In 1984, George Orwell’s novel depicting a future totalitarian dystopia, the operant phrase that defined the life of the comprehensively monitored citizenry was “Big Brother is Watching You”. Lately it seems that a lot of us are starting to feel a little “observed” ourselves. As the news continues to mount that our own government and some of the internet’s most dominant companies are more than a little interested in what we’re talking about, who we are talking to, and what we are watching, some paranoia is beginning to set in. A recent survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project noted that 86% of internet users have taken steps, like clearing cookies, to remove their digital footprints in recent months. While there are undoubtedly a variety of reasons to erase all signs of our on-line activity, I think that one word best summarizes our desire to shield our behavior from prying eyes—Cats.
Yes kids, cats. Apparently most of us—I’m a dog man myself—just can’t get enough of these furry little fellas. A recent study determined that 15% of all web traffic is cat-related. When you consider that daily internet volume is over 675 petabytes per day, that means that 102 of them are dedicated to felines named Snowball and Mr. Tinkles. Some of the more mathematically inclined among you may be trying to calculate this volume into terms that are easier to relate to. While you’re trying to remember how many terabytes equal one petabyte—it’s 1,000—the rest of us will just have to make do with the understanding that whatever the number, people are watching one heck of a lot of cat videos.
At first I thought this internet cat obsession had to be some type of fabrication, like those emails that people send you claiming that Captain Kangaroo was a marine on Iwo Jima or that Batman is really a transvestite. Although they seem plausible at first, they ultimately turn out to be untrue. At least this was the case for the Captain, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about the Caped Crusader. Although I find myself mystified by this on-line cat obsession, it appears that they are the go-to animal when those of us with access to a camera are looking to preserve unusual pet behavior for posterity.
Fortunately, for the global internet community, the average cat video is a little bit more intricate than five minutes of watching Fluffy play with a ball of yarn. Apparently there are virtually no limits to what a Persian or Siamese can do when the little red light goes on. There are videos of piano playing cats, surfing cats, and driving cats. I’ve even heard of one video of a cat playing the Brando part in a road production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Apparently, he’s a little hard to understand, but looks great in a T-shirt while mewling “Stella…” This is the type of versatility that you just aren’t going to find with the average fish or parakeet.
Up until now, this internet obsession with all things feline has been something that could be kept under wraps. A closed door was enough to ensure that no one else knew about your guilty pleasure—except of course for all the folks on your email list that received the forwarded copy of that tabby meowing the Star Spangled Banner. Unfortunately, in this new era of heightened security, cat video viewers everywhere find themselves under siege. While maybe not the type of thing that could kill a budding political career, or derail your path up the corporate ladder, the prospect of being exposed as a purveyor of frolicking felines carries a high embarrassment factor. Could the government use this against you? Probably not, but I’m sure they’ve blackmailed people with less—those CIA guys take their jobs pretty seriously after all. Certainly there is a bright side to this intensified focus on internet pet video viewing. I’m sure that the rest of us will enjoy faster downloads and more rapid data transmission speeds as the 15% of internet bandwidth now consumed by this illicit cat worship should decline dramatically. Somewhere, lonely guys in basements are rejoicing at this prospect.
Perhaps the most interesting result of this clash between those who seek to increase their internet surveillance capabilities and the web’s predominant bandwidth hog is the fact that it has arisen at all. The surveillance stuff I get, since evil doers rarely self identify themselves by using addresses like firstname.lastname@example.org, but I don’t think anyone saw this global cat obsession coming. This is what is commonly referred to as the law of unintended consequences. Personally I think that this heightened focus on internet security is a good thing and will help the web return to its primary function as the conduit for delivery of critical information. With that being said, if you’d like to send me your email address, I’ll forward you a copy of this video I found of a skateboarding dog.