Just over ten years ago, on April 5th, 2012 to be precise, I took my first ride in a self-driving car, from Google X, in a research unit that has now become Waymo. There was someone sitting in the driver seat, but he had his feet and hands off the controls. We left Google and went for a drive on a couple of freeways around Mountain View in California. It was daytime, sunny, and easy.
The general zeitgeist at the time was that self driving cars, with no steering wheels installed and with no human safety driver, were just around the corner. [BTW, that was 25 years after the first autonomous vehicles drove on a public freeway, in traffic with ordinary cars with unsuspecting human drivers, just outside Munich.]
Back then, and for the next few years, most car companies were saying that they would have fully driverless software on regular consumer cars well before 2020. You may have noticed that that did not happen.
Along with that optimism was the expectation that by around now ride services companies (e.g., Uber, Lyft, and new entrants) would no longer have to rely on human drivers, but instead the ride share vehicles would drive themselves. See this report from 2019: “Uber thought it would have 75,000 autonomous vehicles on the roads this year and be operating driverless taxi services in 13 cities by 2022.”. You may have noticed that that did not happen either, not for Uber, or any other company.
The CEO of Tesla predicted in 2019 that there would be a million self-driving Tesla taxis on the road by the end of 2020. You may have noticed that the actual number was zero. And still is.
I was always skeptical about the timelines and wrote about that skepticism multiple times on this blog, here, here, and here. I was less skeptical about driverless cars eventually arriving, though I have always been of the opinion that changing our infrastructure just a little would make the transition happen much faster.
I’ve lived in San Francisco for the last four years, and the most notable thing I can say about that experience compared to any other city which I have ever visited, apart from the hills and the magnificent vistas, is that the roads, everywhere I go, but especially at night, have been thick with sensor rich vehicles from Cruise, Waymo, and Zoox. Thick. Overwhelmingly thick. Always with someone in the driver seat, and often someone additional in the front passenger seat. Here is a picture I tweetedout on Friday September 27th, 2019, of Cruise vehicles that I came across at my local Safeway taking a break. The drivers of the driverless cars were having a meetup.
Now finally there is some visible movement towards the driverless goals, in a densely packed city, for the first time.
Recently, just after 10:30pm on Thursday May 26th, I took my first rides, three of them over a 90 minute period, in Cruise vehicles, with no front seat occupants, summoning the cars on an Uber-like app, and going over a fairly wide ranging area of San Francisco. The vehicles that I rode in looked just like those above.
My conclusion from the experience is that Cruise has put together an MVP, a “Minimal Viable Product”, the lynchpin of successful tech, and is letting the public (me!) sign up to test the product for market fit. We would expect nothing different for any new product category.
BUT, please don’t make the mistake of thinking that an MVP means that mass adoption is just around the corner. We have a ways to go yet, and mass adoption might not be in the form of one-for-one replacement of human driving that has driven this dream for the last decade or more.
A Note About disclosures in This Post
I signed up to be allowed to download a phone app where I can call a Cruise vehicle and go to a destination that I choose, just as one does with Uber or Lyft.
I signed some waivers for Cruise as I most likely did when I signed up for Uber and Lyft (I frankly don’t remember, but since every single app for anything makes you sign a waiver I’m pretty sure that I must have done so for Uber and Lyft).
I agreed not to reveal any of their technology or trade secrets. I don’t believe I know any of their technology or trade secrets. All I know is the experience that I had and I will describe that. I did not take any photos or make any recordings during the rides. The photos I show below were taken before getting into the car; they are photos that anyone on the street could have taken.
I will state correlations that I noticed. Remember, correlations are not the same as causations.
But First, My Conclusions
I do not know the economics of Cruise being ably to profitably deliver a driverless ride hailing service with their current implementation. But from a customer experience viewpoint it seems to me that their current MVP is good enough to be deployed in certain circumstances. And certainly if existing nationwide voice communication systems like OnStar (see below) were used for any anomaly handling that would make the economics more attractive for localized deployments.
It seems to me that in a fairly big circumscribed community (I recall where my in-laws lived in a membership retirement community that spanned two golf courses with other recreational facilities and members only restaurants, in southern Florida as being such a place; there were no gates or entrance controls but it was clear where the boundaries were) the current MVP could provide more than adequate driverless transportation services within the community. It would be able to operate 24 hours, and would not have to restrict itself to low traffic areas, as all areas would be low traffic. The mechanics of pick up and drop off are quite smooth for anyone who has used a ride hailing app before. If temporary changes due to construction or maintenance activities (see ride 3 below) could be added to the maps that the system used that would increase reliability. I think the current system would be safe and easy to use.
