Watching the antics of creatures large and small online is how we escape the internet, while on the internet, says Sam Anderson
THE internet is, famously, terrible. Try it sometime; you’ll see. It is designed to coax all of your neural pathways open and then, while they are in a state of ecstatic receptivity, to dump horrible things into them. You hardly even need to click: These days, much of the badness is automatic. It sprouts at the edges of otherwise innocuous pages. You will be enjoying yourself, and then all of a sudden you’ll be watching a video of a conspiracy monger screaming at people in a fried-chicken restaurant or of a basketball player snapping his leg in half or of a sprinting athlete crashing onto a track, midstride, because his genitals have spilled out of his shorts.
The online world is an interactive museum of humiliation, sadism, greed, bleak news, bad faith and gross memes.
This is why we need animal videos. They are small windows of grace. To watch a baby rhino hopping through the mud or a cluster of capybaras sitting stoically in a hot tub is to momentarily exit the tainted ecosystem of the human world.
A good animal video is free of political spin or calculation. It shows us something blessedly pure: a creature wanting a thing — food, fun, dominance, peace — and then trying to get it. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t.
A tortoise clatters across a wooden floor in pursuit of a purple ball. (The ball ends up under a cupboard.) A hedgehog looks drunk with pleasure as a human hand rubs its fat, furry belly. A young elephant harasses a man who is trying to paint a fence. Two ferrets wrestle in a tiny hammock.
Maybe the best way to say all this is that we love animals because they don’t use the internet. And our favourite way to see animals not using the internet is to watch videos of them on the internet.
My current favourite animal video went viral recently. It depicts one of planet earth’s elemental face-offs: bird versus cat. On one side, fangs and claws. On the other, the superpower of flight. We know how this usually ends — either in a puff of bloody feathers or with a lunge into empty air.
This time, however, there is a twist. The cat and bird stand on opposite sides of a large pane of glass. The bird is safe. The cycle of fight or flight has been broken. In that space, new possibilities bloom.
The bird is an Indian ringneck parrot named Oscar. His feathers are tropical green, roughly the colour of an unripe mango. He stares at the cat with expressionless yellow eyes, out of large black pupils. The cat squints murderously back. It has a pink nose, with wild hairs shooting out from the insides of its ears. For the first few seconds, predator and prey sit balanced in a wonderful tension. The cat seems to pulsate with menace. It clearly wants to eat the bird, all the way down to the roots of its sharp feline teeth.
The parrot gazes blankly, its expression unreadable. Then it opens its beak to speak, as parrots sometimes do, and what it says — in its record-scratch of a voice — is a single word: “Peekaboo.” Then it ducks out of view.
For a moment, the cat’s tail stops twitching. Its prey has apparently escaped. But then the parrot pops back up, and the cat’s tail starts twitching again, and once more the bird stares at the cat and says, brightly, “Peekaboo”. Then it ducks. Then it pops back up. “Peekaboo,” it says again.
The cat looks briefly into the camera, like a character in The Office. I have watched this video, over the past couple of weeks, many dozens of times. It is only 22 seconds long, but it is also a perfect loop, with no clear beginning or end, so if you let it repeat, the delight will last forever: the same action, the same stare, the same single word, until the end of time. Infinite peekaboo.
What keeps me coming back to animal videos, I think, is not just entertainment but something deeper. A great animal video forces us to grapple with what psychologists call “theory of mind” — our ability, learned as children, to imagine our way into the perspectives of others. The videos require us to put ourselves, at least for a moment, into an alien consciousness. Why does this creature want what it wants? What does it know and not know? How is its wanting like our own wanting?
In the case of the peekaboo parrot, these questions run particularly deep. A bird does not have our capacity to laugh, at least as we understand laughter, and yet this bird is doing something indisputably funny: pranking a vicious predator, over and over, from inches away. Does the cat understand how funny this is? Does the parrot? How big is the gulf between their two different minds — and then between their minds and ours? Even as we laugh at the video, we have to perform this kind of back-of-the-envelope cognitive mapping. It creates a woozy, uncanny, existentialist feeling. We are simultaneously ourselves and not ourselves.
Which brings us back to the festering horrorscape of the internet. Animal videos feel like a delightful relief because they force us, in their small way, to exercise our theory-of-mind muscles.
These creatures are enough like us to identify with, but not so much like us that they are threatening. Online people, of course, are a different story altogether. Social media sites notoriously flatten social interaction. Human beings typing things onto distant screens easily become inhuman. We can go for days at a time feeling mostly anger; we survey the landscape like soldiers in bunkers, looking out of our gun slits.
Theoretically, the online world is the richest gallery of human psychology ever assembled. Tapping on your phone for a few minutes should be the rough equivalent of listening in on 300 million therapy sessions. Every GIF, retweet and Reddit thread is the product of long chains (years, decades, generations) of psychodrama.
And yet, in the moment-to-moment reality of online life, theory of mind fritzes out.
The internet, the great connector, ends up atrophying our most basic connective skill: that imaginative leap into another mind, the attempt to understand what it knows and believes, why it moves the way it moves.
Not that this has ever been easy. It takes heroic investments of time and emotional intelligence and sincerity and mental effort. At the risk of sounding like the world’s tweediest professor, I would like to point out that a library contains millions of pages designed to help with exactly this problem.
We’re not going to snap our fingers and make one another more humane. But the commercial internet does seem aggressively engineered to prevent us from getting any closer. We are online constantly, looking for each other, and yet we are so rarely there to be seen.
And so instead we watch the animals. Peekaboo.
From the New York Times Magazine