Skinner’s pigeons and their relation to technology

1 Introduction

There is a plethora of studies describing the interaction of non-human animals with tools. To break it down, researchers recognize that non-human animals demonstrate complex technological behavior. That is to say, some non-human animals are tool creators, e.g., gorillas (Bentley-Condit & Smith, 2010: appx. A26). Moreover, some use tools, e.g., ants create tools for food transport (ibid.: appx. A3) or pigeons create tools for food capture (ibid.: A7). And some non-human animals are meta-tool users, e.g., New Caledonian crows use one tool to extract another tool in order to use the latter to obtain food (Taylor et al., 2007: 1504). These examples make apparent the technological tendency of non-human animals.

Given these points, this paper begs the question: How are pigeons as users related to technology according to STS and Philosophy perspectives? Two distinct research methods will be used to answer this question: first, analysis of literature from both STS and Philosophy disciplines, and, second, observations based on videos provided by the online video platform YouTube©. Regarding the latter research method, two videos containing two interesting case studies about pigeons’ behavior will be deployed. In a nutshell, the first case study (“Case Study 1”), demonstrates a behavioral experiment that involves a controlled environment for the experiment to be conducted, a feeding mechanism which contains alternating signs (i.e., “peck”, “turn”), and a pigeon as an experimental subject. The results of this experiment show that the pigeon can recognize signs. By acting correspondingly to the signs, it reaches the food (flactemb, 2013: 0:05-0:35). On the other hand, the second case study (“Case Study 2”), demonstrates, similarly to the first case, a behavioral experiment which involves a controlled environment, a small box, food that is hanging from the top, and a pigeon. Surprisingly, the results of this experiment show that the pigeon can use the small box as a stand to reach the otherwise unattainable food (Dr. Robert Epstein, 2010: 9:50-11:00). 

  Moreover, it is important to point out that both cases are parts of experiments conducted by behaviorist scientists. In lay terms, behaviorism (and, especially, the radical behaviorism of Burrhus Skinner who is one of the lead-scientists conducting the above-mentioned experiments) it is the study that considers behavior as an autonomous subject matter which is functionally related to environmental variables (Moore, 2011: 461). Simply stated, behavior as the autonomous subject matter is both the outer and inner outcome of the interrelation between living beings and the environment. With this in mind, the two cases will be used as the basis for the authors’ observations and as supporting tools to address the persistent issue of observing non-human animal behavior through the lens of human perspective. Regarding the latter, the two cases can assist the attempt to work on non-human animal behavior because the cases under consideration are part of experiments conducted in a controlled environment by behaviorists who employ the tenets of behaviorism, as explained above. Therefore, this provides the authors of this paper the capability of “observing” in a detached and scientific manner the non-human animals in question. 

Finally, it is useful to delineate the argumentation line that this paper will follow. To break it down, first, we will what is a technological-user and if pigeons can be understood under this concept. After this, an STS analysis of the two case studies is made. The analysis is made from two different perspectives. The first one is by exploring the technological-user identity of pigeons, this is made by applying feminist theories. The second analysis follows Actor-Network Theory (ANT) view. This analysis will engage on how pigeons are technical mediators. In the third section, the Philosophy perspective will be employed to tackle the latter question by elaborating on the theory of postphenomenology and the concept of “multistability”. Further, a discussion chapter will be formulated to bring the two distinct perspectives on the subject matter into discussion and to extract some insightful results. Last but not least, concluding remarks will be provided to summarize the total argumentation of the paper. 

2 How pigeons as users are related to technology according to STS perspective

Can non-human animals be understood as technological users similar to humans? And if so, which type of relations are in place? The answers are not easy. Looking at the literature, until now user-technology relations was a preferential context in which user was always understood as human-users. Therefore, before attempting to answer the question some clarification is needed about what a pigeon really is and what the notion of “technology-user” really means. These two clarifications are the preliminary part of the section, followed by the core part where feminism and ANT STS approaches are presented.

2.1 What is a pigeon?

As far as pigeons are concerned, saying that pigeons are birds would just answer partially the question of what pigeons are. Saying that pigeons are animals, birds, would not answer what pigeons are. Pigeons have a very connected history with humans. According to the international ornithological committee, there are 351 different species of pigeons in the world. However, in this essay, we will refer to the domestic pigeon. This pigeon is the type that is probable to find in cities worldwide. Domestic pigeons were the first domesticated bird, and research suggests that domestication started 10,000 years ago (Blechman, 2007). Therefore, the history of pigeons is strictly related to one of humans. This made pigeons serve a key role throughout human history, making them the role of food, pets, holy animals, and post carriers both for civilian and military applications. Today pigeons are used for competitions in which races are organized, pigeons are also used for search and rescue people in emergencies, and as lab animals, as our study case shows, in the field of cognitive science (Gilbert, 2014). Moreover, pigeons in the urban environment are subjected to population control being systematically eliminated because held responsible for the diffusion of disease. This made them stigmatized with the name “flying rate”. But pigeons also appear in cultural entertainment society as cute animated characters in children’s movies and video games. Even when looking at the geographical distribution of pigeons it is possible to notice human intervention. In fact, in the Americas pigeon were introduced only 400 years ago by European colonizers, thus expanding the diffusion of the species (Gilbert, 2014). All this long story between humans and pigeons made that, from a human perspective, the social identity of pigeons in our imaginaries has been historically constructed by humans and the historical process.