From my experience in one of my three rides, Cruise driving is not always as smooth as one would expect from a human driver in heavier traffic situations.
I am positive about my experience, but I do not expect to use it in lieu of Uber, here in San Francisco, despite the zero cost. The locations that the service works in avoid many of the restaurant, museum, and hotel areas of the city. Most of my trips (and I take Uber a few times per week) either start or end at one of these sorts of locations. On top of that the hours of operation are very sparse. But mostly, the zero cost is not worth a trip potentially taking twice as long with this service. As I write this at 6pm on a Sunday, a fairly peak usage time, Uber promises a travel time of half what the first ride took on Thursday evening at 10:30pm.
THE DETAILS; A Long read
Here I go through the details of my experience which lead to the conclusions above. This is excruciatingly detailed, and I don’t expect many people will read it all.
The service operates from 10:30pm to 5:00am according to the app. That correlates with less busy roads in San Francisco in my experience. And some nights the service is not available due to weather. I have noticed that when I can hear San Francisco’s fog horns sounding multiple times per minute the service is not available.
The rides on my app must originate and terminate in San Francisco. San Francisco covers roughly 49 square miles. Some areas of the map are greyed out in the app and one can neither pickup or drop off in those areas. But it looks like well over half of the city is served, a few tens of square miles. The correlation that I notice is that the busy areas of the city with lots of pedestrian traffic are not covered, e.g., China Town, The Tenderloin, anywhere south of Market, and some other patches.
The rides are free.
On Thursday night, May 26th, my friend and Robust.AI co-founder Mohamed Amer and I took three rides, one after the other. We started at my house in west Cow Hollow and went to the corner of Castro Street and Market. Then from there we took a second ride to the edge of Russian Hill at Union and Polk. We walked south on Polk to between Broadway and Pacific, and from there went back to my house. I hailed the first and third rides, and Mohamed hailed the second.
Ride 1: 23.5 minutes, 4.80 miles. Chorizo.
My house is on a block with a 23% grade, the street is not particularly wide, and one side has 90 degree parking and the other side has parallel parking. Very rarely are cars going opposite directions able to pass each other, and one has to pull over into a gap in parking to let the other direction pass. Worse, because of the steepness, turning onto or off of my street at the intersection above my house puts the driver in a situation where they are blind, unable to see either the road they are going onto or the intersection they are entering. There are a bunch of these “scary” intersections, with a steep road and 90 degree parking in my neighborhood. Despite seeing Waymo and Cruise vehicles all the time, I have never seen one drive on one of these “scary” blocks.
Uber picks me up right outside my house but I did not expect a driverless car to be able to do so, and indeed the app told me to meet my car around the corner on another street.
The Cruise vehicle named Chorizo showed up and this is me about to get into it.
There was no human in the car. I used the app to unlock the car and got in, followed my Mohamed. The car talked to us, saying exactly the same things on all three rides; telling us to buckle up, keep our arms inside whenever someone cracked a window open, and to gather up our things and get out on the passenger side at the end.
From the pickup it was two blocks to Divisadero which goes due south and turns into Castro; our destination was Castro and Market, 2.5 miles away by the most direct route. The routing that Chorizo followed was 4.8 miles and took us a block past Divisadero to Scott, a much less busy street, then down to Pine, west to Masonic, and south on that. That was the only part of the route where we encountered any traffic, and there were two lanes of traffic until we crossed the panhandle. Soon after that we went further west on Waller, then south on Cole through Cole Valley, eventually getting onto Roosevelt Way going back east, crossing the end of Masonic (which we had gotten off of to go a half dozen blocks further west), then between Buena Vista Park and Corona Heights Park, on Roosevelt Way to Castro Street. We had gone an extra block east, then 11 blocks west and come 10 blocks back east, some of it on winding roads.
I noticed that there was almost no traffic anywhere on our very elongated route except a little on Pine and more on Masonic. If you wanted to avoid traffic at the expense of a much longer ride the route was a good choice.
