A New Era of Animal-Centred Computer Interaction Research and Design?

Via Nicolas Nova this morning comes Clara Mancini‘s “Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI): a manifesto,” published in the current issue of Interactions but a shorter version without images is available from the Open University here.

A focus on human-animal-technology relations won’t be anything new to social and cultural researchers, but Mancini is quite right to point out that the area has not so far been one of substantial interest to computer science and associated human-computer interaction research. Her goal, or challenge, then is to convince her colleagues (or readers of Interactions) that it is worth pursuing.

Mancini starts by claiming that “the design of these [animal] technologies remains fundamentally human centered, and the study of how they are adopted by or affect their users remains fundamentally outside the remit of user-computer interaction research.”

This reminded me of when I gave a talk about my research at the Centre for Social Robotics at the University of Sydney last year. I remember wondering if they would find the work interesting or relevant, and while most were certainly intrigued by the strangeness of what I do, those familiar with agricultural technologies, and especially automated milking machines, were quick to acknowledge that little consideration was given to how these technologies impacted the lived experience of farming. For example, one roboticist recalled a dairy farmer telling him that the introduction of new milking machines on his farm completely reconfigured a daily schedule that he had maintained for decades. The roboticist sympathised with the situation, but considered that issue to be firmly outside his remittance and said that was a problem for social scientists like me. I immediately lit up at the possibility of future collaborations, but it also drove home the reality that the mandate to create a machine that works is far different from the mandate to understand what happens to relations between people and animals when that machine works–and when it fails.

But what about the animals? Manicini goes on to ask what computer science and HCI would stand to gain if they took the “animal perspective” into account, and summarises her vision for animal-computer interaction research as follows:

“ACI aims to understand the interaction between animals and computing technology within the contexts in which animals habitually live, are active, and socialize with members of the same or other species, including humans. Contexts, activities, and relationships will differ considerably between species, and between wild, domestic, working, farm, or laboratory animals. In each particular case, the interplay between animal, technology, and contextual elements is of interest to the ACI researcher … ACI aims to develop a user-centered approach, informed by the best available knowledge of animals’ needs and preferences, to the design of technology meant for animal use. It also appropriately regards humans and other species alike as legitimate stakeholders throughout all the phases of the development process.”

She supports the development of interactive technologies that improve animals’ quality of life, and of particular interest to me, advocates technology that:

  • fosters the relationship between humans and animals by enabling communication and promoting understanding between them
  • allows companion animals to play entertaining games with their guardians or enables guardians to understand and respond to the emotions of their companion animals
  • gives farm animals control over the processes in which they are involved

Not only does this provide one hell of a research and design challenge, but it raises all sorts of practical difficulties and several ethical issues. Mancini recognises some of the practical problems:

“[H]ow do we elicit requirements from a nonhuman participant? How do we involve them in the design process? How do we evaluate the technology we develop for them? How do we investigate the interplay between nonhuman participants, technology, and contextual factors?”

And the ethical issues are those faced by all research involving humans or animals: first and foremost, we must do no harm. But Mancini also calls for things that may be more complex or difficult to ensure than she suggests:

  • choose to work with a species only if the intent is to advance knowledge or develop technology that is beneficial or otherwise relevant to that particular species;
  • afford both human and nonhuman participants the possibility to withdraw from the interaction at any time, either temporarily or permanently; and
  • obtain informed consent to the involvement of both human and animal participants, either from the participants themselves (for example, for adult humans) or from those who are legally responsible for them (for animals)

So. How does one give or allow animals control over what happens to them or afford them to withdraw from the research? I certainly support the inclusion of farmers and animal behaviourists on animal-computer interaction research teams, not least because I believe that complex questions and issues-based research absolutely call for collaboration amongst people with different experience and knowledge. But a sheep running away from me doesn’t suggest the “withdrawal of consent” in any way I understand the concept, and I can’t be the only one who would require some serious (re)education in this area. Also, I don’t believe that the informed consent of an animal’s owner or legal caretaker should be conflated with an animal’s consent. Furthermore, Mancini’s call that we only work on technology that is “beneficial or otherwise relevant to that particular species” may come into direct conflict with the interests and consent of an animal’s owner or legal caretaker.

But mostly, what I’m left wondering is what might actually constitute an “animal-centred” rather than “human-centred” or “user-centred” research and design process. Colleagues have often accused me of being too focussed on the “centred” bit of those phrases, and insist it merely means to take those perspectives into account, but because I know that words do things, I believe it privileges certain perspectives and that doesn’t sit well with me. Now, I admit it, I actually cringe when colleagues and students suggest that user-centred design isn’t valuable or even necessary because Apple and Ikea have become formidable market forces without “user-led innovation.” (Don’t get me started about whether or not the market is the best indicator of design success!) But I do believe that they’re on to something important when they notice that the issue is more complex than user beats researcher, or amateur trumps professional–and vice versa. As I said to a colleague the other day, luckily we don’t have to choose one OR the other.

In my mind, the fact remains that we–people, animals, technologies–are mixed up in such profound ways that it is neither preferable nor possible to isolate and advance one or the other. All of which is to say that I don’t find myself inclined to support animal-centred research and design any more than I wish to support human-centred research and design. Both perspectives deny our hybridity and mutually constitutive natures, and I would prefer to find ways to advance research questions and methodologies that better take this notion into account. This is related to a research mandate I take seriously: can we move beyond celebration to answer the hard question of who or what benefits from this intermingling? I suspect that Mancini and others would actually agree with my concerns, but we are all still left struggling to articulate what that actually means in practice.