Internet Killed the Alien Star
By Douglas Kern
If you're looking for one of those famous, big-eyed alien abductors, try looking on the sides of milk cartons. The UFO cultural moment in America is long since over, having gone out with the Clintons and grunge rock in the 90s. Ironically, the force that killed the UFO fad is the same force that catapulted it to super-stardom: the Internet. And therein hangs a tale about how the Internet can conceal and reveal the truth.
It's hard to remember just how large UFOs loomed in the public mind a mere ten years ago. The X-Files was one of the hottest shows on television; Harvard professors solemnly intoned that the alien abduction phenomenon was a real, objective fact; and Congressmen made serious inquiries about a downed alien spacecraft in Roswell, New Mexico. Still not enough? You could see the "Roswell" movie on Showtime; you could play "Area 51" at the arcade; you could gawk at stunning pictures of crop circles in any number of magazines; and you could watch any number of lurid UFO specials on Fox or the Discovery Channel. And USENET! Egad! In the days when USENET was something other than a spam swap, UFO geeks hit "send" to exchange myths, sightings, speculations, secret documents, lies, truths, and even occasionally facts about those strange lights in the sky.
The modern UFO era began with Kenneth Arnold's 1947 UFO sighting near Mount Rainier, Washington. National interest in the subject waxed and waned in the following years -- sometimes spiking dramatically, as during the Washington, D.C. "flap" of 1952 or the Michigan sightings in 1966 (which captured the attention of Gerald Ford). Steven Spielberg popularized the modern mythology of UFOs in 1977's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." And with the publication of Whitley Strieber's "Communion" in 1987, alien abduction moved from a freakish, nutty concern to a mainstream phenomenon. Eccentrics had claimed to be in mental contact with aliens since the fifties, and alien abductions had been a part of the American UFO scene since the Betty and Barney Hill case of 1961, but Strieber's runaway bestseller fused the traditional alien abduction tale to a chilling narrative and a modern spiritual sensibility -- thus achieving huge credibility for our friends with the wraparound peepers.
Yet in recent years, interest in the UFO phenomenon has withered. Oh, the websites are still up, the odd UFO picture is still taken, and the usual hardcore UFO advocates make the same tired arguments about the same tired cases, but the thrill is gone. What happened? Why did the saucers crash?
The Internet showed this particular emperor to be lacking in clothes. If UFOs and alien visitations were genuine, tangible, objective realities, the Internet would be an unstoppable force for detecting them. How long could the vast government conspiracy last, when intrepid UFO investigators could post their prized pictures on the Internet seconds after taking them? How could the Men in Black shut down every website devoted to scans of secret government UFO documents? How could marauding alien kidnappers remain hidden in a nation with millions of webcams?
Just as our technology for finding and understanding UFOs improved dramatically, the manifestations of UFOs dwindled away. Despite forty-plus years of alleged alien abductions, not one scrap of physical evidence supports the claim that mysterious visitors are conducting unholy experiments on hapless victims. The technology for sophisticated photograph analysis can be found in every PC in America, and yet, oddly, recent UFO pictures are rare. Cell phones and instant messaging could summon throngs of people to witness a paranormal event, and yet such paranormal events don't seem to happen very often these days. For an allegedly real phenomenon, UFOs sure do a good job of acting like the imaginary friend of the true believers. How strange, that they should disappear just as we develop the ability to see them clearly. Or perhaps it isn't so strange.
The Internet taught the public many tricks of the UFO trade. For years, hucksters and mental cases played upon the credulity of UFO investigators. Bad science, shabby investigation, and dubious tales from unlikely witnesses characterized far too many UFO cases. But the rise of the Internet taught the world to be more skeptical of unverified information -- and careful skepticism is the bane of the UFO phenomenon. It took UFO experts over a decade to determine that the "Majestic-12" documents of the eighties were a hoax, rather than actual government documents proving the reality of UFOs. Contrast that decade to the mere days in which the blogosphere disproved the Mary Mapes Memogate documents. Similarly, in the nineties, UFO enthusiasts were stunned when they learned that a leading investigator of the Roswell incident had fabricated much of his research, as well as his credentials. Today, a Google search and a few e-mails would expose such shenanigans in minutes.
Thus, the rise of the Internet in the late nineties corresponded with the fall of many famous UFO cases. Roswell? A crashed, top-secret weather balloon, misrepresented by dreamers and con men. The Mantell Incident? A pilot misidentified a balloon, with tragic consequences. Majestic-12? Phony documents with a demonstrably false signature. The Alien Autopsy movie? Please. As access to critical evidence and verifiable facts increased, the validity of prominent UFO cases melted away. Far-fetched theories and faulty evidence collapsed under the weight of their provable absurdity. What the Internet gave, the Internet took away.
The Internet processes all truth and falsehood in just this fashion. Wild rumors and dubious pieces of evidence are quick to circulate, but quickly debunked. The Internet gives liars and rumor mongers a colossal space in which to bamboozle dolts of every stripe -- but it also provides a forum for wise men from all across the world to speak the truth. Over the long run, the truth tends to win. This fact is lost on critics of the blogosphere, who can only see the exaggerated claims and gossip. These critics often fail to notice that, on the 'net, the truth follows closely behind the lies. A great many of us accept Internet rumors and hoaxes in exchange for fast access to the truth.
But is there any validity to the UFO phenomenon? Perhaps, but so what? The need for weird is hard-coded into the human condition. In every society, a few unlikely souls appear to make contact with an invisible world, communing with goblins or ghosts or aliens or gods or monsters. And in every society, some fool always tries to gather scales from the dragon tracks, or droppings from the goblins, or pictures of the aliens. The dream world is always too elusive to be captured, and yet too tantalizingly close to be dismissed. And so the ancient game continues, with weirdness luring us to introspection and subjectivity, even as reality beckons us to exploration and objectivity. The appeal of chimerical mysteries and esoteric knowledge tends to diminish when the need for moral clarity and direction grows acute. And our need for such guidance is acute indeed. We're at war now. We don't have the time for games.
The weird ye shall have with you always. But right now, the introspection of weirdness isn't needed. I'm quite happy to leave the aliens in the nineties, and on the milk cartons.
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