Jose Valle/Animal Equality
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Could virtual reality help improve the lives of farm animals?

A new immersive environment, iAnimal, places the viewer inside a factory farm. So why am I still eating chicken?

There is a dying chicken at my feet, desperately struggling to breathe. I can see its crooked feathers slowly rise and fall, and feel my breathing become more laboured in response. My heart is pounding as I watch the chicken – one of hundreds surrounding me – fighting for life.

In truth, the chicken is not in front of me, not really, because I am sitting in the comfort of my office, watching its life – and death – on a virtual reality (VR) headset. The bulky device covers my eyes and I can move my head all around to see the factory farm it is showing me from various angles.

“Every single person who watches it is shocked,” says Toni Shephard, the executive director of the animal advocacy organisation Animal Equality, which has developed iAnimal, an immersive, 360-degree view of the meat industry. After premiering a video of a pig slaughterhouse at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2016, the charity created a video following the lives of factory-farmed chickens.

“We film all of this from the animal’s eye level, so you actually feel like you’re in the flock of chickens,” Shephard says. “It’s completely different to watching it on a flat screen. You do genuinely feel like you’re there.”

Animal Equality is just one of many organisations now using advances in VR technology to campaign for a better world. In 2015, the United Nations unveiled a virtual reality app that allows ordinary people to experience humanitarian tragedies such as the Syrian refugee crisis, the ebola outbreak and the Nepalese earthquake. On its website, it claims to be “pushing the bounds of empathy”.

But can virtual reality revolutionise activism through empathy? Shephard certainly thinks so, arguing that iAnimal has been the most effective tool she has seen in her 20 years of campaigning. “With a flat screen, it’s your natural instinct to look away if something terrible is happening, but you can’t with this. Most people don’t close their eyes because they’re too engaged.” But even though I was distressed watching chickens hung by their feet and having their throats slit one by one, I have eaten chicken since.

Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale, and the author of Against Empathy: the Case for Rational Compassion, is wary of using “empathy technology” for political campaigns. Speaking to the technology news network the Verge last month, he argued that, “it’s a deep mistake to assume that if we could feel more, then the world would turn out OK and we would do the right thing. Not everything is the job of the individual citizen.”

Animal Equality is aware of this criticism of the technology and, as well as taking iAnimal to offices and universities, it had a booth at most of the big party conferences last year (the Conservative Party refused the charity a spot). “Most MPs have never been in a factory farm, or if they have it’s a pristine, preannounced visit,” says Shephard, who reveals that the charity enters farms at night to film. “We wanted to start the conversation about whether [British farming] is something we should be proud of.”

She reports that iAnimal has had great success with both politicians and the public. “Every time we do a university you get at least ten students out of 200 who say that’s it, they’re going vegetarian,” she says. “We get comments like ‘I’m not going to be able to eat meat again’, almost in an angry way!”

With this technology, Shephard explains, the group can make contact with people beyond their usual reach. “They’re not particularly interested in animal welfare but they stop to try VR,” she says. “Men want to try it more than women. At two-day events women come up to us the next day and say, ‘I’ve been trying for years to get my husband to stop eating meat and after watching the video he said he won’t eat it again. Thank you!’ I’d like to think we’ve saved a few marriages.”

I don’t doubt that iAnimal has many success stories, as I had heart palpitations while watching the video. Yet in many ways the technology is limited. The headset is heavy, Shephard admits that people can become dizzy when wearing it, and occasionally the lens even fogs up.

Animal Equality is exploring advances in virtual reality technology, however. Though it might be a long way off, Shephard would love to be able to replicate the smell of a factory farm, which she describes as “soul-destroying”. She wants to experiment with augmented reality – whereby viewers would be able to interact with the farm around them – and she also hopes that, as VR becomes more common and everyone has his or her own headset, iAnimal can have a wider reach.

Yet though technology may continue to advance for years to come, can human beings? Many caring professionals, such as therapists, nurses, police officers and animal welfare workers, develop what is known as “compassion fatigue”, whereby they feel hopelessness and anxiety rather than motivation as a result of their experiences. So can technology really make us more empathetic, or will we, too, feel more compassion fatigue when the novelty fades, and therefore less empathy?

I watched a chicken die at my feet and then, later that night, I ate another. Did the technology fail, or did I? If it’s the former, then I’m sure a little tinkering can change everything. If it’s the latter, we may have to stop looking at what’s inside our headsets, and instead consider what’s inside our heads.

Amelia Tait writes for NS.com

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West

Photo: Getty
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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.