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How virtual reality pigs could change the justice system forever

Lawyers in Canda are aiming to defend their client by asking the judge to don a virtual reality headset and experience the life of a pig.

“These are not humans, you dumb frickin' broad.”

Those were the words truck driver Jeffrey Veldjesgraaf said to animal rights activist Anita Krajnc on 22 June 2015 as she gave water to some of the 190 pigs in his slaughterhouse-bound truck. This week, 49-year-old Kranjc appeared at the Ontario Court of Justice charged with mischief for the deed, which she argues was an act of compassion for the overheated animals. To prove this, her lawyers hope to show a virtual reality video of a slaughterhouse to the judge, David Harris. Pigs might not be humans, but humans are about to become pigs.

“The tack that we’ve taken recognises that Anita hasn’t done anything wrong,” said one of her lawyers, James Silver. Along with testimony from environmental and animal welfare experts, her defence hope the virtual reality experience, which is planned for when the trial resumes in October, will allow Harris to understand Kranjc’s point of view. Via the pigs’ point of view.

It’s safe to say that the simulated experience of being a pig in a slaughterhouse will not be a pleasant one. iAnimal, an immersive VR video about the lives of farm animals, launched earlier this year and has already changed attitudes towards meat. But whether or not Harris becomes a vegetarian after the trial is not the most pressing aspect of this case. If the lawyers get their wish to bring a VR headset into the courtroom, they will make legal history.

“Virtual reality is a logical progression from the existing ways in which technology is used to illustrate and present evidence in court,” says Graham Smith, a technology lawyer and partner at the international law firm Bird & Bird.

“Graphics, charts, visualisations, simulations and reconstructions, data-augmented video and other technology tools are already used to assist courts in understanding complex data and sequences of events.”

Researchers have already been looking into the ways VR can be used in courts, with particular focus on recreating crime scenes. In May, Staffordshire University launched a project that aims to “transport” jurors into virtual crime scenes, whilst in 2014 researchers at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Switzerland created a 3D reconstruction of a shooting, including the trajectory of a bullet. Although this will help bring to life complex evidence that might be hard to understand or picture in context, the use of VR in this way is not without its flaws.

“Whether a particular aid should be admitted into evidence can give rise to argument, especially in criminal trials involving a jury,” says Smith. “Does the reconstruction incorporate factual assumptions or inferences that are in dispute, perhaps based on expert evidence? Does the reconstruction fairly represent the underlying materials? Is the data at all coloured by the particular way in which it is presented? 

“Would immersion aid a jury's understanding of the events or could it have a prejudicial impact? At its core, would VR in a particular case add to or detract from the court's ability objectively to assess the evidence?”

The potential for bias is worrying, especially if the VR video was constructed from witness testimony, not CCTV footage or other quantitative data. To avoid bias, feasibly both the defence and prosecution could recreate an event from different perspectives. If the jury or judge experience the life of a distressed pig on its way to be slaughtered, should they also be immersed in the life of a sweaty trucker, just trying to do his job and panicked by a protester feeding his pigs an unknown substance from a bottle?

“These are not new debates,” says Smith. “Lawyers are used to tackling these kinds of issues with the current generation of illustrative aids. Before too long they will find themselves doing so with immersive VR.”

It seems safe to trust, then, that legal professionals will readily come up with failsafe guidelines for the use of VR in order to avoid prejudice or bias. But beyond legal concerns, there is another issue: ethics.

In 2009, researchers at the University of Leicester discovered that jurors face trauma due to their exposure to harrowing evidence. “The research confirms that jury service, particularly for crimes against people, can cause significant anxiety, and for a vulnerable minority it can lead to severe clinical levels of stress or the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder,” they wrote.

It’s easy to see how this trauma could be exacerbated by being virtually transported to a scene and watching a crime play out before your eyes. Gamers have already spoken about panic attacks as a result of VR horror games, with Denny Unger, creative director of Cloudhead Games, speculating they could cause heart attacks. A virtual reality murder, however virtual, is still real, and could easily cause similar distress.