2.2 What is a technological user?

Enquiring what a technological user is, even though it might sound trivial, is an important aspect of the understanding of our research. Generally, a user can be understood as a subject actively engaging with the technological object. This definition is less self-explanatory than one might think, this is because two underlined assumptions are hidden in the statement. First, the subject must be capable to learn how to use and engage with the technology according to the subject’s interpretation. This implies a semantic understanding and symbolic recognition of technology, therefore a certain degree of symbolic understanding, mental capacity of causality and the ability to control the environment. The second element is active engagement with the object. This relates to the intentionality of relating to the object. Thus, not only the subject must be capable of understating and learning, but also pursue its use. The challenge for this research is to translate these two assumptions that constitute the concept of user based on humans’ capabilities on pigeons. In favor of the view of pigeons as technological-user, we build from the findings of cognitive studies on pigeons’ behaviors.

According to the behaviorism view, learning is made through psychological conditioning. This means that for a given output of the subject that is being taught there are two possible responses that the instructor gives to the subject: a reward in case of a good answer that makes a reinforcement process through association. And a punishment that makes classifies the action as “bad” therefore weakens the association process. Dehaene (2021) describes this process, on a neurobiological level. The reinforcement is made by the firing between neurons. Therefore, if there is a reward the synaptic link between the two neurons involved in the neural circuits is reinforced, they “tie” together more strongly on a chemical and biological level, leading to learning acquisition. On the other side, if there is punishment, the same link is weakened because of negative association, thus the neuron synaptic link is less consolidated and can be interrupted. Thus, no learning occurs. Behaviorism has lost momentum in today’s cognitive science due to a simplistic view of human understanding and because empirical findings in genetics, social science, and anthropology have moved important criticisms toward it (Sapolsky, 2018). However, behaviorism views that the environment plays a role in behavior and learning still holds and has been confirmed empirically in several different experiments.

Skinner, during his carrier as a scientist deeply studied the behavior of pigeons and if it was possible to psychologically condition them. But if you want to condition a subject on a psychological level it implies that the subject can be taught, thus creating the conditioning process. The story of Skinner and pigeons started during World War II when the scientist started to work on a military program called Project Pigeon, an experimental project to create pigeons-guided missiles (because technological navigation missile systems still were not developed). The pigeons were trained inside Skinner’s lab to peck at a target and were rewarded with food when they completed the task correctly (Watters, 2018). The program was never adopted on the battlefield, and technology development for navigation missile systems put an end to the program. However, Skinner’s interest in pigeons continued as the two experiments being the case of analysis of this essay prove. The findings of these experiments show that pigeons have the ability to learn several different tasks, and they can interact with technology and learn to use it. Therefore, pigeons satisfy the first condition to be a technological-user: being capable of learning.  

The second condition of a technological-user is to actively engage with the technology, this refers to the intentionality of the subject. For this, behaviorism has a contrasting view. Behaviourism believes that behavior is shaped by the environment. Is the environment that determines the behavior of the subject. More broadly, behaviorism views are incompatible with the notion of free will (Skinner, 1971), free will that seems to be an important assumption for intentionality. But intentionality can be also understood on an input-output level, framing the intention under biological satisfaction. This view of intention seems to be compatible with what is observed during Skinner’s experiments on pigeons. The pigeon is in a condition where it wants to satisfy a biological need because it wants food. The output is seen as the execution of the task, because by doing the task (i.e., interacting with the technological environment of the experimental setting) the pigeon will be rewarded with food, thus satisfying its biological need. The process that happens in the pigeon that goes from the input to the output, by actively engaging the pigeon with the technological environment can be understood as intended. Therefore, pigeons satisfy the second condition of the technology-user. From this, we see that pigeons can be understood as technological-users by satisfying the two conditions, learning and intentionality. At this point, we can enter to the main body of this section.

