In Tech Central Station, Douglas Kern writes that the Internet has silenced many of the folks searching swamp gasses for flying saucers:
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.
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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.
Not really–especially when a true believer puts it this way:
Within a few minutes, I was online visiting Web sites I had never heard of before: Free Republic, Little Green Footballs, Power Line. They were hard-core, politically angry, hyperconservative sites loaded with vitriol about Dan Rather and CBS. Our work was being compared to that of Jayson Blair, the discredited New York Times reporter who had fabricated and plagiarized stories.
All these Web sites had extensive write-ups on the documents: on typeface, font style, and peripheral spacing, material that seemed to spring up overnight. It was phenomenal.
Hey, Clarke wasn’t kidding around when he wrote his Third Law.
Update: And speaking of Mapes…