On Masonic when there were two lanes of traffic I was reminded of my experiences of two decades ago when I taught my four kids to drive. There was quite a bit of heavy braking, and at one point a car behind us also had to brake heavily to avoid hitting us. We were in the left lane of two lanes of traffic. The correlation I noticed was that when a car or bus passed us on the right the brakes came on strongly, even though there was plenty of space ahead of us in our lane.
Chorizo pulled over to the curb with cars parked a little in front and a little behind to let us out.
While we were riding we tried to see if there was any person listening to what we said in the car, but there was no response. Mohamed had taken a ride by himself three days before, and the car had gotten stuck at an intersection, and people had to come to rescue it. At that time Mohamed was contacted by voice within the car, but it was over the regular GM OnStar (recently sunset) system. That approach seems like a good step to me, integrating with existing voice communication systems that many cars already have.
Ride 2; 26.7 minutes, 4.57 miles. Chorizo.
We stood around for a bit then called another car. There only seemed to be a handful of cars available, but it was Chorizo who came back for us, on a route that involved a lot of right turns to get to us.
Our destination was firmly north and east, but Chorizo took as west again, and then we headed north on Roosevelt Way over quite a length of it that we had traversed in the same direction as we had travelled on it to get to where we were now coming from. When we got to Masonic we headed north, then east on Hayes, north on Steiner, and east on Vallejo to Polk. There was almost no traffic at all on any of these streets. If the second northbound segment had been two blocks to the west the car would have encountered a “scary” block on Vallejo, between Scott and Pierce.
At our destination the street was lined with cars and Chorizo let us out next to parked cars, just as a taxi or Uber would.
I noticed that when we stopped at a traffic light at a four way crossing the car was quite fast off the mark when the light turned green, except when there were pedestrians around. Then it would wait a bit before taking off. Note, all I have here is correlation. I do not know if there was any causation. But if I were to design the behaviors (and I have been designing behaviors of mobile robots for forty years now) then most likely my system would evidence a similar correlation.
Ride 3; 9.2 minutes, 1.65 miles. Brownie.
Our last ride was short, and mostly on Vallejo until Chorizo headed north right when it reached the “scary” block at Pierce.
However the pick up showed up a real deficit, with some safety implications, compared to what one would experience with an Uber or Lyft.
When I called for a car, and this time we got Brownie, we were on the side walk on the west side of Polk. Brownie headed south on Polk towards us but turned left (we could see it) at Broadway then three rights at Larkin, Pacific, and Polk, and so was on the east side of the street.
This was consistent with where the app told us it was going to pick us up. The problem was that there was construction happening right there. Instead of a side walk there was a temporary pedestrian walkway constructed from scaffolding and wooden structures in the parking lane, and no way to get out to the road from there. Brownie stopped in the traffic lane waiting for us. We had been in an empty parking spot about 30 feet north of there, and waved to Brownie as one would with an Uber to get it to come pick you up. Brownie did not respond, so we had to walk along the active traffic lane, admittedly with Brownie blocking it, to get to Brownie. This was a mistake that even the most taciturn taxi driver would not make.
The drop off was uneventful, again not at my house, but around a corner in a different location than the original pick up.
On the first two rides we had noticed as we walked away from the car that it said something inside, before pulling away. Strange, as no one was there inside the car to listen to it. This time we were on a much quieter street and we tarried next to the car to listen. “Data uploaded.”
The last several years have been odd and isolating. I know that it has been very stressful for me and for most people that I have been in any level of contact with (which, since the start of the pandemic has been markedly less for all of my friends…I’m sorry that I have been missing from your lives – I still like you and want to be your friend!). Since humor can be an effective way to reduce stress, I hope that this particular project makes you smile.
A recent project of mine that I will be presenting at the 2022 Bridges Math Art conference is all about mathematical puns.
Puns are a good way to introduce complicated concepts in a non-intimidating manner. I have previously used them in various math art projects including the hyperbolic airplane skirt and the parrotohedron.
The Hyperbolic Airplane Skirt
Today, I am sharing some visual math puns created using stuffed (polyester-filled) animals. The resulting sculptural poly-fill-hedra are simultaneously attractive art pieces and entertaining math puns. I write quite a lot more about these creations in my Bridges short paper, which I will link to here when it is officially published later this year.
The dodocahedron. 12 stuffed dodos arranged into a rhombic dodecahedral shape.