2.3 Identity and technology 

In this section of the essay, we will use a feminist perspective to discuss pigeons’ role in technology-user relations. The reason why a feminist point of view is used is that feminist theories draw attention to historically under-represented groups (Hackett, et all, 2008). When looking at the literature concerning technology-user relationship we notice a gap in understanding non-human animals as users of the technology, therefore this applies to pigeons as well. Because of the under-representation present in the literature, we decided to apply feminist perspectives of technology to pigeons. Even more, we see the application of feminist standpoints applicable not only to gender but more in general to all social minorities that are part of minorities group, therefore non-human animals as well. According to Wajcman (2009), feminism is multiple and dynamic, always in the process of ongoing transformation. This means that historical materiality is always in the process of redefining itself, therefore social clusters and categories are destroyed and recomposed continually. This ongoing transformation builds and shapes relations between the constitutional elements of the material settings in which it takes place, further, it shapes and creates identities. It would be an epistemological and ontological issue and even more an injustice to exclude non-human animals in this ongoing process of identity transformation. As Harraway (1989) puts it: we live today in a technological world, in which science and technology have the power to create new ontologies and epistemic truths, new meanings and entities, and even more new worlds.  

Feminist scholars have already proved how the very definition of technology is embedded inside symbols and language of male activities (Wajcman, 2009). Moreover, as Harding (1986) argues, feminism has demonstrated how western, as a dominant techno-scientific culture, has played between binary divisions: reason and emotion, hard and soft, culture and nature, men and women, all these have privileged masculinity over femininity. The outcome of this is that when it comes to technology there is a gender construction embedded inside it, as a result of cultural and historical processes. Building from this, what we argue in this context is that not only there is a gender construction inside technology that leads to an injustice of under-representation, but further, an ontological cover is made by constructing the concept of user around the model of humans, by excluding on an ontological level the possibility of a non-human animal to be a technological-user. In contrast to this idea, it can be argued that technologies are related only to humans because technology is a result of activities such as culture and practice. However, humans do not live isolated in the environment. From rural settlements to the gigantic urban megalopolis, humans share the living environment whit other biological organisms. The co-habitations of space with these multiple biological organisms as pigeons give technology an active semiotic and material power that controls and shapes the identity of the other living organism that share the space of humans. The power that technology gives to humans to play with identities hides a more profound story. The control of organic identities is arguably part of the western view of human domination over nature. A good example in this sense is the fetishism of humans to have control over the biological reproduction and breeding of other species. Let’s think of the intense farming plans or population control of pigeons in several urban settings all over the globe. But the power that technology enables humans to control the identities of pigeons does not take place only in the material world and through “brute force”, but as well in the world of the intangible and the magnificent that is imagination. Information technology and media technology enable humans to play with imagination and spread popular culture in a mix of semiotics and symbols that actively shapes and defines ontological the pigeons. The name “flying rate” as pigeons are called is then diffused and stereotyped through the use of memes on social media, emerging as a cultural language of symbols constructed in the technological society. Or the pigeon is a cute and friendly animal, constructed and created for the consumption of families as an animation product for the entertainment society. 

As already mentioned, all the above is part of the embedded power relations that through historical and human intervention have constructed the identities of pigeons. Due to this, for this context, we apply to pigeons the concept of cyborg. The concept of cyborg as Harraway (1989) uses it, can be understood as the breaking of boundaries. Moreover, because Harraway comes from a feminist discourse, she conceptually plays with dichotomies: human/animal, human-animal/machines, physical/non-physical. The notion of cyborg takes distance from essentialism and properties of categorization. It plays with fusion and assemblages, making disappear what is defined. Cyborgs are anti-ontological and anti-metaphysical towards identities. What counts is not the abstractness of the pure idea, and the space of application is not the intangible world of reason. Rather, the identities of cyborgs are strictly embedded in the materiality process of history. Identity is here and now, and not there and tomorrow. The boundaries are braked by the narrative in place at each time and by the social relations present as means of power. Following Harraway (2016) today this is represented by the techno-scientific society. So, when answering what a pigeon is, it is not possible not to consider the historiographical processes, the narrative and the relationship that co-defined and co-shaped the identity of this animal from a human perspective. Pigeons are tools, food, friends, plague, gods, entertainment, colleagues, lab rats, and much more. In one word, pigeons are cyborgs, nothing and everything.

For this essay, we will also try to shift the cyborg identity of the pigeon. In our two cases the pigeon starts with the identity of “lab animal”, this related the pigeons to the human enterprise project of knowledge and control. However, our analysis will transform this identity by making the pigeon a technology-user with intentionality. 

