How Cats Killed Curiosity – And Why We Need To Bring It Back

They say curiosity killed the cat. But who’s they, and what was the cat so curious about that caused it to be an ex-cat? A nonsensical old saying or a story of nine lives that points to something more profound?

If you type ‘cat’ into YouTube, it brings up over 72million videos. Little did Sir Tim Berners-Lee realise back in 1989 when he invented the web for sharing physics data about the fundamental structure of the universe, that in the future, millions of people would be using his brilliant innovation to mostly share videos of cats. Cats playing keyboards, cats angry at printers, tickled cats, cats in many states, but generally not dead from curiosity.

It’s curious in itself that even though the entire accumulated knowledge of humankind is just a click away, that’s not what we spend most of our time browsing. The digitally native generation find our modern level of access to knowledge unremarkable, but if like me, you remember the slow squawk and sputter of a dial up internet modem, you might still appreciate the magic of smartphones and the miracle of Wikipedia. And yet most of us spend more time liking photos of friends’ lunches and laughing at classics like Nyan Cat (I’ve personally contributed to at least 100 of its 149 million views), than we do wading delightedly through the digitised notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci.

In our time-poor, information-saturated, post-fact modern lives, cats are winning at the internet. Our curiosity is superficially satisfied, swiping and grabbing at the lowest hanging clickbait before falling off the hook. It’s time to reboot curiosity in our overwhelming Age of Information. How can we make the most of the digital proximity of people and ideas?

As the knowledge emotion, curiosity can motivate us to imagine new possibilities beyond our current situations. It opens up conversations, overcomes preconceptions. It’s transformative. Without the curious humans before us, there would be no smartphones, no roads, electric guitars, gin and tonic, penicillin…

These kind of discoveries and developments need more specific, or epistemic, curiosity to drive them. The kind that sustains a longer-term interest in something, rather than just a brief drunken check of the name of that actor – you know, that one in the thing with the other one.

It takes grit to cultivate deep curiosity and head into the unknown. We’re taught from an early age that hands go up in class to answer, not to ask. Longer term curiosity requires courage. And it’s a luxury that most can’t afford. Sitting around and wondering about the cosmos today is not going to pay the gas bill tomorrow.

But in a complex world of uncertainty, we need curious people more than ever. People who are empowered to ask questions and be heard. People who can connect ideas across disciplines and collaborate. Climate change or antibiotic resistance won’t be solved by one scientist sitting in a lab, these are problems with multiple intersections that need curious minds to bridge boundaries.

Curiosity is the engine for both artistic and scientific enquiry, the starting point for creativity and innovation. Without these things we stand still. Curiosity doesn’t kill cats, it gives us nine lives.

It’s naive to suggest that if everyone could just be curious, we can solve all the world’s problems. It’s not as simple as that. But what might our collective destination look like if more people can participate in perceiving new futures? What if we invite long term curiosity into our digital and real world lives, and new voices into the conversation?

Where I work, at Bristol’s interactive science centre, we’ve written a Manifesto for cultivating a new culture of curiosity. Because we know that the essence of creative, scientific thinking can be usefully carried into all our lives. And we believe that a society of empowered, question-asking citizens will be a more creative, resilient, compassionately connected place to be.

What if… more of us become curious activists, to evolve the way we educate, carry out research, remove boundaries between science and the arts, people and ideas – to ensure that we collectively, cats and all, step beyond just nine lives into an equitable new Age….of Curiosity.

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