The Otterhedron, a -hedron made out of eight (octo) otters.
The Tetrahedron, made out of four (tetra) neon tetras.
At high noon on an early-spring day in 2017, six steers doomed to die escaped their slaughterhouse and stormed the streets of my city. The escape became a nuisance, then a scene, then a phenomenon. “Man, it was crazy!” one onlooker told the local alt-weekly. “I mean, it was fucking bulls running through the city of St. Louis!”
What seemed at first to be their daring getaway would later be downgraded to a liberatory amble: The steers had merely drifted out of the pen that held them at the Star Packing Company on Cote Brilliante Avenue. One wandered into a residential yard, others into a nearby auto shop’s parking lot, a few onto the grounds of a Catholic nursing home operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor. Sister Gonzague Castro, then mother superior of the facility, remembers the call from the front desk: “There’s cows out the front yard,” a colleague urgently informed her. “They’re trying to get in.”
There before the reverend mother and God, the police (wielding rifles) and the butchers (wielding a cow trailer) managed to corral two of the steers. The third reared up and charged the nursing home’s metal-and-concrete fence, breaking through it and making a second escape. A locally famous photo in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch shows the animal’s neck craning high as his strong head splits the fence bars like twigs. Once again, he’d found freedom.
The brown cow had become a white Bronco: Television cameras and helicopters were on the scene to cover the “breaking moos.” People started rooting for the animal, calling him Chico—“He’s Chico, Chico Suave; he’s suave; he’s smooth!”—as he shrugged off the cops’ attempts to corral him. By evening, after five hours on the run, Chico found himself cornered on the premises of a food-and-beverage-coloring plant. Fate’s hoof had finally come down.
Chico’s new fans descended to support him, and to jeer his eventual capture. Kelly Manno, a local DJ and future TikTok star, pulled a dinosaur costume from her car and fashioned a makeshift protest sign, Don’t slaughter, send to rescue. The crowd chanted his name, “Free Chico! Free Chico!”
Chico and his herd did cheat death, but they weren’t freed either—not exactly. On an overcast day early this year, I drove an hour west from St. Louis to visit them. The animals are now working as bovine therapists at a nonprofit ashram of sorts called the Gentle Barn, located in the small, rural community of Dittmer, Missouri. There, Chico offers curative services in the form of cow hugs amid his brothers Bos: Johnny Cash, Houdini, Eddie, and Roo. (The sixth member of the group, Spirit, broke his ankle during the escape and was euthanized.)
I hoped these cows might help me. It would be fitting if they did.
For a while, about 10 years ago, I was a famous rancher of clickable cattle. These were the salad days of Facebook, when everyone relied upon the service and even loved doing so, partly because everyone else did too. The social network had recently become a “platform,” by which Mark Zuckerberg meant an unholy amalgam of computer software that allowed anyone to farm the attention and social connections of its members for communal chatter and private profit.
That profiteering soon took a form that caused me great personal distress. As a professional game designer, I couldn’t stand the rise of irritating social apps such as Pet Society and FarmVille: so-called games in which players were encouraged to flood Facebook with announcements and invitations to lure in even more attention. At the height of its popularity, 80 million people were playing FarmVille, or about one-fifth of Facebook’s total user base at the time.
My objections were moral as much as aesthetic. Social games forced players to turn friends into resources to feed a design based on compulsion rather than diversion. Almost exactly seven years before the St. Louis Six made their escape, I’d sat with tens of thousands of my colleagues at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, watching Zynga, the creator of FarmVille, collect a major award. This is stupid, I’d thought. These games are just … justcow clickers.
Cow Clicker, the real game for Facebook that I made based on that lark, was supposed to be even dumber than FarmVille. Players clicked on a cow, which mooed, and started a six-hour countdown until they could click it again. The game allowed them to invite friends to their pastures, buy various breeds of cows, and share their clicking antics on their News Feeds. Many people liked Cow Clicker because they hated FarmVille. But even more people liked it because they enjoyed clicking on a cow every six hours. In the end, hundreds of thousands of people were playing my game. Even Mark Zuckerberg himself clicked a cow (but only once). I had hoped to make a game that lampooned predatory attention harvesting. Instead, I seemed to have created yet another greedy time-suck—a fresh meadow for the same old crap. That kind of messed me up.