2.4 Cyborg-pigeons and technical mediation

The case studies that we are looking to show how pigeons are technology-users are two scientific experiments set inside a scientific laboratory for scientific purposes. Moreover, as it is clear, these are not natural settings but rather controlled spaces built inside large systems that are the ones of scientific research. This has to be taken into account to make sense in a descriptive sense, trying to take away the human perspective from the interpretation. To do so, a flat ontological approach should be used, so that all elements are understood similarly and then put into relation to each other. To reach such a goal, the best path is to use an Actor-network theory (ANT) perspective developed first by Bruno Latour. ANT aims to think symmetrically (Verbeek, 2005), ANT conceives the world as “actants”, (a broader concept than actors because it expanse the idea of agency also to non-humans), that stand in relation towards each other and interact via networks. As noted in Verbeek (2005) actants are not free-standing entities with a pre-established essence (i.e. identity), but rather actants that come into existence and they defined themselves only once they are put into relation with other actants. In Latour’s words “actants emerge within the networks that exist between them” (Latour, 1993). Therefore, the essence (i.e. identity) of actants is constructed in the networks that emerge between existences (Verbeek, 2005).   

ANT can be understood as the material translation of semiotics. Generally speaking, semiotics is the study of sign systems, thus semiotics understands sing acquire meaning not when there is a reference object, but rather when put into relation with other signs. Making an example, the word “book” is not meaningful based on the reference object, but rather its meaning takes existence from the connections that the word “book” has with other words such as “page”, “text” and “student”, and so forth (Verbeek, 2005).  

A last important concept that ANT offers us for the scope of the paper is “hybrids”. Hybrid is a concept that has analogies with Harraway’s idea of cyborg. To understand them deeply the two concepts should be read inside their theories. From this, we see that cyborg is a concept strictly connected to identity, on the other side, hybrid is broader, referring to assemblages of phenomena with no clear ontologies. Intuitively, this means that a cyborg is a hybrid, but not all hybrids are cyborgs. In Latour’s hybrid perspective, reality is constructed meaning that actants, both human and non-human, play a role. The phenomena observed, Latour says, are not the creation of humans, they are not made out of thin air, not of social relations, not of human categories (Latour, 1993). Moreover, phenomena cannot be reduced either to humans or non-humans, but they consist of both (Verbeek, 2005). The ontological irreducibility of pigeons makes them hybrid phenomena with cyborg features, therefore, when observing the pigeons in our case studies we refer to them as cyborgs entities. Pigeons as actants emerge from existence and create the observed phenomena as both humans and non-humans. The human side is in the controlled environment of the lab, the human will is inscribed and programmed in the lab setting, therefore the human component is a relevant feature of the phenomena. On the other side, pigeons are non-human animals, their capabilities, organic features, and behavior are outside the human domain. But both worlds come together built inside the pigeon-in-the-lab making the actant becomes a hybrid-cyborg actant. Applying what has been said to the two case studies we see the following:  

2.4.1 “Case Study 1” and ANT: 

As mentioned in the introduction, “Case Study 1” shows the cyborg-pigeon having a material-semiotic interpretation of the signal that appears inside the box in which he is located. In the 32 seconds of the video that we examine, we observe a close environment. There is no knowledge of what is there outside the walls of the box. However, the network is not closed even though there is no information on what is outside the box. The opening from which the pigeon picks the food presupposes an external network connected to the internal network of the box. Therefore, a semiotic meaning in a relational way is made between the inside and outside environment of the box, using the opening as a bridge. Inside the box, we observe the following actants: the cyborg-pigeon, sign 1: pick, sign 2: turn, the opening, the wall of the box (with related holes probably for air), the food, and we perceive the camera that is filming but without seeing it. We do see that all these elements have an agency: the cyborg-pigeon moves and response to signs 1 and 2, plus he picks food from the opening and is constrained inside the box by the walls, even though the wall provides him oxygen for living, and to conclude his action are filmed by the camera. Sign 1 and sign 2, according to the observations, have the agency of changing the behavior of the cyborg-pigeon. The opening has the agency of giving the food to the cyborg-pigeon, as the food has the agency of nutrition. The wall of the box has the agency of limiting the space of action of the cyborg-pigeon, but also to provide the cyborg-pigeon oxygen. The camera has the agency of recording, thus making the action of the cyborg-pigeon transferable. Therefore, the camera has the agency of locating the cyborg-pigeon in a new network, as in the case of locating it in the network of this essay. Moreover, even though it is not observed directly from the video, we know that “Case Study 1” was inside a scientific lab inside a large scientific program part of the psychological domain of behaviorism. New networks with new actants and semiotics disclose themselves by zooming out from the internal environment of the box in which the cyborg-pigeon is located. Networks of the scientific process, economic domain through investment, biological and organic world as the other animals and humans present in the lab setting, networks of workers and geographies that bought the material component into existence in the location of the lab and under that precise shape, the network of life that bought the scientist part of the network to choose that job instead of another, and so on so forth.  

