On being attached, caring for animals and humble technologies

The longer I study relations amongst people, animals and technologies, the more I return to notions and practices of caring. Interests are staked in quantities and qualities of caring, and many social and ethical issues arise as matters of caring too much or too little. In Latour’s recent book, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, he argues that we are our attachments. More important than essence or identity are those people, places, objects and ideas to which we attach ourselves, or put a bit differently, all the things we care for.


[Photo by Matt Cottam, and part of his wonderful Dogs I Meet series]

Technology, as part of the material world, is often portrayed as cold or uncaring. Critics maintain this association in their claims that technology threatens our very humanity; proponents maintain it in their claims that technology is activated through use. Both positions require that we maintain a certain distance from the material world, using it to serve our interests rather than acknowledging how our interests are never separate from our attachments to the world — or all those things we will not or cannot let go, as well as all that will not or cannot release us.

But I’m thinking about this right now because I recently met with Phil Tanner, CTO of Heyrex, a local company that makes wireless dog monitors. Obviously, I’ve been paying attention to animal tracking and sensing devices for quite some time but it’s been awhile since I sat down and talked with someone who actually makes them. Phil told me all about how the device works, and kindly lent me a (non-functional) sample device to take a closer look at on my own time. Now I want to share some of my thoughts about Heyrex, but I also want to be clear that this is not a product review. I’ve never actually used the device and, to be perfectly honest, I’m more interested in the idea of such a device than in this device in particular.

In response to the question of why make a dog monitoring device, the online marketing states: “At Heyrex we understand how much it means to have the close companionship of a pet … The Heyrex team of pet lovers came together to create a revolutionary new range of products that would benefit both pets and the people who care for them the most.”

Monitoring technology for meaning, closeness, love and care. When you open the Heyrex box, the end panel simply states: ”Unconditional love.”

Dog by Matt Cottam

[Photo by Matt Cottam]

These are good things, and this is the good life. If they made one for cats I’d want it.

“Of course, as we all know, there are big brothers – and Big Brothers. I realise that the latter upper-case phrase immediately evokes images of corrupt tyranny rather than caring tutelage. Fair enough. But there are Bad Big Brothers and benevolent big brothers. It’s oppressive when ‘Big Brother is watching you’. But we could also imagine how the final line in Nineteen Eighty Four – if lifted from the novel and let stand alone – could refer to a benevolent big brother. ‘He loved big brother’ – ‘loved’ because of the gifts given…”

– John Rodden, The Cambridge Companion to George Orwell, p. 180

So Heyrex was made because we are caring big sisters and brothers, but also because it’s difficult to communicate some information across species. We watch our pets so closely not just because we care, but because we find it hard to read them. And so perhaps some of this careful monitoring can be delegated to machines, and the gift of “unconditional love” our pets give us can be returned.

The Heyrex device does not use GPS; it doesn’t know where your dog is. It doesn’t use RFID; it doesn’t know who your dog is either. It has motion, temperature and light sensors: it knows (something) about what your dog does.

“Heyrex monitors key health signs identified from activity levels, mobility, scratching, resting patterns and sleep disturbances. These monitored activities help Heyrex identify the basic signs of many dog health issues.”

But Heyrex is not a medical diagnostic device either. It doesn’t take blood samples from Peaches or monitor Butch’s heartbeat, and it doesn’t tell you if Max has stopped breathing. Its hardware collects data and, over time, its software identifies patterns of behaviour. And if these patterns change, it can notify you so that you and your vet can start figuring out if something is wrong.


[Photo by Matt Cottam]

In fact, Heyrex is a rather humble device. It doesn’t try to collect every kind of data. (Little Data is the new Big Data!) Or auto-magically solve all your pet-related problems. (No you can’t use it as a brute force shock collar!) It seems to recognise that caring is essentially a tinkering process with many interdependent parts. It dwells in the time of the everyday, and the space of the habitual. A small shift here allows us to make a careful change there.

And — quite mercifully as far as I’m concerned — Heyrex doesn’t gamify caring either. You can’t use it to motivate yourself to care more by showing off your dog’s activities to others and publicly performing your caring behaviour for some token reward.

So what do people actually get out of using Heyrex? According to customer testimonials, it’s mostly a sense of connection they wouldn’t otherwise have, and information that allows them to “better” know and care for their dog.

“Last week Fred went for a couple days holiday at my girlfriends parents farm in Ashburton, it showed up on the graph that he was scratching, turns out he was laden with fleas, I noticed the graph change as soon as the scratching started. When he came home we doused him and he’s sweet as now.”

“We weren’t sure if anyone had taken [Sam] for a run on Sunday so we checked the graph to see, he had been twice. Too funny!”

“It is also interesting to know that some nights [Moose] is waking up and moving around when we think he is sound asleep – no wonder he crashes out some days!”

“[Brooklyn] attends doggie day care so I can monitor her daily activity which is great while I’m at work and then I know what extra exercise is needed once we get her home from the graphs I read.”

“I love checking on Charlie while she is at doggie daycare.  I had no idea how active and happy she was while there. Maybe that is why she sleeps so soundly at night.”

In these ways, Heyrex is a lot like any other benevolent monitoring device and probably most like a baby monitor. No technology marketer wants to hear that their product may be new but it isn’t really “revolutionary”–but I think its banality and humility is actually what makes Heyrex so lovely.

As I wonder if my students would want to give it a bunch of new technological capabilities, or design games and social media to accompany it — assuming it would make for a “richer customer experience” — I can’t help but hope not.  While Heyrex enables interesting new relationships between people and animals, its relative simplicity might be the very thing that makes it extraordinary. And I’ll take extraordinary care over Revolutionary Care any day.

Dog by Matt Cottam

[Photo by Matt Cottam]

<RESEARCH NOTE>Curious about how these things work, I think it’s worth mentioning that no matter how many shared interests we may have as individuals (Phil and I have many, including a shared background in archaeology!), academics and companies have different interests in their products. For example, Phil personally believes in the company’s product and, by virtue of his position in the company, is obligated to protect it. That makes sense and I respect it. I also like the Heyrex product, but I don’t have any obligations beyond everyday professionalism and interpersonal kindness. So why do I mention this? Because I want to be able to write what I think about the product, but I don’t want to do them any harm or to blindly advertise for them. And also because I’d love to see my students imagine how the device could be redesigned but I don’t think it’s ethical to ask them to provide free labour or to allow any company to profit from their ideas without compensation. This means that we actually have to negotiate with each other before I publish anything or we do anything together. Many designers are used to working and teaching under non-disclosure agreements, but I’m not and I don’t think I want to get used to it either. So, in a gesture of good faith, I told Phil that I’d send him this blog post before I published it and that I wouldn’t publish anything he didn’t want me to. This was much more than he asked for, but it would let me know where our relationship can go from here. And since this is online now, clearly all went well.</RESEARCH NOTE>