Then there is the matter of which crimes get the VR treatment. Would courts allow the jury to be immersed in a VR rape? Despite how harrowing and farfetched that sounds, a virtual reality sexual assault was already screened at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

For now, legal professionals have time to consider these issues. By October, Kranjc’s lawyers may or may not have been allowed to use VR in court. If they are, they may change legal history. If they’re not, Kranjc may be found guilty, and faces six months in jail or a $5,000 fine. 

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

All photos available for public use: Wikimedia Commons, Getty, Flickr
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Death tribute cartoons are the embarrassing face of kneejerk social media mourning

Whether it’s Stephen Hawking leaving a wheelchair or the Buddhist Steve Jobs meeting God, these grief gags show the decline of cartooning as an art.

Recently, following the death of Stephen Hawking, social media users were treated to the usual display of sad words and images. Among these were the by-now-standard death tribute cartoons, most of which focused on Hawking’s wheelchair: sitting empty as he flies out of it; sitting empty as he walks away; sitting empty as he turns into cosmic energy.

These images proved offensive to some people, implying as they did that Hawking had been constrained by his illness and was not a whole, functioning person with a brilliant intellect.

But death tribute cartoons are nearly always problematic, and their rise is connected with the decline of cartooning as an art form.

In the mid-twentieth century, magazines and newspapers were omnipresent, and so were single-panel cartoons. There were gag cartoonists and there were editorial cartoonists, who provided a visual take on the news.

Back then cartoons felt dynamic and alive – but as the twentieth century dragged on, the single panel became a dead format. All the good simple cartoon ideas had been used and re-used and used again, and not everyone can create an original single-panel image that’s funny or makes an interesting point; in fact, almost nobody can.

As publishing began to decline, the art was the first thing to go. Today very few newspapers have full-time editorial cartoonists, preferring the freedom of choosing from a roster of syndicated artists. But one of the most popular and durable editorial cartoon formats has expanded into internet culture, and that is the death tribute cartoon.

The death tribute cartoon is different from simple tribute art, in that it uses a visual format designed to amuse, but to be maudlin instead. As near a perfect description for the death tribute cartoon as I can find is German writer Winfried Menninghaus summary of the concept of kitsch: “A simple invitation to wallow in sentiment.”

Every celebrity’s death is treated as an occasion for cloying fantasy or impossibly awkward visual metaphor.

The most common death tribute cartoon trope shows the celebrity arriving in heaven, most often encountering St Peter. It doesn’t matter what religion the celebrity actually practised (as with Steve Jobs, a Buddhist, who was placed in this context at least ten times, including on the cover of The New Yorker).

St Peter only tenuously represents religion in this context anyway; he represents popular emotion and the love of the crowd. He behaves like the maître d’ of a celebrity restaurant, trading quips with stars and sometimes even grabbing a selfie.

Sometimes there are other famous dead people eager to hang out with the recently deceased. It’s a ludicrous reflection of our obsession with celebrity status.

Other popular death tribute cartoon tropes include: a prop associated with the deceased, abandoned and weeping; fictional characters associated with the star sharing a drink, or weeping; the world itself, weeping.

The Hawking cartoons weren’t the first to show a star escaping a wheelchair; this also happened with Christopher Reeve and Muhammed Ali. Ali was also pictured in one strange cartoon lying on the floor of the boxing ring, having apparently lost to a skull-headed figure labeled “29,000+ HEAD BLOWS INDUCED PARKINSONS”.

The democratisation of social media means that it is nearly impossible to tell the cartoons created by an artist in the employ of a media outlet from those made by a complete outsider.

With the Hawking cartoons, the one deemed most offensive by the Huffington Post was in fact by an amateur, but a much more bizarre one (showing Hawking pumping his fists in the passenger seat of Elon Musk’s space Tesla) was from a publication.

The competition is serious: the right tribute cartoon at the right moment, going viral, can alter the trajectory of an independent artist’s career.

Our culture demands the instant tribute, the quick crystallising of emotion, and death tribute cartoons are made for that. We are instantly ready to be nostalgic about anything and anybody. Death tribute cartoons are a feature of a society constantly being made aware of what it has lost.

They’re never funny, they rarely make much sense, and they pander in a way that’s embarrassing. I’m sure we’ll see many more of them.

Michael Kupperman is a graphic novelist. Find his work here. He tweets @MKupperman.