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

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

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.