The video of lawyer, Rod Ponton, trapped in the online avatar of a cute kitten, earnestly imploring the judge of the 394th Judicial District Court in Texas, Roy B. Ferguson, that he is “not a cat”, is at once the funniest and most deeply affective Zoom Age moment.
The earnestness and stoical insistence of Ponton to “go forward with it” (the virtual court hearing), along with the unshakeable patience of Ferguson in the face of a pair of large, shifty cats’ eyes, undoubtedly guarantees the comedic value of the video. But there’s more to this video, I suggest. It’s a perfect example of tragicomedy and an allegory for our times that Kafka could not have written better.
Watching the video, we know, indeed we are told, that Ponton’s “metamorphosis” is the product of a Zoom filter, and yet (perhaps congratulations to the filter developers is due here) the trauma expressed by Ponton in discovering himself a kitten, that comes through a series of nervous exaltations culminating in his insistence “I’m not a cat”, lends the whole situation a special and transcendent quality. It may only be a moment – but a moment nonetheless – Ponton is transformed into a cat, escapes his obligations, and we can all enjoy the metamorphosis.
Like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis, who ‘awoke one morning from uneasy dreams’ finding himself ‘transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect … His numerous legs … pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes’ (1976, p.459), we hear behind Ponton’s earnestness a single question: what has happened to me? And like Samsa’s response to his father, knocking gently at the bedroom door to ask, ‘what’s the matter with you?’ (1976, p.460), Ponton seeks to reassure Judge Ferguson, doing his best ‘to sound as normal as possible by enunciating the words very clearly and leaving long pauses between them’ (1976, p.461).
Understanding the drama as one of triumph of (legal) professionalism, leads us to a truth that Ponton (clearly, probably?) does not want to be anyone or anything other than himself in this moment. He has a job to do but, like that archetypical anxiety dream or nightmare in which the dreamer finds themselves naked in public, has nevertheless arrived at his place of work transformed, vulnerable, and exposed.
We can lay metaphor or allegory on thick here, and that’s why Kafka’s story is both a useful and good backdrop. The struggle for identity, for certainties, or a time in which norms are able to embed themselves for more than a minute before being swept away on the ever-rising tide of innovation and progress, these are some of the challenges and obligations that face us today. But these challenges and obligations have not appeared from nowhere. Instead they are direct products of human ingenuity, demands, and desires in which we are complicit. Ponton did not want to be a cat but now is, and the, albeit fleeting and short-lived, viral nature of the online world guarantees it. If Ponton isn’t exactly to blame for his transformation or the tragicomedy that accompanies it, I think the rest of us might be.
The rapid and consequential change to life and work wrought by Covid-19 is obvious for all to see. The mass migration to Zoom by businesses and individuals alike has forced techno-social transformation on us all and further exposed long held inequities that prevent others from joining the world online. We may not all appear obviously changed by all of this, but we have, without a doubt, been changed by the new levels of technological insistence on and in our lives. Of course, video conferencing and the need to reimagine oneself as a techno-social subject online via the likes of social media has primed some for this moment, to some extent. But whether it’s social redefinition in the form of parent-as-home-schooler, tablet screen as interpersonal portal, or the blurred backdrop of home/work communication, we, like Ponton, are all exposed as vulnerable and unprepared for, what we may euphemistically choose to call these days, the onward march of the information age.
Dr Robert Herian is a Senior Lecturer in Law at The Open University Law School. Robert is Co-founder of the Law, Information, Future, Technology (LIFT) research cluster.