Is Technology Changing How We Interact With Animals?
“Just in case you missed it, the newest trend in pet care involves upping its tech quotient and why not: isn’t that what we’ve been doing with our own lives and lifestyles of late?”
This quotation is taken from a pet tech article I encountered during my routine research on such topics.
It stands out because it is intended as a rhetorical question, but actually demands a straight answer.
We are different to animals.
To pretend otherwise, to enclose them within the limitations of our data-led world view, is to reduce them to something much less than their lived reality.
And yet, the pet tech market is growing rapidly.
Pet owners can buy a Fitbit for their dog, then compare their fitness and sleep statistics.
What precisely are they comparing here?
We have reduced our own experience to the purely mechanical and, satisfied that this reflects reality, exported the model to other species.
Everything can be optimized, even our dog’s nap time.
The historical “usefulness” of animals is based on their points of difference to people, not their similarities.
Even in royal courts, where pets were often an accessory or a gift, they were still known to have a sui generis nature.
Today, we do still collaborate with animals in some situations.
Animals can serve a range of important roles based on their sharpened senses, and can even help people overcome periods of grief.
In more commercial environs, animals have become an extension of our own lives.
Pets are absorbed silently into our curated online personas.
They wear clothes, they inhabit memes, they even work out.
Does the impact of this shift go beyond the superficial?
By delegating our responsibilities as pet owners to technology, we relocate the the focal points of the relationship.
We fall prey to misty-eyed myopia if we believe that our animals are so compassionate just because they really like us as people.
The relationship is always one of co-dependence.
If machines start dishing out the treats, those puppy dog eyes will be trained on the robots instead.
Another rhetorical question prompted much of this article’s ponderings:
Why look at animals?
In an influential 1977 essay, John Berger posed this question before discussing our changing perspective on the animal world.
We are living through another period of change, driven by the hold technology has taken over our lives.
Just as we should think carefully before depending on digital assistants to get things done, we should consider how we want to interact with animals before inviting pet tech into the home.
We will not change their sensory apparatus in the process.
A dog does not know what a selfie is and, God willing, never will.
Animals should be appreciated for their existence outside of our tracked, measured, and optimized world.
The rhythms of their lives are different to ours.
A connection with animals is a timely reminder that our reality is only one of many, rather than some a priori ‘truth’.
Animals should not be forced into assuming our narcissistic, oft-nonsensical habits.