I am a Cat

Larry arrived via van shortly after 1300 GMT, and was carried into Number 10 in a covered cage.

A new tyranny has been installed in Downing St. A cat named Larry. So reports the BBC. Of course his installation is to manage a rodent problem and nothing more. You can be quite sure that in a home with a newborn, Larry won’t be a family pet of the stature of Socks. You’ve forgotten Socks?

Socks, the Clinton cat.

Now of course the presence of a cat in Downing St is source of delight, punning, and internet chatter. Cats are beloved of the Internet dwelling hordes who use them as a vehicle for all kinds of strangeness. Cats have those attributes of pet animals that cause us to become emotional attached to them, in particular the display of affection and the large eyes. It’s been proven that if you gave similar traits to a mechanical contraption of circuits and actuators people tend to become fond of them, potentially even more than other humans.

Sounds unlikely? Here is an article on MIT’s Sherry Turkle who’s been exploring this strange foray of human emotion over the boundary of the animate and into the realm of the inanimate. While feeling an emotional response to a mechanical seal is hardly Blade Runner, the idea of “sociable robots” nevertheless gives paws for thought:

Her prediction: Companies will soon sell robots designed to baby-sit children, replace workers in nursing homes, and serve as companions for people with disabilities. All of which to Turkle is demeaning, “transgressive,” and damaging to our collective sense of humanity.

Previously Turkle has published Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other which lamented the existential void being generated by our intense mediation of our thoughts and lives through technology. We are cyborgs, augmented beings, losing a grasp on being alone with our thoughts, on being being responsible to them and through them.

Is this anxiety new? In its intensity and pervasiveness perhaps, but many years ago Freud himself observed:

Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times. Nevertheless, he is entitled to console himself with the thought that development will not come to an end precisely with the year 1930 A.D. Future ages will bring with them new and probably unimaginably great advances in this field of civilisation and will increase man’s likeness to God still more. But in the interests of our investigations, we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his Godlike character.

-Freud (Civilisation and its Discontents, p. 280 of Vol 12 of the Penguin Freud Library)

Now scholars and academics are warning us of the attachment to the mediating internet and the detachment from our surroundings. This growing prosthesis is overwhelming they worry. We are losing our imagined communities, the conception of the world that shapes us and in turn we shape our children with. This anxiety lies behind a recent book Susan Maushart, The Winter of our Disconnect, reviewed here by Karlin Lillington, in the Irish Times, which charts a mother’s attempt to cut her family’s umbilical cord to the media saturated world she finds it immersed in. She unplugs her family from the world of screens for 6 months. I haven’t gotten around to reading the book (too many blog postings to read) but this podcasted interview with her is certainly worth lending an ear to.

Elsewhere one can read Nicholas Carr’s worries in The Shallows which deals with anxieties around the patterns of internet usage we develop which, he argues, is affecting the vary way we think, recall, react and so on. Or there’s Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget whose title says it all.

Pessimism around technological advances is age old. I do not merely refer back to the appearance of the dystopias of early science fiction but to the dawn of recorded history. Marshal McLuhan’s book The Gutenberg Galaxy describes the rise of the printed word and mass media in general as a paradigm shift for human existence from a sociological level down to the very kernel of consciousness. Inscribed in the first written tales and myths, he posits, is the mythic loss of the pre-written world. It’s an exquisite read, leaping elegantly from one insight to another, unlocking the essence of what underlies our digitally connected world before your parents knew what a keyboard was. Fundamentally the change is from the “aural” world of spoken words to the “visual” of read words.

With all these connective possibilities, these troves of knowledge, endless media, there appears to have ballooned a fascination with cats. I do not need to list links to cat videos on Youtube (about 1,130,000 results are returned for the search “cats”) or categories of cat memes on Buzzfeed for you to accept that proposition I’m sure. But cats have always held a certain fascination. It is not an outcome of the internet, put of our personhood.

In part that is because their affection can turn to arching hissing hatred, their dependence to disinterest so quickly. They appear to need us and not need us. They are a sort of unfinished project, a pet species not completely tamed. As such, they are useful vehicles for imagination, posing as analogues to ourselves. The literary cats run the gamut from Dick Whittington’s Cat to the Cheshire Cat to the unnamed cat that narrates I Am a Cat by Natsume Soseki. Cats are everywhere in our culture. As we’ve become a hyper-connected, image-saturated society, the attraction to cats, their affection, their large inviting eyes, has blossomed into sure-fire link-bait.

The Gutenberg Man, who could read vast troves of knowledge has been further augmented, further driven towards being a Prosthetic God and remains discontent, an perfect vessel for existential angst, and for the basic need for companionship. Much as snakes terrified our ancient ancestors they terrify us now. And just as those ancestors made pets, with affectionate eyes, out of wild beasts, we click the picture of Larry to hear of his arrival, at 1300GMT on the 15th of February 2011 at the residence of David Cameron, Prime Minister. You might though, on consideration, unplug from the internet, seek a real cat to pet, and assert that odd element of our humanity. Kitties are cuter in the flesh than on the screen.

PS. Do come back to internet though, we’re still here!

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