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(This story was written in response to the prompt:  ” DRM cat food” by Nicolas Weidinger)

The phrase “Zuckerberg’s Cat” refers to a thought experiment first devised in 2012, after a Long Beach TED conference where Electronic Frontier Foundation fellow Cory Doctorow gave a talk discussing the ways social media has “changed everything.”

One of the conference attendees, a User Interface designer named Adam Cook, returned to his hotel room and was reading Thomas Nagel when it occurred to him to ask: how anthropocentric was Doctorow’s contention? Writing on Twitter, Cook asked: “Has Social Media changed anything for Mark Zuckerber’s cat?”

Most responses were tongue in cheek, viewing the original post as a kind of joke. @NeuroWheel replied “his picture’s everywhere,” while @DataPizza tweeted “Eats user data for lunch,” and @HoloHawk replied simply: “Has stock options.”

But a deeper response to the question began to emerge, and references to Zuckerberg’s Cat began to appear on blogs studying tech, philosophy, and psychology. Following Nagel’s analysis of “the hard problem,” positing that there is an experience of being a bat that is both fundamental and irreducible, these writers began asking: has the irreducible experience of being a cat been in any way changed by the new communication’s technology.

A follow-up question began to emerge: while the way human beings do business and communicate social has clearly changed as a result of “social media,” has the human equivalent to “being-a-bat” – the fundamental experience of what it is to be a person – in fact changed as a result of social media?

This more earnest discussion threatened to return to the well worn argument of “social media good/social media bad” until technologist Jaron Lanier returned Zuckerberg’s Cat to the equation. Lanier suggested that if social media had, in fact, changed some essential quality of the experience of Zuckerberg’s Cat, then the new experiences of cat-ness might be subject to Digital Rights Management efforts – much in the same way that biotech companies are attempting to patent stretches of genetic code.

If a new form of “cat-ness” emerges as a result of social media, does it not stand to reason that Facebook can patent it? And if the new aspects of a cat’s existence can be patented, why couldn’t a human’s?

The old debate about whether social media has changed something fundamental to human nature has thus taken on a new urgency, as any truly new human experience may be subject to the same intellectual property laws governing software and bioscience.

“Zuckerberg’s Cat” has thus come to refer not only to the literal animal in question – “Has social media changed anything for Zuckerberg’s Cat” – but also those aspects of fundamental experiences that could be patented by the tech companies that (arguably) “created” them: “That (experience) is Zuckerberg’s Cat.”

These questions have mostly been academic so far, but a few well funded start-ups – in particular Global Memetics and EmCoDe, are actively attempting to use neuro-interfaces to quantify what Zuckerberg’s Cat experiences might be, under an agreement with tech companies (such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, etc.) that gives them a small ownership stake in the event of a successful patent.

As a result it is almost certain that, in the near future, companies will be going to court seeking to enforce ownership and licensing rights over emotions, moods, learning styles, attachment bonds, and other potential aspects of the human experience that can be said to have been created by social media.

Ironically, this too – even if successful – may change nothing for Mark Zuckerberg’s actual cat.

Like this?  Benjamin’s collection of short fiction “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City” is available. 

“Benjamin Wachs reveals a distinctive and highly personal flair for storytelling that will engage the reader’s total and rapt attention throughout.” – The Midwest Book Review