During a recent Zoom call with academics in five countries, I noticed we all had the same response to one thing—cats walking across our keyboards. On the agenda that day were our journeys in digital culture and we joked that the deity of digital culture had blessed us by meowing in different continents.
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, Douglas Adams made a convincing case that we had only thought we were experimenting on mice; in fact, it was the mouse (a hyperintelligent alien species) that had been conducting the experiments on us. By the same rule of seemingly innocuous ubiquity, in the real-life digital era, it is the cat who has emerged as the winner of the game, not the mouse.
This is not my observation, of course. Back in 2015, a whole exhibition was mounted in a New York museum to showcase How Cats Took Over The Internet. Over the last decade, cultural theorists have bent their minds to analysing how cats established supremacy on the internet through memes and videos. Given their goddess-like status (like their ancestors in Egypt) in streaming video, it was inevitable that cats would know that they must appear on our Zoom calls too. Leave no screen un-meowed and so on.
Having paid my ritual obeisance to the extremely online cat, I now want to raise a slightly blasphemous question. Does the cat now have contenders for supremacy in the digital world? Should the cat be looking over her shoulder or over her butt or through her legs at her flank for competition? Is the cat no longer the unchallenged goddess of the internet?
I argue that the cat has competition from a. the panda and b. the penguin.
The panda has always been a stealth contender. The panda has had, unlike the cat, whole diplomatic missions and several consulates hard at work to promote its giant black and white charm across the globe while it sat around chewing bamboo. Today the internet has various panda cams set up in major zoos—an obvious evolution from old-world media, which merely reported which zoo had a new panda acquisition or which panda couple at long last had procreated fluffy, two-colour adorableness.
The panda’s inability to get from point A to point B without looking like your drunk, good-natured college friend battering his way through your other college friend’s house-warming party, knocking down every paper plate of biryani? That is the panda’s strength. Even the panda’s artistic juvenilia, clutching the knees of its innocent, nameless keepers, climbing into the laps of dark grey overalls, this is all seemingly effortless genius. Can a panda move an ineffectual paw without raising a tsunami of “so cute” around the globe? The panda was made to be a celebrity. What it does off-camera, its foul personality, its meanness to its entourage, all that is well-hidden on the 30-second bursts through which it is taking over the internet.
The other contender for the throne is also a black and white contender. While the panda’s allure lies in its helplessness, its inability to blow into a breathalyser and its inability to look like it is over the sangeet binge-drinking session, the penguin is all about the relentless Lilliputian striving and coordinated action—like Annual Day at UKG, with less crying and more coordination. Honestly a penguin pack is like a teen girl band in its seriousness and work ethic.
While I have always been a fan of penguins, I feel the Digital March of the Penguins got a boost during the pandemic. One of the first set of digital artefacts that emerged from the pandemic, while we were still learning the phrase “flattening the curve”, were tiny videos of penguins walking about in zoos newly emptied of visitors. In one extreme moment, as significant as Dalgona coffee, penguins went on field visits to museums of contemporary art.
And all of us who like our cute animals anthropomorphised can’t help but relate to an upright bird which looks like she is 10 minutes late for a five-minute appointment. Their genius is in making everything off-brand look completely on-brand. A panda couldn’t go to the museum without causing outrage and confusion.
A recent job listing asked candidates to move to the Antarctic and count penguins. Penguin PR is so excellent today that I am sure all applications had the subject line “awwww”.
One of the problems that the incumbent has is this—a significant population of the world, even when a fan of the cat, is suspicious of its motives. The cat also has to deal with a little bit of the ghar ki meow/familiarity breeds contempt factor. Neither helpless nor a striver, the cat can only be loved by those who enjoy blatant power struggles or enjoy submitting in abject adoration. For everyone else, a cat in a museum would cause narrowing of the eyes.
The poet Czeslaw Milosz tried to defend the cat against sceptical humans by saying, “And such as cats are, all of Nature is. Indifferent, alas, to the good and the evil,” and describing our anti-cat position as “a theological, Augustinian grimace”. But the great Eunice de Souza was more on point when she said, “Keep cats if you want to learn to cope with the otherness of lovers.” And, “That stare of perpetual surprise in those great green eyes will teach you to die alone.”
Now during my presentation, if any of you at the back has been trying to say dogs, dogs, dogs can take over the internet, I hear you. I hear you and as someone who has neither a cat nor a dog, I am a detached observer and want to chortle quietly. Dogs. As if.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.