Stalking the UFO Meme

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Stalking the UFO Meme

“There is Thingumbob shouting!” the Bellman said. “He is shouting like mad, only hark! He is waving his hands, he is waggling his head, He has certainly found a Snark!”

– Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark

“We are convinced that Roswell took place. We’ve had too many high ranking military officials tell us that it happened, that told us that it was clearly not of this earth.”

– Don Schmitt, co-author, “The Truth About the UFO Crash at Roswell,” in an interview by Ed Mar and Jody Mecanic for Lumpen Magazine on the Internet

That “interview with a real X-Filer” can be found on one of the hundreds of web sites – in addition to Usenet groups, gopher holes stuffed with hundreds of files, and clandestine BBSs where abductees meet to compare “scoop marks” – that make up the virtual world of flying saucers. The UFO subculture or – for some – the UFO religion on the Internet is a huge supermarket of images and words. Everything is for sale – stories and pictures, membership in a community, entire belief systems. But what are we buying? The meal? Or the menu?

The Bricks that Build the House

When Don Schmitt uses the word “Roswell,” he is not merely identifying a small town in New Mexico that put itself on the tourist map with a terrific UFO story. He uses it to MEAN the whole story – the one that says a UFO crashed in 1947 near the Roswell Army Air Field, after which alien bodies were recovered, eye-witnesses rewarded with new pick-up trucks or threatened with death, and a cosmic Watergate – as Stanton Friedman, another Roswell author, calls it – initiated. Schmitt uses the word “Roswell” the way Christian evangelists use “Jesus,” to mean everything believed about “Roswell.” Like an evangelist, he counts on his audience to fill in the details. Every good Roswellite knows them – it’s the story, after all, that defines them as a community. That story is scattered on the Internet like fragments of an exploding spaceship. Do the pieces fit together to make a coherent puzzle? Or is something wrong with this picture?

Stalking the UFO Meme on the Internet

Memes are contagious ideas that replicate like viruses from mind to mind. The Internet is like a Petri dish in which memes multiply rapidly. Fed by fascination, incubated in the feverish excitement of devotees transmitting stories of cosmic significance, the UFO meme mutates into new forms, some of them wondrous and strange. “The Roswell incident” is but one variation of the UFO meme. On the Internet, Schmitt’s words are hyperlinked to those of other UFO sleuths and legions of interested bystanders like myself, as fascinated by the psychodynamics of the subculture as by the “data” exchanged as currency in that marketplace. Before we examine a few fragments, let’s pause to remember what the Internet really IS.

Copies of Copies – or Copies of Originals?

The Internet represents information through symbols or icons. So does speech, writing, and printed text, but the symbols on the Net are even further removed from the events and context to which they point. The power of speech gave us the ability to lie, then writing hid the liar from view. That’s why Plato fulminated at writing – you couldn’t know what was true if you didn’t have the person right there in front of you, he said, the dialog providing a necessary check. The printing press made it worse by distancing reader and writer even more. Now we put digital images and text on the Net. Pixels can be manipulated. Without correlation with other data, no digital photo or document can be taken at face value. There’s no way to know if we’re looking at a copy of an original, a copy of a copy, or a copy that has no original. But wait. It gets worse.

The World is a Blank Screen

Certain phenomena, including UFOs and religious symbols, elicit powerful projections. We think we’re seeing “out there” what is really inside us. Because projections are unconscious, we don’t know if we’re looking at iron filings obscuring a magnet or the magnet itself. Carl Jung said UFOs invite projections because they’re mandalas – archetypal images of our deep Selves. Unless we separate what he think we see from what we see, we’re bound to be confused. Repetition makes any statement seem true. Hundreds of cross-referenced links on the Web create a matrix of even greater credibility. In print, we document assertions with references. Footnotes are conspicuous by their absence on the Web. Information is self-referential. Symbols and images point to themselves like a ten-dimensional dog chasing its own tails. “Roswell” may be the name of the game, but what does the name really say?

What’s in a Name?

