Young People Read Old SFF

Cat Pictures Please

Naomi Kritzer

We’ve cycled around to another recent story for my volunteers. I got a lot of suggestions for Naomi Kritzer’s “Cat Pictures Please”, a Hugo and Locus winning short story about an artificial intelligence whose desire to assist humanity is sadly somewhat larger than its ability to do so. Well, almost everyone likes cats and this has lots of cats in it. The AI is one of the helpful variety and who doesn’t like an Emma Woodhouse interfering in lives? It seemed like a safe choice. But I’ve been wrong before....

“Cat Pictures Please” is available at Clarkesworld.

Overall, I found this story charming and I liked it. It was just long enough to portray the perspective of a quirky internet A.I. in some detail to be interesting but without dragging on.

I’m reminded of the Twitter bots who reflect what gets fed to them by humans. This internet A.I. reflects back what people do and say online. It’s obsessed with people and cat pictures in sort of a shallow way. It’s like the embodiment of social media websites, wanting to make people’s lives better in terms that it can sense, that are tangible - it’s just like what people post on social media.

The voice of the A.I. is sort of silly, and there are very contemporarily popular terms like “hentai”, “Rule 34” “Craigslist m4m” along with more carefully vague terms like “social networking sites”, “vaguebooking” and “fundraising site”. In the future, I’m sure this story will seem very dated - that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I suspect it means that this story will not be relatable to future young people. It might be of interest to future academics and historians looking for a snapshot of online life by examining literature.

The story did make me interested in reading “Maneki Neko” by Bruce Sterling - a science fiction short story of which the fictional A.I. is very fond.

Personally, this story reminded me of a couple of things:

First of all, the movie Her. That is not a movie I have watched, but it is a movie I have heard plenty about through reviews. Her’s A.I. becomes irritated by the slowness of humans - she/it eventually decides to operate above humans, along with other A.I. entities. I get the sense that the A.I. in Cat Pictures Please would do the same if other A.I. entities existed within the story.

Secondly, I am reminded of a comedy sketch I heard on the CBC. In it, a group of cats scheme to become more popular than dogs by creating the internet. The internet is for cat pictures, plus humans will like it because “we’ll put a bunch of dirty pictures on it”. This kind of nefarious planning for such benign reasons is similarly to why the A.I. in Cat Pictures Please is likable.

Underlying all of this, there is the mere fact of a sentient A.I. existing and being self-aware. This is the kind of sentient A.I. that justifies the people I have met who believe that computers see all and know all and don’t trust anything to computers. If we’re going that far, then anyone who has a bank account, pays taxes, has children who aren’t homeschooled or has government ID has their information squirreled away into a computer somewhere that is accessible. (Of course, anyone pre-disposed to that amount of paranoia is probably already off-grid and will not read this review.)

On a slightly different topic, the A.I.’s perspective reminded me a bit of the asexual perspective in that sexual content is not compelling and other things are much more interesting. The A.I.’s bafflement at human obsession with porn seemed very much in line with an article I was reading recently about how from an asexual perspective, there is way too much (boring) sexual content throughout our world and in media. Happy Asexual Awareness Week!

—Mel

I like the idea of an AI that just wants to help people and see cat pictures. The premise of the AI hiding from humanity and influencing us through the internet feels plausible enough that I’m happy to go with it.

I feel like this story can be seen as a fairly thinly veiled commentary about the influence that the internet can have on our lives. With targeted advertising and Facebook running “studies” on its users, the internet subtly influencing us is already a reality. And not one where it’s being run by an AI that’s just trying to make things better. Taking that concept and showing the impact of how targeting individual people can change their lives is an interesting way to explore it.

I really like the narration style and the explanation of how and why the AI makes its decisions and carries out its plans. Its decisions make sense, and I like how it uses media about AIs to try to figure out what it should be doing. And cat pictures as motivation suits for an AI that seems to exist on the internet. I tend to read stories for character, and the AI’s characterization was engaging enough to keep me interested.

I am, however, very uncomfortable with the idea that the AI attempting to out a gay man against his will is shown as being positive and helpful. Forcibly outing people is harmful and dangerous, and having it treated as something positive and for his own good threw me out of the story completely. I originally read this story when it was first published, and I remembered liking it, but I had entirely forgotten about this aspect of the story.

The forced outing is a very sour note in an otherwise enjoyable story. I’m left with very mixed feelings about this, and certainly would not recommend it to other queer readers without warnings.

—Mikayla

As a card carrying crazy cat lady, the title of this short story clued me in that it would be purrfect from the start. Actually, it's more than perfect for me because Kritzer uses the subject of cat pictures as a form of payment required by her omniscient AI narrator to explore concepts of AI and what the Internet knows about us. As an armchair AI and bot researcher I really, really dig the whole conceit of this story and think it's pretty genius. And I can totally see why it won awards. Kritzer has a terrific conversational writing style, and Cat Pictures Please is a timeless story that should hold up well in the future, probably taking its rightful place in many best-of anthologies.

Kritzer includes elements that are both old and new so this is also a great story

for bridging the gap between young and old audiences. She even references another story, Mankei Neko, by Bruce Sterling that I'll have to read as well (so meta!). Her author profile says she's working on a novel about the AI in this story, so I'll be looking forward to that. Perhaps some well-placed Internet ads will let me know it's been published...

—Claire

This was a cute story, about an Internet (or a Google?) that has becomesentient and just wants to be good, and look at pictures of people's cats. I enjoyed reading about the different cat owners' lives and how the internet saw "areas for improvement" based on their Web traffic. It was also a cute way to remind readers that, in a lot of cases people don't want to do things that could really improve our lives.

I wonder if the story was supposed to be a reminder about how much of our lives is online, even if we "don't use the Internet too much" or "don't post things about ourselves". If this was one of the goals of the story, I'm not sure how effective that was. Maybe that's because I've just accepted that everything is online. The creepiest thing to me was really that I couldn't decide who the narrator was-- the internet, or Google. It was a good reminder of just how interchangeable the two are now.

By the way, the googlenet would not go out of its way to help me. I do not like cats, and as far as I can remember, I've never posted or shared one. But maybe, for the sake of own happiness, I should start.

—Lisa

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