Earlier this week, the Internet exploded over "Second Livestock," a proposed virtual reality technology for chickens, which is meant to improve the quality of life for livestock who live in filthy, confined, inhumane farm conditions. At least, that's what the technology seems like it's meant to do: as Second Livestock's creator, Austin Stewart, told the Ames Tribune, the project is actually meant to spark discussion about "how do we know what's best, or what is humane treatment?"
The billions of chickens who occupy American factory farms do so with little thought given to their welfare; they experience an abhorrent standard of living that often includes heinous additional abuse. The animals are bred to grow at an alarmingly rapid pace before they're sent to slaughter. They live for a matter of weeks, inside cages packed with other chickens and overflowing with excrement, where the animals are choked by the fumes from their own urine. For a chicken at a factory farm, almost anything would be better than real life.
But that doesn't mean that virtual reality (or changing the chickens themselves, for that matter) is a solution, which Stewart himself concedes. In an interview with Vox, he explained that he's not sure chickens will even accept virtual reality in a way that is sufficient to improve their quality of life. For the moment, though, that's not at issue, as the technology for Second Livestock would be much too costly to implement. Instead, at issue is exactly the point Stewart meant to raise: there is something wrong with the way chickens live, and so they cannot live that way anymore.
First things first, we can try to understand what chickens live through in factory farms -- using a different kind of virtual reality technology that already exists -- and then consider what we're going to do about it. Whether we outfit livestock with mini Oculus Rift headsets or not, some element of chickens' actual reality will have to change -- and, we can only hope, improve.