“Case Study 2” and ANT: 

“Case Study 2” is even more interesting in a certain way from an ANT perspective. As mentioned in the introduction, the experiment’s cyborg-pigeon cannot only attribute meaning to symbols on a material-semiotic level, but it does more by associating the script and the program of an object to achieve its goal. In “Case Study 2” we observe the controlled environment of the box in which the cyborg-pigeon is contained as in “Case Study 1”, but instead of the two signs that change with written “pick” and “turn”, we find a little box that can be moved, and a hanging object (that resembles the feature of a banana), that is hanged above the cyborg-pigeon making it difficult for him to reach it. From the voice in the video, we know that the goal of the cyborg-pigeon that the researchers have assigned him is to reach an object that looks like a banana, however, the researchers have trained the cyborg-pigeon to not use the wings. We observe that after a period in which the cyborg-pigeon seems to study the situation and environment in which he is located, and after evaluating the situation, he starts to interact with the box. The cyborg-pigeon shifts the box to the point that he can use it to reach the “banana”. Besides, all actants from an ANT perspective possess agency and emerge from existence only on a semiotic material level by becoming meaningful inside the network, as it was already explained for “Case Study 1”, in case “Case Study 2” ANT offers new interpretations.  

“Case Study 2” reveals a deeper technical mediation. Technical mediation is the conjunction of agencies of actants inside a technological action. Verbeek (2005) describes the example of someone shooting with a gun. The question to ask is: who is responsible for the shooting, the person or the gun? Arguably a person cannot shut without a gun, in the same way, a gun cannot shut without a person (if it is not an automatic gun). Moreover, the gun is not a simple intermediary because it does contribute actively towards the end, therefore the agency of the gun is summed with the agency of the person, leading that is the person-with-the-gun that has shot. For “Case Study 2” three different types of technical mediation are identified: translation, composition, and delegation. Translation means allowing a program of action through a technical object (Verbeek, 2005). Applying it to “Case Study 2” means that the program of action of the cyborg-pigeon was to reach the banana. This was not possible because the banana was too high, but by shifting and using the box the cyborg-pigeon translated the program of action and it used the technical meditation of the box as a function to reach the banana. Composition refers to the responsibility of the action that emerged from the technical mediation of translation (Verbeek, 2005). Therefore composition emerges as the association of actants. In the case of the cyborg-pigeon, the composition is given by the cyborg-pigeon and the box. The last type of technical mediation inside “Case Study 2” is delegation. Delegation means a semiotic material change of the medium of expression (add reference). Thus, it defines the meaning of the technical mediation that can change between actants. In “Case Study 2” we see the delegation process when the cyborg-pigeon uses the box for reaching the banana. As the scientist builds the experimental environment of the box to study the behavior and cognitive ability of the cyborg-pigeon the action of using the box that the cyborg-pigeon makes is of scientific relevance to the scientists. They will use that phenomenon to draw conclusions that will lead to scientific publications, conferences, and funding, the phenomena more in general will be part of that big and general network that is the human entrepreneur of knowledge. On the other side, because we are not a cyborg-pigeon we cannot know what type of semiotic meaning he attributes to the box. But by intuitive drawing from inference offer as an observer of the phenomena, it is allowed to say that the cyborg-pigeon understands the box as the technical mediator that allows it to achieve its program of action, that is to reach the banana. A program of action that is different from the one of the researchers that set up the experiment environment, but both use the same technical mediation phenomena. 

3 How pigeons as users are related to technology according to Philosophy perspective

Another perspective through which pigeons can be studied as users in relation to technology is the Philosophy perspective. In more detail, this study will use the postphenomenological notion of “multistability” in order to examine the relation of pigeons as users with technology. Admittedly, one challenge arises at this point, which I will address first: the problem of ascribing intentionality to pigeons (and, in general, to animals) based on the postphenomenological perspective. As far as the latter problem is concerned this study will employ an argument from the Philosophy of Animal Minds to overcome this problem. In addition, the two behavioural cases presented in the introduction of the paper will be used throughout the analysis of this study to support the Philosophy of Animal Minds argument but also to tackle the persistent issue of investigating animal behaviour through the lens of human perspective.

To begin with, as regards the problem of intentionality, it is important to elaborate on the existence of intention in animals (and in pigeons in particular) since the notion of “intention” is the basis of postphenomenological theories like the one this study will employ, namely, the multistability. Straight to the point, Verbeek stresses intentionality in the context of classical phenomenology: 

“… consciousness is directed to the phenomena that announce themselves in it. Human consciousness never exists in itself, but only as consciousness-of-something. It never exists as something isolated, but is always directed toward phenomena. This other-directedness is what Husserl calls intentionality …” (Verbeek, 2005: 109) 

Simply stated, human beings constantly direct their attention towards something, they are always in relation to the world. So, the world exists because of human beings and vice versa. With this in mind, one can pose the question: does this human trait apply to animals? Do animals have intentions, or again, do animals act toward something? 