Wired ran a feature on the game, “The Curse of Cow Clicker,” for which I drove to a farm an hour outside of the city in order to pose for a photographer with giant cardboard cutouts of the cartoon cows from the game. I eventually disbanded Cow Clicker in a fit of pique that culminated in a bovine rapture: My cows disappeared forever. In their absence, some developers started using cow clicker as a generic term for meaningless clicking games of the type I’d meant to parody. Others evolved the idea into a popular, earnest, and lucrative genre of “idle games.” (Cookie Clicker and Clicker Heroes were follow-up hits.)
Cow Clicker remains one of my greatest professional legacies. That fact haunts me, and I allow it to. The cutout of the cow with which I posed still looks down at me from the wall as I click emails in my office at Washington University in St. Louis. “Aren’t you the Cow Clicker guy?” people sometimes ask. My brain fills with all the other things I’ve done, but ultimately I have to admit: Yes. I am the Cow Clicker guy.
It might seem overwrought to call my moo period traumatic, but surely milder matters have broken people. I struggled to satisfy players of a game I made to prove that such games were unsatisfying. I earned a good deal of renown but not much money. Then and now, Cow Clicker overshadowed the success of my other work, and of projects that received more critical acclaim. In my book, Play Anything, I did my best to recast the whole affair as a lesson in self-improvement. Later, writing at The Atlantic, I used it as an object lesson to explain how Cambridge Analytica–era Facebook data extraction worked. Every now and then I ponder—and then scuttle—some idea for a sequel or successor, and then regret my unwillingness to pursue it. Shouldn’t I have minted some cow NFTs?When will I finally get around to launching the Meadowverse?
All throughout, I left the game running in a ghostly form—even after the cowpocalypse, you could still click on the spot where a cow used to be. But eventually Facebook’s platform updates bested me, and the game, or its ruins, stopped working. When I peeked at the Cow Clicker page the other day, it was the first time I’d visited in years. The community hadn’t disappeared, at least not completely. During the first pandemic summer, a printer in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, posted “Miss you, babe” on the Cow Clicker wall. “What happened to cow clicker?” asked a high-school student from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, a few months later. In February, just one day after Russian forces had invaded her country, a woman from Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, wrote, “Cow clicker is not working.”
Those who haven’t had the mixed fortune of finding internet “success” may not understand the hollow feeling that it leaves behind—the sense of having gotten to a place you may never reach again, but which was a profoundly dumb place to be in the first place. If I did decide to bring back Cow Clicker, would it read like desperation? Would anyone be grateful, besides those straggler fans? And why can’t I escape this feeling of regret?
You can’t do cow therapy without cow trauma. That’s the first thing I heard from Ellie Laks, the founder of the Gentle Barn, when I visited her in Dittmer. Laks opened the facility in 2017 with the express purpose of taking in the St. Louis Six as rescues, after the animals were purchased with $17,000 in donations from a “Save Chico and Friends” campaign. “They came in absolutely terrified,” she told me. “And I had to put them through their own recovery, where they got to learn to forgive, learn to trust, learn to love again, and walk away from their pasts.” That healing, she said, is what allows them to heal others.
Outside a barn at the end of the property’s dirt drive, a social-media-thirsty vinyl photo backdrop reads, “I hugged a cow at #TheGentleBarn.” The service on offer is unique: Those in need can make an appointment to rub a pig or cuddle a turkey or, yes, hug a cow. They can do it in groups as a social event, or in private as “cow-hug therapy.” I was there for the latter—a private hug from Chico—as a journalist on assignment. Laks had waived the standard requirement of a $200 donation. I was skeptical that the hug would do much good.
A handful of brown cows lounged about inside the barn. Chico—whichever one he was—looked nothing like the proud, rampaging mutineer from the Post-Dispatch photo. None of the animals seemed suave or smooth. They were just big and slow and even stupid-looking. They were cows.
Laks pointed me to one in the center of the barn, munching on hay and minding his own business. “This is Chico,” she said cheerily, as if, with my hugging partner having been identified, the next steps would be obvious. I hesitated for a moment from a distance. It was easy enough to understand the premise of animal therapy—that playing with, or even just occupying the same space as, a dog or cat can reduce anxiety and alleviate depression. But you can pet a dog, and a cat can climb into your lap. This 2,000-pound steer didn’t seem to register my presence, and he was not about to snuggle up to me, at least not on purpose.
