This podcast episode features an interview with Kendra Lee Sanders, a Ph. D student in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. In this episode, we talk about how we live in the Quantified Self Movement and how wearable technology can now be found on dairy cows.

Podcast episode host: Lalla Maiga

Interviewee: Kendra Lee Sanders

Podcast theme music: Laura Bruno

Script editor: Kathy Dobson

Script editor & project manager: Myriam Durocher


LM: Hello Everyone!

You’re listening to Food Matters’ podcast series, brought to you by Carleton University. My name is Lalla Maiga, and I’ll be your host for this episode.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with Kendra Lee Sanders. She is currently a Ph.D. student in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. She is also a filmmaker who presented at the Food Matters and Materialities Conference. Here is what came out of this fascinating conversation!

Kendra’s paper titled “The Quantified Cow: Digitally Tracking Livestock with Wearable Devices” explores how farmers are embracing a system of tracking and monitoring dairy cows through wearable technology. If you are unfamiliar with what animal wearable technology looks like… I want you to conjure up the image of an Apple watch or Fitbit on a cow.

So now that you have this image of the quantified cow in your head… what is the point of having wearable technology on animals? Wearables on cows track the amount of time they spend outdoors, their milk production, and food intake with the promise of the early detection of illness. The power of this data being collected is ultimately limiting vet visits and reducing labour costs. I wondered if Kendra could tell me how she thought to research such an intriguing issue.

This led our conversation with Kendra…first detailing her journey towards her Ph.D. in researching animal wearables.

KLS: I spent a year in France, and it was really remarkable. And I’d always been a bit of a foodie, but I think that really came alive when I was in France. They have a very strong culture, gastronomic culture there, and you know, I really was just totally blown back by the cuisine and the food. I was living in a somewhat more rural area in Normandy.  And, you know, it’s surrounded by farmland. I was involved with these communities, such as this artist community called Chapelle Mel. Everyone is really focused on organic food, and there’s just this beautiful movement there, and I started to really pay attention to that.

I got this job teaching filmmaking to 16-year old’s back at Oxford, so I went back there, and I met somebody who actually told me about these cows wearing these Fitbit-like devices. She told me about these cows in the dairy industry, and I just was like, ‘Oh, wow!’ That means these cows are wearing these sensors and engaging with these robots. Not much has been written about it.

LM: Next, I asked why it is important to research animal wearables. I was curious to know what are the ethical implications of having animals wear tracking technologies.

KLS: We have to understand technology that we may use or even engage with is affecting others. When you put this technology on the living animal is that it becomes itself a piece of technology or becomes viewed as a piece of technology. And I don’t think that that’s good. That’s very dangerous. I do just want to say that my position in this research is that I think this is a very important thing to study. I think it has severe consequences not only for the food industry but just our culture and society at large. It’s kind of a nexus point of several issues. So, I think we do need to look very closely at this and be very critical of it.

In some ways, you can understand that it might be beneficial, such as, like, cows getting their udders milked whenever they want it or need it. Maybe the pros of that outweigh the cons. You know, it’s a really contradictory situation. And it’s very disturbing. We talk so much about wearable sensors for people, but they’re starting to put them on animals, and what does that mean? Because people have the choice to wear something, should they choose it, but an animal doesn’t. This is really complicating our notion of these technologies.

And no way do I endorse this technology

LM: During her presentation, Kendra mentioned how her research paper on animal wearables is situated in the Quantified Self Movement.

I was curious to know what exactly she meant by the Quantified Self Movement. As I am no expert in knowing what one can understand the quantified self-movement as, I asked Kendra what the Quantified Self movement is.

Here is what she had to say:

KLS: Yeah, it’s this movement that’s designed to improve the self through tracking in data analysis. And people that are involved in this community, they can choose whatever they would like to track, and whatever they track can vary. I mean, [it] vastly vary from hormone levels to email. They equip all these different sensors, or tracking devices, or software, to track all these different things, and then set their own measurements. There’s not some kind of objective measurement as ‘this is the correct hormone level for you, or this is the correct way that you should be writing your emails,’ but they can decide for themselves what those metrics are. I guess the idea behind it is that you know yourself better through these things, which I just think is a bit paradoxical. Because you’re not really knowing yourself better. You’re listening to this technology.

LM: There we have our definition of the quantified self-movement!

If you tracked how much you moved, how much sleep you got or how much you are eating, you are equally part of the quantified self-movement.

With the Quantified Self Movement emphasizing self-improvement by understanding your data and taking the appropriate steps to improve on them, I asked Kendra – what do wearable technologies on cows reflect to us about the current state of our society?

KLS: While Gary Wolf, the founder of the quantified self-movement, or co-founder, sees these technologies as a mirror. I don’t know that we can say the same thing when they’re equipped on animals, because what animal is gaining self-knowledge or discovering their selves, these technologies, it’s a pretty absurd thing to try and translate over to this case. But I like that you say, well, what can it tell us about society in general? Um, you know, it’s hard to say I mean.

I talked about a story that I read about somewhere else about Angela. This person, Angela, who discovered that she was unhappy with their job by tracking her mood every day, and it’s a little bit absurd, and honestly, it’s hard for me to believe how can you not know that you’re unhappy with your work? And so, for me, it begs a question of is it true that Angela wasn’t happy with her job? Could it have been something else that was affecting her? You know, like, what is this actually telling us? And how do we interpret those results? And what are the risk in interpreting them incorrectly, because you saw with Angela that she changed her job? You know, I mean, that’s a huge thing. And maybe it was for the best, but maybe it wasn’t, you know.

LM: So, Kendra, what then are the implications of tracking devices on animals?

KLS: This is another way I think, in which the animal you know, wearing these types of sensors for human and animals differ. So, while Gary Wolf, you know, the founder of the quantified self-movement, or co-founder sees these technologies as a mirror. I don’t know that we can say the same thing when they’re equipped on animals, because what animal is gaining self-knowledge or discovering their selves. It’s a pretty absurd thing to try and translate over to this case.

And so, when we put these sensors on animals, the idea is that we become more efficient that, you know, one of the big things is that cows can receive medical treatment sooner. And we think, Okay, this is great, you know, it’s like, we’re able to look inside the animal and see all these different measurements and know if the cow is starting to get sick. And it’s like, okay, great, you know, but what is this? What is the technology also implying that may or may not be true? Or may or may not be for the best? What does the best even mean, you know, like, and, you know, how are these cows being treated for their illnesses? Does this mean that they then are injected with antibiotics sooner than they would be otherwise? And, of course, you know, even in the practice of medicine for humans, it’s not good to prescribe things like antibiotics too early, or often. So, you know, on my part, it requires a lot more research to figure out how exactly this stuff is, is working. But I think there’s just a tremendous amount of risk that is being blown over by the people selling these technologies.

LM: Not everything is as rosy as Kendra highlights. The downside of having wearable technology embedded in a cow’s collar, ear tag or ankle bracelet is the absence of choice to wear these devices.

We, the humans, can decide to glue a Fitbit to our wrist and spend the rest of the day having our heart rate, daily steps, or calorie intake tracked. Our dairy cows cannot. Kendra’s research allows us to think about the bodily autonomy of animals. Animals make daily survival choices; don’t we also owe them a certain level of choice?

Thank you for tuning in to today’s episode of the Food Matters podcast series. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Kendra as much as I did.

This podcast was brought to you by Carleton University. My name is Lalla Maiga, and I was your host for today’s episode. Thank you to Kathy Dobson and Myriam Durocher, project managers and editors, for this show, as well as to Laura Bruno for the creation of the theme music. You can find more of Food Matters’ podcasts on the Food Matters website.