To reply to the above-mentioned question, this study will refer to the Philosophy of Animal Minds. Typically, according to the latter philosophical discipline flexibility is an important indicator of the presence of intention in animals (Knoll & Rey, 2018). To break it down, flexibility means the ability of a system to respond to stimuli. The greater the flexibility the stronger the evidence of intention presence. In this regard, Knoll and Rey provide two examples of animals in which one does not represent the intention and the other does, namely, ants and bees. In short, the characteristic that proves that bees possess intentionality and ants do not is the fact that the former recover from errors. Indeed, being able to deal with errors is a genuine trait of flexible beings and, consequently, beings possesing the tendency for intention. 

Granted, the conceptualization of flexibility as error recovery and proof of intention can now be applied to pigeons to solve the problem of intentionality. Coupled with this, the two cases presented in the introduction will be used to describe pigeons’ behavior and thus to avoid the issue of human perspective on animal observation. As far as “Case study 1” (CS1) is concerned, it demonstrates a pigeon’s ability to recognize signs. Having the food as a lure, the conductor of the experiment can modify the pigeon’s behavior every time he changes the sign in the machine from “turn” to “peck” (flactemb, 2013: 0:18-0:25). It seems that the pigeon has the intention to eat and in order to succeed that it alters its behavior accordingly. When the sign is indicated “turn” the pigeon turns and when it is indicated “peck” the pigeon acts in the same manner. For this reason, it is rational to support the thesis that the pigeon demonstrates a degree of flexibility to achieve his aim, i.e., to reach the food. Therefore, the pigeon demonstrates a tendency for intention. 

Moreover, the above-mentioned conclusion becomes even more apparent in “Case study 2” (CS2). The CS2 includes far more complex parameters. In short, as described in the introduction of the paper, the experiment in the CS2 involves food hanging from the top, a small box, and the pigeon. In more detail, at first, the pigeon tries unsuccessfully to reach the food (Dr. Robert Epstein, 2010: 9:50-10:20). Then it comes with the “idea” to use the box in order to grab the food hanging from the top (ibid.: 10:20-10:50). As far as the flexibility is concerned, this case is an extremely insightful example of error recovery. In simple language, at the beginning the pigeon makes many times the same error to reach the food even if it is unreachable (ibid.: 9:50-10:10). But then it recovers from the first error by locating the box in the pre-fixed environment. This becomes evident when the pigeon climbs up to the box (ibid.: 10:22). And after that, the pigeon does the unthinkable: it seems like it “measures” the distance of the food from the bottom (ibid.: 10:27). In a remarkable sequence of practical syllogisms, the pigeon starts to move the box and it brings it under the food, succeeding eventually to grab it (ibid.: 10:30-10:50). Remarkably, the bird commits a second error when the box is not close enough for the pigeon to reach the food (ibid.: 10:41), but again the bird recovers from the error, moves the box, and finally reaches the food (ibid.: 10:47-10:53). 

With the CS1 and CS2 in mind, it seems that pigeons demonstrate a tendency for intention, or again, pigeons act towards something. In other words, the pigeon of the second behavioral experiment manifests such flexibility that it is able to recover from multiple errors. Not only this but also solves an extremely complex and abstract problem. This finding is immensely important for the current study since it paves the way towards the description of the relation of the pigeons as users with the technology through the lens of the notion of “multistability”. This is because, multistability as a postphenomenological approach is tightly connected to the basic tenet of phenomenology, namely, intentionality. Before elaborating the relation of pigeons as users with the technology based on multistability, I will first attempt to present briefly the theory in question. 

Broadly speaking, postphenomenology is a more extreme phenomenological perspective. To break it down, phenomenology describes (based on intentionality) the world as an individual point of view, i.e., the world as experienced, and in more recent interpretations phenomenology is the analysis of the relation between human beings and the world, i.e., adding to the equation as variable the world. On the other hand, postphenomenology goes a step further; or again, as Verbeek indicates: 

“… subject and object are not merely intertwined with each other but constitute each other …” (Verbeek, 2005: 112) 

Alternatively stated, human beings are not only in relation to the world but also they shape it and vice versa. It is a postmodern analysis that comprehends reality in terms of deep constituting relations. 

Furthermore, at this point, it is important to shed light on the role of things (or technologies or, again, artifacts) in this context. In explanation, artifacts also play a role in the co-constitution of human beings and the world. Said differently, artifacts mediate the intentional constitution between human beings and the world and, consequently, they codetermine the outcome of this co-constitution (ibid.). Artifacts are not independent entities since this could entail that they are independent variables in a reality where only relations exist and prevail. Instead, artifacts exist only in the context of their use as mediators in the relation between human beings and the world. Expressed simply, technologies are their use. Ultimately, artifacts seem to have their own intentionality but this is nothing more than a manifestation of human intentionality. So, depending on the form that human intentional relation to the world will acquire, artifacts acquire equivalent identity. With this identity, they participate as mediators in the human-world co-constituting relation. This is exactly the point where multistability comes into play. 

