The main focus of this column has been the effects of modern technology on living environments and on humans and their behavior. My purpose has been to show how increasingly people are no longer simply the masters of their technology, but are now gradually becoming a part of it, becoming more and more robotic. This presupposes a superior complex human mental capacity and mental functioning that ongoing exposure to modern complex technology can subtly reconfigure. The technology is created as an extension of humans, and humans end up increasingly becoming an extension of their technology.
But now more and more effort is being put into creating technology that impacts the behavior of animals that are mentally not as complex, not as intelligent as humans. Obviously, these animals have no say, no choice with regard to their interactions with this technology. Humans make the choices for them. And not being able to easily get into the head of a dog, for instance, that experiences some of the new technology, makes the need for speculation even greater than when dealing with humans. Nevertheless, I think that much can be learned by trying to imagine how dogs, the beloved loyal pets of humans, experience some of the new technology being put in their life paths, and that much of what we can perceive in dogs can have an application to our explorations of the behavior of humans within their technological surroundings.
In an article that appeared towards the beginning of this column, “Animals, Humans and Robots” (12/12/07), I discussed what I perceived as the operations of the minds of animals. Basically, I postulated that their minds operated on the basis of “a relatively few instinctual determinate discrete stimuli and a lot of intermingled indeterminate continual stimuli that produce gross responses.” I pointed out that “Domesticated animals operate on the basis of more discrete stimuli than their wild relatives as a result of human training” But here the emphasis has to be on human training with humans naturally being physically present to train the animals. Also we are assuming that the animals are being trained either on a farm or ranch, on a lawn or in a home. In other words, in a living environment where the animals feel somewhat sensorily grounded. This is very different from the highly focused discrete stimuli that rats receive in a maze in a lab experiment, where the only grounding that the rats experience is the surrogate grounding that they experience from the treats they obtain as a result of performing certain discrete tasks in a proper way.
Nowadays, there is a more subtle way of taking aspects of grounding away from a domesticated animal in the process of focusing his attention for training purposes. The animal is kept grounded in his actual living environment, but the presence of his trainer, which usually means his owner, is mediated by modern technology. A person is able to dispense treats through a device that is connected to a computer. The person can watch his dog through a camera and communicate with him through two-way audio. With one device, Furbo, the treats are randomly tossed to allow the dog to play a remote game of fetch. Another product of this nature, iCPooch, has a way of connecting up a smartphone or tablet to the device so that the dog can see its owner in a video call. Anyway, treats can be dispensed to reward good behavior in a special tray. iCPooch is still in a prototype stage, but it obviously represents an attempt to provide greater intimacy remotely to your dog. Just as in their relationships with other humans, people are trying harder and harder to have a good remote connection with their animals. The question is if animals will adjust as easily to spending so much time interacting with their owners in a phone reality or a screen reality.
I would tend to think that it would be in the long run significantly more difficult for dogs than it is for humans. Not that dogs won’t be able to adjust on some level. But it would definitely represent a greater detachment from the configuration of stimuli to which they are accustomed and even built for. Dogs tend to experience the world much more in terms of flowing blendable continual stimuli than do humans. This means not only experiencing the world as a more coherent unit, but also being attuned to a form of sensation – smell – that is much more immediate and with a tendency to blur together with the organism experiencing the smell. Yes, dogs have a much stronger sense of smell than humans. Dogs have hundreds of millions of olfactory receptors in their noses compared to a few million for humans. And one might say that because the part of a dog’s brain that is devoted to smell is forty times larger than the equivalent part in humans, that the dog’s brain is able to turn smells into defined figures much easier than the human brain. Think of the dogs that are trained to sniff out drugs at airports. But because smells are based on chemicals that can mix with other chemicals in the air and that exist, to some extent, independent of solid bounded physical figures, smells make for much less stable figures than sights. Smells dissipate into the world as flowing blendable continual stimuli unlike solid visible objects or landscapes.
Furthermore, dogs tend to respond globally to the situations that they experience. Happiness, fear, anger, sadness. And they have a way of sensing the emotional states of people. In general, it could be stated that although dogs experience many more different kinds of smells than humans, because odors and aromas are not sharply defined discrete stimuli the way visual stimuli are, the smells and the audio and visual stimuli all tend to blur at the borders to become a more coherent field of experience than humans would experience. This is reinforced by the fact that dogs simply don’t perceive detail or color very well in their visual surroundings. It would be almost as if the whole world was one collage of overlapping sensory pieces that blur together. In other words, compartmentalization of the sensory world would not be quite as easy for dogs as it is for humans who have a strong visual sense and a strong control exerted by their cognitive faculties.
Now dogs do have a strong sense of hearing and can hear frequencies of sound that humans can’t. From that point of view, a conversation over two-way audio and over Facebook would seemingly be an acceptable form of communication from a dog’s point of view. And it also should make for a more adequate form of life experience for the dog. But the problem is that two-way audio and Facebook are intrinsically compartmentalized disconnected ungrounded forms of life experience. Of course, so is television, and some dogs do seem to remain hypnotized to the shifting moving images they see on the television screen. But there is no emotional pressure on them to interpret what they see, because the narrative in front of them doesn’t involve the participation of their owner or owners. Obviously, it is important for the dogs to be able to interpret and understand their owners, because in their way of thinking, understanding their owners’ behavior and communication is essential to smooth interaction and to their survival.
And one thing that is definitely missing from both two-way audio and Facebook is, of course, a use of the sense of smell. Dogs can pick up a lot about people by how they smell. And that aspect of their owners’ sensory presence is eliminated with these technological devices. In a sense, it means that the dogs can’t feel fully stimulated to life by the sensory presentation of their owners through these modern devices. And this sensorily deficient presentation of their owners blurs together in the minds of dogs with the real life presence of their owners when the owners are around. In this way, in a sense, somehow the owners are no longer going to seem as fully real to their dogs. The technology mediates by shutting off smell and thus, a total sensory experience of owners, so that the owners will seem more ghostlike and less compelling in their direct impact when they are actually physically present..
In truth, in order to preserve a strong compelling image of owners, it may be better for dogs to be left by themselves when they are by themselves, and to be able to preserve a memory of their owners from those times when the owners are actually fully present. So that the dogs know that when their owners are present, they are fully sensorily present. The technology that is supposed to make the dogs less lonely and more trainable from a distance may end up making the dogs more lonely and making the dogs feel a weaker total bond to their owners, and therefore, less likely to listen to their owners for training purposes.
And although humans don’t rely so much on smell for connecting with other people (although more than most humans think), this situation with dogs and owners may have a parallel in the relationship of modern children with their parents. The development of weaker connections between children and parents as a result of increasing connections built around phone calls, texting, and skyping can be considered a partial explanation of why children today are so rebellious and, in many cases, self-destructive and suicidal. There is no substitute for organic grounding and for love, no substitute for a parent being fully physically present with his child. And anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling himself.
(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow