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CatCam Probes Philosophical Puzzle: What Is It Like to Be a Cat?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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My girlfriend, whom I’ll call Emily, loves videos of animals, especially cute ones, like baby hippos, talking porcupines, lionesses that nuzzle baby antelopes. Wanting to share her delight, Emily insists that I look at her computer to check out her latest discovery. Being a cold-hearted jerk, I typically mutter, “Yeah, that’s nice,” scarcely looking up from my own computer, where, chances are, I’m Googling myself or brooding over comments on this blog.

I reacted in this way, at first, when Emily told me about a 16-minute film, CatCam, showing at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, about a camera-wearing cat. If a video stars a cat, my interest is less than zero. I’m a dog guy, and there are already too many cute-cat images clogging the internet. Emily persisted, pointing out that the cat had produced some cool images.

Finally I checked out CatCam, and I got hooked. The film tells the tale of Mr. Lee, a stray cat whom Juergen Perthold, a German engineer, and his wife adopted after moving to South Carolina in 2006. Curious about his cat’s wanderings outside the house, Perthold designed a camera, the CatCam, that hung around Mr. Lee’s neck and took photos and, later, video.

As Emily told me, the CatCam images are amazing, like nothing I’ve ever seen. The photos show a snake coiling in grass, the inside of a drainage pipe, a tree-lined street on which a dog stands vigil, a bird feeder—all shot from several inches off the ground. One of my favorite shots, taken from underneath a car, shows a cat peering down at Mr. Lee from the car’s innards. In some images, we see Mr. Lee’s whiskers, or a chunk of his cheek, but for the most part we see not Mr. Lee but what Mr. Lee sees. The perspective is subjective, not objective, first person, not third person. It’s like a cat version of the 1999 film Being John Malkovich.

According to some European art-world types, the images captured by Mr. Lee’s CatCam are so strikingly original and beautiful that they rise to the level of art. Similar claims have been made for computer-generated pictures, music and poetry, which can be compellingly weird. Do such creations deserve to be called art? If so, who is the artist?

The CatCam also reminds me of the classic 1974 essay “What is it like to be a bat?,” in which philosopher Thomas Nagel ponders the solipsism problem. No sentient creature, Nagel points out, can really know what it is like to be any other sentient creature, because each of us is sealed inside the prison of his or her own consciousness. We can only observe each other—and other animals, such as bats—from the outside. Nagel notes that “in contemplating the bats we are in much the same position that intelligent bats or Martians would occupy if they tried to form a conception of what it was like to be us.” The same could be said about any human’s attempt to understand what it is like to be any other human.

The CatCam, which Perthold now sells, helps us know, or intuit, what it is like to be a cat. Imagine the insights that wild-animal researchers could glean from CheetahCams, KoalaCams, SeagullCams, SnailCams, PenguinCams, VampireBatCams. Given all the debate about whether chimpanzees are innate warriors, and bonobos innate peaceniks, I’d love to see what a ChimpCam or BonoboCam could tell us.

Emily, when I ran these ideas by her, helped me see that placing cameras on wild animals would be unethical, because the downside for the wild animals would outweigh the upside for us. Not even the amiable Mr. Lee liked the CatCam at first. But what about humans wearing cameras to record their comings and goings? Some so-called “lifecasters,” notably the engineer Steve Mann, have been doing just that for decades. (Other lifecasters, such as Jennifer Ringley, turn cameras on themselves, but these objective, third-person recordings exacerbate rather than solving the problem of solipsism.)

PeopleCams would pose tricky technical, ethical and perhaps legal problems, and they would further erode what little privacy we have left in our increasingly exhibitionist era. But PeopleCams might, in principle, help us—and especially males and females, who, let’s face it, are as alien to each other as cats and dogs, or Martians and Venusians—overcome our mutual incomprehension. Perhaps, when the moment is right, I’ll run this idea past Emily.

Postscript: I just ran my idea past Emily. She responded: “I’ll tell you where you can put your camera.”

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science, 1996, re-published with new preface 2015; and The End of War, 2012, paperback published 2014. Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. naya8 10:05 am 04/28/2012

    John,nice article… but you said:”The same could be said about any human’s attempt to understand what it is like to be any other human” this is not exactly true. Bat is different species, then it is obvious that any other species including human could not tell what is like to be a bat.However, as we all know, humans share the same brain structure and generaly speaking, the same traits and behavior. But, there are differences between some sorts of humans, like: genders,different cultures, and different personalities. In spite of these possible differences between different types of humans,still every human could tell exactly what it is like to be other human. When we learn the brain of each other it comes to be predictable.In other words; human who is involved in the issue of the other no matter how it could be different he could tell how it is to be the other.

    Shifting to the other topic,chimpCam could tell you that war is innate in their brain structure, and bonoboCam could tell you that peace is innate to thier brain structure. There are tow types of humans: The chimp type, that is aggressive and war is in his brain structure, and bonobo type that peaceful character is innate in his brain structure.