In general, multistability is an immensely essential concept regarding the relation between the user and the technology. To define, multistability is the idea that technologies can do many things, can be interpreted in many ways, have multiple purposes, and can be applied in different situations by different people (Boer, 2021; Rosenberger, 2020). To put it in another way, multistability expresses the protean nature of technologies; or again, it expresses the manifold ways in which human beings will co-constitute with the world via the mediation of an artifact. For instance, a chair is multistable in many ways: a chair can be a place for someone to sit, or it can be a stand for someone to step on it to reach something, or, again, it can be a toy for children’s wild imagination (e.g., a safe position in avoiding stepping into the lava in the surprisingly worldwide game of “avoiding the lava floor”). 

After this brief presentation of both postphenomenology and the concept of “multistability”, it is the moment for this study to make the “leap of faith” regarding the tenets of postphenomenology. In simple language, an attempt will be made to connect non-human animals (i.e., pigeons) to multistability in the most charitable way. Specifically, it is an investigation of how pigeons as users are related to technology. Provided that the connection of the pigeons to intentionality has already been established previously and, consequently, the capability of pigeons to act towards a purpose, it is reasonable to argue about how pigeons are related to technology through the lens of the concept of “multistability”. Again, the two cases of behavioral experiments provided in the introduction of the paper will be used for this purpose. It is worth noting that, the two cases are extremely helpful for the attempt to connect multistability with non-human animals since the cases under consideration are based on experiments conducted by behaviorist scientists. As noted in the introduction of the paper, the discipline of behaviorism emphasizes the fact that behavior is the outcome of interrelations between living beings and the environment. Therefore, it seems that there is a connection here between behaviorism and postphenomenology since the latter argues, similar to the former, that due to human intentionality human beings and the world are not only in relation but rather constitute each other.  

First, as far as CS1 is concerned, some interesting conclusions can be drawn regarding pigeons and the multistability of technologies. In a nutshell, CS1 involves a pigeon that recognizes signs. Depending on which sign appears in a machine (namely, turn or peck), the pigeon reacts accordingly (flactemb, 2013: 0:05-0:15). In this regard, the experiment includes users (i.e., the pigeon but also the conductor of the experiment), technologies (i.e., the machine which includes the language signs), and intentions (i.e., the possible intention of pigeon towards food and the intention of the conductor towards the study of the behavior of the pigeon). Given that, the machine is multistable. On one hand, there is the stability as feeding machine based on the intention of the pigeon towards the food and, on the other hand, there is the stability as an experimental tool based on the intention of the conductor of the experiment towards the study of animal behavior. Surprisingly, it seems that the pigeon is in a co-constituting relation with the world and the machine mediates in this relation. Because of that, a new stability arises for the machine due to the latter (non-human) animal-world relation. Even more, returning to the theory of postphenomenology presented above, the machine does not exist as an independent entity. It exists only in the context of its use by the pigeon (and, of course, the conductor of the experiment) and the pigeon’s intention determines the identity of the machine. Without a doubt, there is also the role of the experiment conductor, whose intention reveals another stability of the machine, namely, a machine for conducting experiments with pigeons. In short, the synthesis of the behavioral CS1 and the concept of “multistability” demonstrate how the pigeon as a user relates to technology. 

Further, CS2 constitutes a far more complex case where the pigeon demonstrates remarkable flexibility, as described before. To break it down, CS2 involves a pigeon that makes use of a box to reach the food hanging from the top (Dr. Robert Epstein, 2010: 10:30-10:50). In this case, the experiment also includes users (i.e., the pigeon and the conductor of the experiment), technologies (i.e., the box), and intentions (i.e., the possible intention of the bird towards the food and, again, the intention of the conductor of the experiment towards the study of the behavior of the pigeon). In the same fashion as the previous case, the box is multistable. But, unlike CS1, where the pigeon recognizes one stability based on its intention, in CS2 it seems that the pigeon recognizes two stabilities based on its intentions. In the first level, there is the stability of the box as a stand (or again, as a tool) based on the intention of the pigeon towards the food and, on the other hand, there is (similar to the previous case) the stability as an experimental tool based on the intention of the conductor of the experiment towards the study of animal behavior. Yet, in the second level, it seems that the pigeon recognizes a second stability. In lay terms, before the pigeon recognizes the box as stand (ibid.: 10:30) to reach the food based on its intention towards the food, the pigeon recognizes the box as a vantage point (ibid.: 10:20) based possibly on its intention towards checking or investigating further the environment. From a human perspective, this idea maybe seems odd since human cognition recognizes the whole activity of the pigeon (ibid.: 9:50-10:50) as unified, according to human standards. Expressed simply, from a human perspective all this activity is an effort of the pigeon to reach the food. But, it can be argued that from a pigeon’s perspective (limited maybe compared to humans) there are two distinct activities or maybe even more: at first, there is the activity of reaching the food (ibid.: 9:50-10:20), next there is the activity of investigating the environment (ibid.: 10:20-10:25), and, then, the activity of reaching the food comes forth again (ibid.: 10:25-10:50). Therefore, there are two intentions leading to distinct stabilities of the same technology.