Laks sensed my uncertainty and encouraged me to go with it. With smaller animals like house pets, she told me, you’re the one in charge. Even in horse therapy, the human actor takes a dominant position over the animal, cast as the caregiver that grooms or feeds it. “Real healing doesn’t start when we’re in charge, but when we’re more vulnerable,” Laks said.
I had doubts. I’ve never been much of an animal person in general, and all my cow time to that point had been pretend. I had doubts about the sanctity of Chico’s rescue too. He’d been spared from slaughter, only to be returned to human service. And though the animals that stormed the Catholic nursing home ended up as heroes, the Little Sisters of the Poor themselves were being forced by circumstance to shut their home and pull out of the city after 150 years of ministrations. Chico was relocated, but Sister Castro’s human wards, the home’s poor and elderly residents, were soon forgotten. Now, as I planned out my approach for the hug, these thoughts went through my mind. Chico’s size also gave me pause. If only he could be clicked instead!
Laks urged me not to worry. “Cows are just naturally very, very, very nurturing and demonstrative with each other,” she said, “and so they’re happy to extend that to us as well.” Because Chico had been the leader of the St. Louis Six, she said, he was the most traumatized by the experience, and that made him the most therapeutic—it gave him “strength and wisdom.” She suggested that I partake of these qualities by approaching his shoulder from the side, then putting my arms around his body. But most important would be to rest my face on Chico’s hide and match my breathing to his. “You find their heartbeat and slow yours down to match. That’s where the magic is,” she said.
I did as I was told, extending my right arm over Chico’s back, but I didn’t know what to do with my left. I couldn’t reach it all the way around him, so I let it hang down awkwardly, like a middle schooler’s at a dance. With my human face planted against Chico’s body, I struggled to feel any heartbeat, let alone match it. (Later, when I shared a photo of the moment with my Atlantic colleagues, they seemed unimpressed, accusing me of having half-hugged Chico.) I was just beginning to feel like I was making progress when Johnny Cash edged into our personal space. Irritated, Chico sidled toward me and stepped on my foot.
Ow is just cow without the c, and I vocalized that sentiment a few times as I figured out how to extract my toes from under the mammal’s mass. “Are you okay?” Laks asked, and I managed an aspirational “yes.” I was supposed to let the animal take control, so perhaps I should have seen this coming: Chico clicked me.
At hundreds of dollars per hour, a visit to the Gentle Barn costs about as much as a quite fancy human therapist. According to the organization’s 990 filings, the operation brings in more than $3 million a year across its three locations in California, Missouri, and Tennessee, almost half of which pays for human salaries. “I am dependent on cows,” Laks said during my visit to Dittmer. “They’ve been supporting me for 22 years.”
I had to admit it: I’d felt supported by Chico too. Even cut short, our hug had been … sustaining. His body was warm and soft and substantial; and his indifference to me—as he trampled my foot (which was fine after I iced it, thanks for asking)—made me feel as though my problems might be just as small as I was. Laks isn’t wrong that hugging a cow requires a new mindset, and I can imagine it leading to a breakthrough.
Judith Finkelstein, a 30-year-old consultant for nonprofits, visited the Gentle Barn in California last spring. “I was open to trying anything,” she told me by phone. Finkelstein’s infant son, Aiden, had died of SIDS earlier that year. “I tried a therapist, a psychiatrist, EMDR therapy, gardening, long walks, acupuncture, sound healing. If someone said, ‘You would feel better by jumping off a cliff and landing in a bowl of Jell-O,’ I’d have tried it.” Hers was not the sort of anguish that could be cured, Finkelstein said, but cow hugging helped. “It was calm. The animals don’t ask you how you’re doing. They don’t ask you how you’re feeling. They don’t remind you to eat. They just sit with you.”
Finkelstein’s reason for going to the Gentle Barn made me feel embarrassed of my own. Of course Cow Clicker didn’t matter; how had I convinced myself otherwise? But then I thought about the mindless, simple calm that Finkelstein said she’d found at the Gentle Barn, which had helped to ease her endless pain. Perhaps my game had been a source of something similar, in some tiny way. Maybe clicking cows was somewhat therapeutic, for some of those who played it—and for some of those who miss it still.
