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

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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."

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

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