Thomas Thwaites was dog-sitting when it occurred to him that he’d rather be an elephant. A happy animal that “doesn’t have to worry about money or what it is doing with its life or how things are going with the girlfriend”, he says, explaining the impetus for Toaster-guy to become Goat-man. Goat? You see, once Thwaites resumed his day-job as a speculative designer, he was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Wellcome Trust would fund him to change species. Unfortunately however, he learnt that although elephants “have a lovely trunk and can spray water around” they are the most likely animal (next to humans) to experience existential crises. Seeking counsel from a shaman in Denmark, he was advised to rather pursue his inner goat.
Humans have been trying to become other animals through spiritual rituals since the dawn of consciousness. Western philosophy, however, has all but squashed these urges. As John Stuart Mill famously wrote: “It is better to be a human-being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” But is this fetishisation of rationality and consciousness really better, wondered Thwaites not unlike the Billy Goat who thought the grass might be greener on the other side of the troll’s bridge. The resonance of this fairy tale with the shaman’s reading is a prosaic coincidence, but Thwaites recognised its similarities with our drive for technology to make things better, and began to consider his project as an exploration of alternative purposes for technology other than for feeding the accelerationist tendency.
This also inadvertently became a riposte to “some of the more outlandish speculative design projects about biology and the post-human”, says Thwaites. “There’s an aspect that you gain by actually attempting to do this, which you don’t get from just anticipating it.” After all, he could have just supposed a future where people take holidays from being human. “When you talk to someone actually working at the coalface of prosthetics, for instance, you realise that we’re so far away from the kind of claims that come out of some of those projects.”
After the shaman, Thwaites consulted a goat psychologist to find out how his own brain differs from that of a goat. Even though the experts are not entirely sure, Dr Alan McElligott thinks the primary difference is time and story. “Goats of course have a memory, but they don’t make their memories into stories that they then work over in their minds.” They have no capacity for mental time travel, which is how humans agonise over past deeds and calculate the outcomes of choosing specific courses of action. Besides making time into stories, McElligott claims, “The entire human body is geared towards expressing what is going on in [our] own mind. Goats do not speak.”
For a designer whose practice is oriented around telling stories, a non-narrative consciousness seemed impossible to imagine. Spending a lot of time with his subjects at the Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats did not offer any useful Zen insights. So he turned to the neuroscience technique of transcranial magnetic simulation, which can induce virtual lesions in the brain. Switching off the ability to mentally time travel shuts down two-thirds of the brain, which Thwaites was told might not be reversible. He therefore had to settle for attempting to impair his speech for a morning using a not-very accurate or advanced technology. “It wasn’t very nice because it agitated the nerves in my face, making my teeth hurt, and one of my metal fillings fell out the next day”, recounts Thwaites with that self-admonishing British sense of humour.
He then decided it was time to enter the workshop to build some form of exoskeleton that would reshape his body into that of a quadripedal mountain runner. Naturally it was much more complicated than he had expected, involving detours to the Royal Veterinary College and an NHS prosthetics expert. He even made a prosthetic stomach to digest grass. This is the charm of Thwaites’s work. He’s a kind of bumbling amateur scientist who thinks he can figure everything out – a contemporary archetype in our era of information overload – and then afterwards discovers that it’s much more complicated than he thought but still refuses to admit defeat, ultimately making a mountain adventure out of a molehill dream.
“I’ve always preferred twee and funny to future shock”, Thwaites attests, feeling that his personality is indistinguishable from his design approach. But this blurring is not conscious, as it was with the modern artists who explored the self as artwork; instead it’s a narrative and pedagogic device to reveal the nature of design thinking. Thwaites’s particular take on speculative and critical design was evident in The Toaster Project, in which he explored our dislocation from technology and the origins of the contemporary moment, to reflect on how we think about the future. There was also a strong emphasis on making the outcome as accessible as possible through the popular media. “For me, it’s important to break out of the design bubble and stay true to the founding ideals of speculative design, that it should be a public good, a useful way to present other ideas”, Thwaites says, revealing his urge to reach a mass audience. Although the way the British tabloids picked up the GoatMan story has also made him more aware of the dismissive danger of populism.
Having won the Ig Nobel Prize and launched his book GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human (Princeton Architectural Press), he has returned some gravitas to the project. Even if the award is a spoof on the actual Nobel Prize, recognising unusual or trivial achievements in science, the intention is to “first make people laugh, and then make them think".
Thwaites finally made it to the Alps and lived with the goats for three full days. Most striking, from an experiential perspective, was how different the world is when you only interact with it using your mouth. Still, it was not an endurance test and Thwaites’s knuckles bled because of the prosthetics. And his artificial stomach did not enable enough sustenance from grass. Plus it was absolutely freezing cold. Like The Toaster Project, this was a failed design experiment. A failure that Thwaites would happily redo. Ultimately, it’s more about crossing the bridge than making or dreaming of greener grass, a fitting retort indeed to speculative design.