If holding a cow is comforting, then maybe just beholding one can offer comforts too. Think about it: When driving through the countryside, a passenger who sees a cow in a field is almost obliged to make a delighted note of the fact. “Cow!” she’ll say. And everyone else will nod in satisfaction. Yes, cow. Cow Clicker didn’t do much, but it sure did offer people the opportunity to look at pictures of cows and to touch them with a mouse or fingertip—and it sure did make them feel good.
The realization that cow clicking might be a form of cow hugging brought me back to the moment when I sent my game to digital slaughter. What started as a pang of guilt became a drumbeat. Should I bring back the cows? I Googled meadowverse and discovered that it already exists as a play-to-earn NFT-based role-playing game. Scorched earth. Should I try to write a grant to assess the mental-health benefits of cow clicking? From the start I’d hoped my game would mitigate the harms of social media, and then I feared it was rehashing them instead. Now I felt as though I’d missed the point.
Near the end of my visit to the Gentle Barn, I asked Laks about cow codependence: Has anyone ever become addicted to cow hugging? I wasn’t really thinking about Chico, but about my own cows. “I don’t know how anyone survives without a cow,” she replied. “Whenever I’m having a bad day, I head to the cows, and they just make it better.”
Wired’s story about “The Curse of Cow Clicker” ends with a mic-drop moment. Reflecting on what it’s like to click on the place where a cow, now raptured, used to stand, one of my most active clickers, a Canadian stay-at-home dad named Adam Scriven, whom I’d gotten to know during the game’s run, told the magazine, “But then, we were clicking nothing the whole time. It just looked like we were clicking cows.” Boom. Really makes you think.
Except for the fact that they weren’t clicking nothing; they were clicking the pictures of cows that I had drawn. Cute ones that evoked a received, if idealized, notion of cowship, and of the same properties of stately languor and gentle determination—strength and wisdom, even—that are celebrated at the Gentle Barn. “What’s up with the no cows thing,” reads one post on the Cow Clicker Facebook page. “You think it’s cool?” Another former player wonders if he might find similar comfort elsewhere: “Are there any ‘games’ like cow clicker that we can move to? This might help encourage people to move on and stop clicking on the empty space.” Still others express simple confusion about what the game promised compared with what it delivered: “where is my cow?”
After some searching, I reconnected with Scriven. He looks older now, grayer, but so do I. Scriven says that he’s still in touch with some of his Cow Clicker friends from back in the day, but his crew never managed to reclaim the singular bond they had when they interacted only via News Feed cow clicks. “The ending of the game made me sad,” he said. I told him that I felt the same.
In its heyday, Cow Clicker allowed Scriven to socialize with people without talking. His Cow Clicker friends came from all walks of life, and nobody cared (or even knew) about their differences. It was only later, after the game ended and Trumpism began, that Scriven realized the extent to which politics divided them. “I’m a member of the punch-Nazis-in-the-face left,” he told me. Many of his online friends were not. He started getting in a lot of fights on Facebook, the kind that play out in comment threads a mile long and foul language some people construe as threatening. Last summer, after a series of abuse reports against him led to a run of 30-day bans, Scriven found that his account had been deleted. Facebook had deplatformed him. He’s since made a new profile, and he told me that some of his first friend requests went out to old Cow Clicker companions. Perhaps he meant to use the site, this time, in a different, calmer way.
It occurred to me that there’s special value in these hushed relationships, the ones that don’t require give-and-take. Facebook claims to foster social networks, but it really aims for something different: A network of exchange. It optimizes for engagement; it nudges us to interact, constantly, and as performatively as possible. In the world of social media, connections must be used to be worthwhile. Scriven’s success at cow clicking, and his failure at Facebooking, emphasize the difference. Linking up but not engaging—that’s the ticket. That’s the lesson of the cow hug—and of the cow click, too.
I told Scriven about my Gentle Barn experience, and how I’d found it therapeutic. Maybe he would like it, too. “Hugging anything is gonna be therapeutic,” he replied. Of course, he was getting things exactly backwards: To hug for the sake of hugging is as frantic and misguided as punching strangers in the face. What matters is that the hug creates a stillness of connection, a bridge that goes unused. That’s what drew Finkelstein back to the Gentle Barn over the months following her initial visit. She told me she’d been working as a volunteer, but when I asked her what specifically she did, she didn’t really know. She sat with the animals; she painted watercolors. It was a place where no one asked questions. “I think my job was just to be a human.”