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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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.