Regardless of this, it seems that similar to CS1, in CS2 pigeon is in a co-constituting relation with the world and the box mediates in this relation. Because of that, a new stability arises for the box due to the relation between the pigeon and the world. Couple with CS1, the CS2 technology (i.e., the box) does not exist as an independent entity. It exists only in the context of its use by the pigeon and the latter’s intention determines the box’s identity. Not to mention the role of the experiment conductor whose intention reveals another stability of the box: a tool for conducting experiments with pigeons. Again, the synthesis of the behavioral CS2 and the concept of “multistability” demonstrates how the pigeon as a user is related to technology. 

All things considered, this study as part of the paper focused mainly on postphenomenology and the concept of “multistability” to answer the paper’s research question, namely, how the pigeon as a user is related to technology. To break it down, first, an attempt was made to solve the problem of ascribing intentionality to non-human animals. In response to this problem the discipline of Philosophy of Animal Minds was used and its conceptualization of the intention as flexibility. Then, for coherence purposes, the theory of postphenomenology was presented since it constitutes the basis of the “multistability” concept. Lastly, the latter concept was elucidated in order to be used in explaining how the pigeon as a user is related to technology.  

Given this argumentation line, some insightful remarks can be made. First, pigeons are remarkable non-human animals with surprising capabilities. Especially, as the CS2 indicates, pigeons demonstrate tremendous flexibility and error recovery leading them to innovative solutions towards problems. Second, despite their proximity to the human world, pigeons are extremely underrepresented in scientific studies (this becomes evident because the authors of this paper found it immensely difficult to discover scientific studies regarding pigeons). Last but not least, as far as the research question of this paper is concerned, pigeons seem to have the tendency for intention. Consequently, different stabilities of a given technology can be recognized based on pigeons’ distinct intentions. 

4 Discussion

In this essay, we approached how pigeons as users relate to technology from an STS and philosophical perspective. Our research suggests that without the use of the two perspectives, the conclusions we have drawn would not have been possible. STS and philosophy combine effectively in this research. The former is used to actively describe pigeons inside a techno-scientific context. This is made in two ways: first, by looking at how technology shapes the identity of the pigeon. This was possible by applying the feminist perspective and arguing in favor of the under-representation of pigeons when it comes to technology. This leads us to apply to pigeons the concept of cyborgs. From this point, ANT theory showed how pigeons are not only cyborgs but, descriptively it proved how pigeons technically meditate the world. Given this, the use of philosophical perspectives allowed us to take a step further. By using postphenomenology, and especially by applying the concept of multistability, we show that pigeons are arguably capable of plural interpretation of technology, therefore allowing them to recognize different stabilities of a given technology. This philosophical argumentation was possible by expanding further the notion of technology-user applying findings from the philosophy of animal minds. Therefore, this research shows that the two different approaches can effectively be combined inside a research paper. STS can be helpful to lift the curtain and see what there is hidden behind given phenomena. On the other side, philosophy is helpful to develop the discourse and give further interpretations of what STS has discovered. 

5 Conclusion

All in all, this paper aimed to address the question, namely, how pigeons as users are related to technology through the lens of STS and Philosophy perspectives. To break it down, via this paper an attempt was made to demonstrate that through the STS feminist theory it becomes apparent that pigeons are cyborgs which carry multiple identities. Apart from this, based on the ANT we saw that pigeons can technically mediate in a hybrid world. On the other hand, the Philosophy perspective was presented. In more detail, this paper addressed the issue of ascribing intentionality to animals by providing arguments from the Philosophy of Animal Minds field. Then, the theory of Postphenomenology was elucidated and the concept of “multistability” was delineated. In the last part of the Philosophy perspective, the two behavioral cases, presented in the introduction of the paper, were used to explain how pigeons are connected to multistability and, thus, to answer the question of this paper, i.e., how pigeons as users are related to technology. Last but not least, this paper comprehensively discussed the two distinct perspectives: STS and Philosophy. The main outcome of this discussion was that the concept of technology-user also applies to non-human animals. Therefore, more research on the suggestion that this paper opens should be made if we want to have a coherent and global understanding of the relations between technology and users. 


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The essay was written together with Yannis Efstathiadis, and both authors contributed equally to the work.

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