13 May 2019
I came home from a trip to Italy one day having heard that my dear dog Wallace was gravely ill. He had an iron temperament – haughty and devious, a great dog but not much of a pet. He was my constant companion from the age of 10. By the time I was home that summer in 2003 he was already in the ground. The log we used to chain him to – the only way we could stop him running off – was already on the fire. He lived fast and died young. The cause of his death was uncertain, but it was likely connected to Wallace’s phenomenal appetite. Our farm dogs had carnivorous diets: canned meats and leftovers and dry food, all mixed together. But this was never enough for Wallace, who was a very hungry beagle, and who died after eating something truly gruesome on the farm. Pity Wallace, who died for the thing he loved.
While browsing on Twitter a few weeks ago a promoted ad appeared that suggests I should buy their personalised dog food. I felt a familiar pang of sadness. True to the idea that any product can have the word ‘personalised’ attached to it, Tails.com have sought to personalise pet food – the stuff that is proverbially uniform, undifferentiated, derivative – with ingredients selected especially for your dog’s individual needs. Beyond the familiar platitudes I wondered what is being ‘personalised’ when dog food is personalised: what and why is this product being sold to me?
I don’t have a dog or anything else in the house that might eat dog food. I have the memory of a dog now dead for 15 years. Such is the informational asymmetry on social media platforms that I can guess, but I don’t really know, how Tails.com decided to spend money marketing their product on my Twitter feed. How had I been selected? Because I associated myself with the weird abundance of ‘doggo’ accounts? Surely something more sophisticated is needed than interacting with some canine-related content? But for a relatively new company like Tails.com, which now has Nestlé Purina Petcare as its majority shareholder, advertising to new customers is also a way of announcing themselves to investors and rivals, since their ads celebrate their innovation within a market – ‘the tailor-made dog food disrupting the industry’ – as well as promising products ‘as unique as your dog’. Whatever made me the ostensive target for this company’s product, the algorithmic trap was sprung from social media in order to ‘disrupt’ how you care for the animals in your home.
Tails.com provide personalised rather than customised products. The personalised object or experience is iterative and dynamic, it can be infinitely refined: personalisation seeks and develops a relationship with a person or group of persons; it may even develop the conditions for that group to join together and exist. Personalisation is primarily a process rather than a one-off event. A customised thing, by contrast, is singular and time-bound; it may have peers but it has no equal or sequel. So, many surgical interventions are individualised according to the person, but the patient usually hopes it’s a single treatment. Personalised medicine, on the other hand, is serial and data-driven; a testing infrastructure that recalibrates through each intervention, shaping relationships between different actors within a system. Tails.com sells dog food to dog owners. It does this by capturing and managing a relationship between dogs and owners, mediated by the processing of group and individual-level data. Such a system can be lifelong, informing not one but multiple interactions.
When debates continue to turn on the ethical uses of machine learning, its misrepresentations and its inherent biases, I am struck by how even critical voices seek adjustments and inclusions according to consumer rights: an approach that is happily adapted to capitalist prosumerism. ‘Personalise #metoo!’ To simply disregard Tails.com’s ads on Twitter as an intrusive failure of targeted marketing and personalisation may overlook a wider project that is harder to evaluate from an individual, rights-based, or anthropocentric perspective. The promise of disruption through personalised dog food tells us something about personalisation that stretches beyond transactions between company and client.
By personalising pet care, Tails.com seeks to enhance interactions between different ‘persons’, extending values of consumer preference and taste, satisfaction and brand loyalty with a blanket of anthropocentric ‘personhood’ to cover both the machines that market and deliver this product and the animal lives that we are told should benefit. No one asks the dog what it wants or needs. The whole system, from company to client and canine, is being personalised, but from a wholly human point of view. And yet, despite messages to the contrary, dogs probably don’t care that their food is ‘personalised’ in the way that Tails.com desire.
It’s not hard to imagine the kind of dog food customised to canine desires, the kind of foods that kill dogs like Wallace. I doubt, somehow, that Tails.com would like to facilitate this deathwish, since it would be a customised last supper rather than a personalised relation, sold over and over again.