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  2. 2. JamesDavis 11:05 am 04/28/2012

    Okay, John, lay the hell off on the pets. Here in America, we love our pets and consider them a family. Now listen to me ‘Jerk” if you want to attack my family, I will fill your ass full of buckshot. For 30 to 35 thousand years pets have been a part of our family, and if you want to attack my family, I will give you two black eyes. I have a mouse who have been with me since the fall of 2011. Today, he (it), since I don’t know its sex, was sitting beside by storage shelf where I keep my food, he(it) was not harming anything. I asked “it” if it was hungry, and if “it” was to go ahead and get some food out of my dog’s bowl, who is a boxer, as soon as I said that, the little mouse ran over to my dogs bowl and got two pieces of food and ran back under my shelf and started eating the food with me still looking at it. That little mouse has become a part of my family who actually listens to me, so lay off the pets or I will come over there, where ever you live and kick your ass.

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  3. 3. JamesDavis 11:35 am 04/28/2012

    I bet you thought I was finished with kicking your ass…well, here is something else you can put in your pipe and smoke: I have six bats, that I have designed a beautiful house for on the side of my house that allows them to go into the warm attic when it is cold. When I go outside at around 11 PM in late spring up to late autumn to smoke my cigar, I see my bats out hunting for food (insects). I have yet to be bitten my any blood sucking insect. I provide my bats with a little soccer of sugar water beside me on the table, (they need the energy, you know) and when they come to drink, I talk to them and tell them how appreciative I am that they are keeping the insects away. They have been with me for six years and they even crawl up my arm to my shoulder so they can site beside my face and listen to me. I know that sounds strange and I should be in a mental institution, but if you want to talk badly about my family, I really will come over to where you live and kick your ass. I love my pets, so leave them alone and only speak kindly of them or I will come over to your house and kick you ass and kiss your pet loving friend.

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  4. 4. Bora Zivkovic 1:31 pm 04/28/2012

    I am pretty sure cameras have been placed on other animals for research purposes, notably on seals and whales, perhaps large sea turtles – I can dig around for more info….

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  5. 5. jhorgan 1:39 pm 04/28/2012

    Bora, yeah, it occurred to me that scientists might already have deployed all kinds of AnimalCams. Any info would be much appreciated!

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  6. 6. Bora Zivkovic 2:13 pm 04/28/2012

    Aha, there is this thing called CritterCam – see for a bunch of videos taken that way by various species wearing the cameras.

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  7. 7. Bora Zivkovic 2:14 pm 04/28/2012

    And Wikipedia has more links:

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  8. 8. jhorgan 5:40 pm 04/28/2012

    Crittercam! I love it!

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  9. 9. Vasha 3:06 am 04/29/2012

    What intrigued me was how much time Mr. Lee spent interacting with other cats. (I’m sure if I’d explored the neighborhood, I wouldn’t have noticed most of those cats.) It was hard to figure out the content of the interactions, though. Body language was mostly neutral. You’d have to do a lot more observing of repeated encounters, track which individuals avoid or seek each other, etc., to get a handle on it. CatCam is not an instant window into the mind.

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  10. 10. stargene 1:39 am 04/30/2012

    Hmmmm… Bonobocam. Just the thought of all those
    humble ultra-conservatives going bonkers on seeing
    mr. or ms bonobo quietly humping every bonobo in
    sight, and in FIRST person too!.. gives me goose-
    bumps all over. :-) Deeelicous.

    BTW, there is, or was, a videocam attached to a
    single whale in a small pod (Humpback? Blue?) and
    the video showed sometimes murky closeups of all
    the whales diving and moving through deep waters.

    The great surprise, though, was that this video
    also finally showed some of these great sentient
    beings falling back and then peering carefully
    at the cam itself, in extreme closeup. One may
    wonder if the ‘cammed’ whale somehow asked its
    companions, “Hey, can you check out my side over
    here? Something really hinky is going on!” Or
    maybe another whale finally noticed the cam and
    said, “Dude [or possibly: Dudette]! You’ve got
    something very weird stuck on you. What the hell
    is that?”

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  11. 11. LMac4 12:35 am 05/2/2012

    I work in a wildlife epidemiology research lab and we have employed motion detection cameras to look at wildlife activity which is minimally invasive. I agree that using cameras is an interesting way to obtain info in endangered wildlife species, however, it seems too invasive. Any type of device that is attached to the animal will trapping which puts a lot of physiological stress on the animal and possibly anesthesia depending on the species. The need to frequently re-trap the individual to download the recorded info would place the animal under stress every time you had to recapture it. If there was a way to minimize human handling of the cameras it could be a less invasive method of observing interactions.

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  12. 12. jimmy boy 7:08 pm 05/2/2012

    for the person with the mouse, why don’t you get a micro cam put it on that mouse and find out were it has been chewing on your houses/apt. electical wires, before you (if you are luckly)get woke up with the smoke alarm going off. caged mice make a good pet.

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  13. 13. jimmy boy 7:12 pm 05/2/2012

    or better yet get a cat with a cam and watch the show between having a wild mouse and the dog

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  14. 14. Bora Zivkovic 11:23 pm 05/5/2012

    @LMac4 – this is why all the species used to date tend to be very large and why all the data are transmitted via radiotelemetry – no need to recapture.

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