Yes, it’s a joke — at this point. The nonexistent virtual reality “Second Livestock“, designed by ISU assistant professor Austin Stewart, brings up the idea of providing a virtual natural environment for conventionally farmed animals. Rather than devote money, time, and space to actually giving the animals what they deserve, we can give them a virtual image of what they deserve. They’ll believe they are running around and interacting with conspecifics, while in reality we can make their enclosures even smaller, since they won’t know they’re using them….
Knowing that it’s not real(yet), it’s actually funny, especially the little chicken headsets. But take a moment, and imagine what might happen if this became economically feasible, especially compared to actually providing a natural environment for farm animals. (While that’s honestly unlikely, Stewart has said further development for actual implementation was an option he would consider.) Picture dairy cows grazing on a virtual pasture, giving birth to virtual “calves” that could hang around for a bit before being “naturally weaned”, while in reality the calves are taken away at birth (and fitted with a headset and given a virtual “mother”).
Would it be ethical? If the animal truly believed it had a wonderful — or at least a quasi-natural) life, is there a functional difference from it actually having a wonderful life? Is this a viable replacement for real space, conspecifics, and interaction? What if every animal had an amazing virtual life, filled with its species’ own version of wine, women, and song? (Either way, I’m not sure that either option is adequate “payment” for being consumed as food in the end.) The authors make a point (arguably, the whole point of the site) that some humans are already partially living in an environment like this one…is that a good thing? A bad thing? Just a thing?
No answers here, although my gut instinct tends to the “Are you kidding?” side of things. I just thought this was funny-becoming-interesting and kind of chewy food for thought.