A Professor Proposes Creating the Matrix for Factory-Farmed Chickens

He wants to give them the Virtual Free Range™ experience

Hundreds of chickens share a huge pen at a sovkhoz chicken production factory in Rudomino. Sovkhozy were state-owned farms that paid workers for their labor in the former Soviet Union. Location: Rudomino, Lithuania Pascal Le Segretain/Sygma/Corbis

America's hearty appetite for chicken means that to house all the birds we consume, enclosures have been getting smaller and smaller. For a chicken, living on a factory farm is not an ideal life—it's hot, it's cramped, there's no sun or grass or freedom.

Iowa State University design professor Austin Stewart has a plan that would give chickens back their sense of freedom while still enabling the industrial agricultural system to keep them housed in close quarters. Known as Second Livestock, a play on the video game Second Life, Stewart's proposal is to design a virtual reality existence for chickens. “The idea,” says the Ames Tribune, “goes something like this:”

Chickens, too numerous in the United States to realistically all live free-range lives, could be raised in cages more humanely if, from a young age, they stood on omni-directional treadmills and wore virtual reality headsets displaying three-dimensional worlds mapped to their feed and scratch, mimicking a free-range existence.

The chickens would experience freedom without even leaving the coop! “Virtual Free Range™ allows chickens to be truly free range with no confines on their movements about their virtual worlds,” says Stewart.

Stewart's proposal is, of course, tongue-in-cheek: it's a piece of art designed to raise questions, engaging “the ethical debates of contemporary animal husbandry and humanity's increasing immersion into virtual worlds.” 

But just because Stewart is mostly joking around doesn't stop us from wondering whether his plan would work.

Dylan Mattews at Vox says that, in Stewart's set-up, the chickens would have microphones and would share their virtual space, chasing bugs, drinking from pools and hanging out with each other.

To maintain the illusion, the virtual world would need to be convincing. With sight, sound and mobility taken care of, this idea seems promising. But chickens actually have an acute sense of smell—roughly on-par with that of humans. There would be no confusing the stench of a factory farm with that of a lush field. Whether that dissonance would be enough to shatter the illusion is difficult to say. Stewart has never actually given a chicken a taste of his virtual world, and he's hesitant to do so.

In 2009 there were more than 2 billion chickens in the United States, a tally that works out to 6.84 chickens per person. That number has been steadily rising—in the mid-1970s it was around 4 per person. In total, America houses around 10 percent of the global chicken population. Stewart's design is horribly dystopian, yet it raises a difficult question: if real free range living isn't an option, would such a virtual existence be better?

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