farm animals are basically unprotected in half the country, as they’re currently exempt from the regulations of standard animal cruelty laws in 25 states. Lame.
But anyway, with this EU legislation in mind, a team of programmers and designers in The Netherlands recently figured out that pigs are attracted to certain patterns of light: they’re “fascinated by the movement of reflected points of light, and are attracted to new light spots on a surface,” they report, all things that “animal scientists had not noticed until now.”
At the time, they were developing “Playing with Pigs,” a school research project exploring why “neither humans nor pigs seem to be able exert their cognitive abilities in the best possible ways in their modern environments.” They quickly applied what they learned from the light-experiments towards a not-yet-released app called “Pig Chase,” which could make it a lot easier – and more fun – for pig farmers to “provide entertainment.”
Basically, app users are presented with a live video feed of a real pig’s snout beyond the far side of translucent screen, like this:
And the corresponding pig is presented with a pattern of light controlled by the fingertip of the human, which is projected onto the opposite side of the screen, like this:
The rules are simple: “If pigs and humans move in harmony, that is, if a pig’s snout and the human’s ball of light move through a goal triangle, it triggers a colorful display of fireworks,” the designers explain. “An additional challenge for humans is to maintain contact with the pigs’ snouts. If they do not, their ball of light fizzles out,” and the game is over.
After playing, human participants are rewarded with a score based on the number of targets they were able to maneuver the snout through, ideally earning a spot on the all-time record board; the pigs, in turn, are rewarded with countless displays of colorful fireworks until they’re eventually slaughtered and eaten . . . but still, a relative win-win for all biocomputers involved.
And it turns out there’s a lot more to it than these relatively simple gaming “interlock functions” and some light-play between sides: “Both the design process and the eventual playing of a game with pigs offer ways to explore a variety of ethical questions,” states Clemens Driessen, a philosopher collaborating with the project, and it not only proves that “technological design can lead to new reflection on the importance and the meaning of central concepts such as naturalness or intelligence, but also in more direct and embodied ways, in forging new types of human animal encounters and relations.” That said, it looks like conventional single-species apps could be passé, and if we’re already this creative with pigs, what could eventually be done with cetaceans or chimpanzees or any psychic octopi that might come along?
Whatever happens, we’ll certainly be encountering new kinds of knowledge about ourselves through the process, especially in regard to how our capacities for empathy can transform and change, for better or worse . . . which brings me back to last week, and to the deeper questions at the core of this: If one group of children reads Charlotte’s Web and another group of children plays “Pig Chase” for an equivalent amount of time on iPads, what kinds of similarities and differences emerge when each group has to independently raise a piglet from birth? And, if both groups are deprived of all other sources of food, which piglet survives longer?