Ask not what you can do for your cat, etc.
Last week or so this amazing tool surfaced to my inbox (or my feeds, can’t remember). It allows you to draw any outline in a basic MS-Paint-like canvas and BOOM, a monstrous rendition of a cat pops out in another box.
Christopher Hesse, who made the demo, based his tool on research by Berkeley computer scientists and combined edge detection with training a neural network on thousands of stock photos of cats (something he had previously done with building facades or bags). Much like the first, uncanny images of Google’s DeepDream generator made dog faces bubble up behind the fabric of reality in a sort of psychedelic nightmare, Hesse’s haunting cats have a creepiness very similar to the robots and computer animations described in this article by Pam Weintraub. As the author argues, not-quite-life-like reproductions of humans — albeit realistic — are creepy specifically because they get close to the original, while denouncing their own artificiality in subtle ways. The photographic fur and sparkly eyes of Hesse’s edge2cats tool thus manage to turn the most suggestively empathic Internet stereotype — the cat — to a creepy infrastructural reminder of algorithmic imagination. In these angry, cynical times, we could even call such an implicit attack on cuteness — the only antidote to the trollish hate-mongering we’ve been talking so much about — blasphemous. Of course cuteness is not the only antidote to hate speech, and Hesse’s thing is actually pretty cool, but you get my point.
Despite “watching cat videos” is often used as the most representative example of time-wasting on the Internet, the production and consumption of cat-related or cat-shaped content (especially LOLcats) has a documented cultural significance. In a First Monday paper, Kate Miltner investigated different attitudes to the LOLcat phenomenon through focus groups with different types of users. Most notably, the old-school MemeGeek users (think 4chan, etc) looked down on the appropriation of the meme from the Cheezfrenz (think icanhazcheezburger), their mainstream counterpart. The latter were considered guilty of expressing too much authentic emotional attachment. As the author explains, while the “logic of lulz” values knowledge and technical skills — and thus identifies with inside jokes — the “logic of lols” is more focused on cuteness and indulging personal feelings. Considering the cultural relevance of this juxtaposition in recent times, we can see the LOLcats split as an early signal of the alt-right VS SJW divide that would later inflame social media.
As inherent to Internet culture as they are (just like the logic of lulz), LOLcats have however crossed over into politically engaged, “IRL” events in more than one occasion, and they’ve done so on markedly strategic terms. As I wrote years ago for the Impakt blog, an interesting example was the use of LOLcats to try and defuse the ideological content of Anders Breivik’s manifesto, disseminated online after the horrific facts of Utøya. The Norwegian hacker collective tried to drown out the original pdf file of Breivik’s anti-multicultural message by spreading a doctored version riddled with LOLcat images instead of words. Ideally, the fake, ironic manifesto would proliferate and the terrorist’s words, as made explicit in the screenshot above, would be forgotten. Sadly (and ironically), it’s now pretty hard to find the LOLcat version and all too easy to find the original — which means the tactic was definitely noble in spirit, but ultimately ineffective.
A more recent case of tactical use of LOLcats was during the Brussels lockdown in November 2015, during the frantic police hunt of Saleh Abdeslam, the runaway member of the terrorist group behind the Bataclan attack in Paris. In order to create “noise” and mask police movements, Twitter users started flooding the network with cat pictures — “cat” sounds a bit like “quatre”, the maximum security level announced by the authorities before the raids — and eventually even received a thank you tweet from the Brussels police with a picture of cat crunchies.
Stereotypical formats of tactical media
In From Cliché to Archetype, Marshall McLuhan refers to Carl Jung’s definition of archetype as something that “repeats itself wherever creative fantasy is fully manifested.” In this sense, the cat is both an “essentially mythological figure” and the result of “psychic residua of numberless experiences of the same type” (Jung, 1928). According to McLuhan, Joyce’s Ulysses reverses the archetypal figure from the Greek myth to a cliché, in order to explore the city of Dublin. The LOLcat cliché, then, is an act of consciousness in the electric multi-consciousness outlined by the Canadian scholar, in which the “mini-module” is the new structure of choice. Small and modular, stereotypical formats like the gif or the LOLcat macro are perfect conductors for deep-reaching, fast-traveling messages. Leveraging the empathic power of the cat and the informational efficiency of social media, these memes have powerful potential as tactical media. Although the examples mentioned above were only partially effective, they show how — ideally — feeling and infrastructure can collaborate in strange ways.