I was told there would be cats at Paul Allen's Living Computers: Museum + Labs (LCM+L), but so far, I've only found people dressed as cats. At the Cats of the Internet Pajama Party—one of LCM+L's many events aimed at making the history of computers (and on this night, kitties) a hands-on experience—everything is an illusion. The museum's robots have been decked out in kitty accouterments, but living, breathing felines are in short supply, since they can endure only an hour of attention before the staff has to cut off admission to the cat Petting Room. "Don't worry," an attendant sporting an animal onesie tells the crowd, "the VR experience lets you become a kitty yourself." Apparently, actual cats aren't really necessary.
Since its rebranding last November, LCM+L has expanded its commitment to teaching kids about computer technology via exhibits that creatively showcase virtual reality, 3-D printing, computer viruses, and the like. It's a very different space from the one that opened in Sodo five years ago. When the Stranger's former art critic, Jen Graves, visited LCM+L in 2014, there were no laboratories. It was simply called the Living Computer Museum, and as Graves reported, it was "not a white-cube museum, or a hip warehouse environment, or any particularly beautiful or special space at all." Today, the LCM+L looks like a showroom of the future. A cute robot called Dash teaches coding, a gregarious little bot named ROBOTIS MINI performs push-ups for onlookers, and next door, a newly opened AmazonFresh Pickup lets people order groceries on their phone. Times have changed.
"It doesn't normally look like this," the guy working LCM+L's front desk tells me when I first arrive at the PJ party. He's referring, of course, to the go-go dancers I can see behind him. They purr while shaking furry clip-on tails. As I enter, one of them licks her kitty paw while gazing at me and does a full body roll. Madonna's "Like a Prayer" plays in the background.
Despite all the kitty stuff, the event is limited to ages 18 and up. Most of the adults are huddled near the makeshift bar swigging themed beverages. I choose a "Cat Nip Cocktail" and sip it next to a grown man wearing a kigurumi cat onesie. The cocktail is pink, and might be filled with St. Germain, but a cluster of women wearing light-up kitten ears pounce on the bar before I can skim the full menu.
Finally, after an hour and a half of rubbing shoulders with this whimsical crowd, I spot a real kitty—a teensy orange tabby being manhandled by six people huddled inside a camping tent in Lab C. The humans are squealing and making those goo-goo noises you usually hear from people watching YouTube videos of kittens tumbling down slides. If this level of obsession is what it means to be a cat person, I must confess that I am not a cat person. Sure, the kitty is cute, but its real advantage is its blissful unawareness of the internet, Paul Allen, and its virtual-reality doppelgangers fighting dogs in space over in Lab B.
Two hours deep into my night, and I'm still confused about why cats are crucial to the history of the internet. Were they excluded from the original internet histories? Do we need a revisionist text that gives cat memes their rightful place in the contemporary narrative? Seeking answers, I make my way into the Cat Craft Activity Lab, where the title slide of a presentation—"Hisss-tory of Cat Internet"—is displayed on one of its walls. But it's not playing or I missed its showing, so my questions remain unanswered.
With nothing else to do, I start making my own cat ears, but the ears are supposed to light up, which means I have to create an electrical circuit. It turns out all this kawaii cat nonsense is just a ruse to get me to understand basic electricity. Maybe cats aren't the point? After all, how exciting is a cute kitty when you can put on a VR headset and be your own cute kitty in space? My thoughts are interrupted by Drake's "Big Rings." The Cat Craft Activity Lab is more lit than it should be. It's the busiest room in the whole museum. I'm not into it. With my unfinished cat ears in hand, I quietly escape outside, returning to the Seattle where cats are cats, people are people, and I don't need to know how to make a circuit to have a good time.