Everything. Names reveal our beliefs about things. Was there a “Roswell incident?” Or was there a “so-called Roswell incident?” Are Don Schmitt and his former partner Kevin Randle “the only two professional investigators in the field” as Schmitt claims in that interview? Or are they in fact “self-styled professional UFO investigators?” (UFO investigators accredit themselves, then reinforce their authority by debating one another and showing up at the same forums. Refuting or attacking another “investigator” does him a favor by acknowledging his importance). Are there “eight firsthand witnesses who saw the bodies,” “many high-ranking military officials who said it was not of this earth,” or “550 witnesses stating that this was not from this earth?” All of those statements are made in the same interview. Words like “self-styled” and “alleged” do more than avoid law suits. They make clear that the speaker states or believes something rather than knows it to be true. Schmitt uses the word “witness” the way Alice in Wonderland uses words, to mean exactly what she wants them to mean – instead of letting witness mean… well. WITNESS. Dan Kagan and Ian Summers have written a masterful investigation of “cattle mutilation” (Mute Evidence, Bantam Books, New York: 1984), detailing how predator damage became “cattle mutilation” conducted with “surgical precision,” i.e. in straight lines, through the distortion of the media, “professional experts” who kept everyone one step away from the evidence (common in UFO research), and true believers who suspended their capacity for critical judgment. “The Roswell incident” also consists of words repeated often enough to turn them into pseudo-facts which are then used to weave a scenario. When enough people believe the scenario, they focus on the minutiae of the story – did it crash on the Plains of San Agustin, as Stanton Friedman claims, or north of Roswell as Schmitt and Randle claim? – instead of the basics, i.e. did anything other than a balloon crash at all? Science turns quickly into theology.

Can a Fact Move at the Speed of Light?

The way sites are connected on the WWW tends to obliterate our historical sense. Everything on the Web seems to be happening NOW. Without a point of reference, all information seems equal. Lining up texts side-by-side and evaluating discrepancies feels like hard work. Surf to the Cambridge Cybercafe, for example, and you’ll find a laudatory article about Schmitt written by Milwaukee writer Gillian Sender. Sender says the piece was purloined without her permission. Like much on the Net, it’s an unauthorized copy of a copy. Sender did a follow-up piece for Milwaukee Magazine in which she confessed her subsequent disillusionment with Schmitt. In interviews he misrepresented his educational background and occupation. Sender concluded that those misrepresentations undermined his credibility across the board. You won’t learn that on the Web, because the second piece isn’t there. The Cybercafe web site also has a newsletter written by Schmitt and Randle but no link to information about their later split, when Randle denounced Schmitt for deceiving him as well as others.

The Soul of the Web

According to Jung, when the psyche projects its contents onto an archetypal symbol, there is always secrecy, fascination, and high energy. When a webmaster finds an article like Sender’s he gets excited, plucks it out of cyberspace, and puts it on his site. Come across it four or five times, you start to believe it. Tracking down the truth about the “Roswell incident” is like hunting the mythical Snark in the Carroll poem. The closer one gets to the “evidence,” the more its disappears. There is in fact not one living “witness” to the “Roswell incident” in the public domain, not one credible report that is not filtered through a private interview or other privileged communication. There are, though, lots of people making a living from it.

Who ARE These Guys?

Karl Pflock is another “Roswell investigator.” Stick his name into a search engine and you’ll find him on the UFOlogist roster at Glenn Campbell’s Area 51 web site. The text of an online interview with Pflock and Stanton Friedman is reproduced there. What effect does this have? By appearing with him, Friedman lends credibility to Pflock’s status. Their disagreement over details (Pflock thinks the Roswell debris was the remains of a Project Mogul balloon, as the Air Force claims) is less important than the fact of their debate, which implies that the details are important, the debate worth having. That ensures future bookings for both. Get the idea? In the virtual world, the appearance of reality becomes reality. Then you can buy and sell words, icons, symbols as if the menu is the meal. Pflock is not new to the world of UFOs. Kagan and Summers first encountered him as a man named “Kurt Peters” who appropriated a story he knew was fabricated about “cattle mutilations,” then tried to pass it off as his own and sell it to a New York publisher. When the authors confronted Pflock “with the Kurt Peters gambit, he was shaken that we had found him out.” What might we infer, therefore, about Pflock’s credibility? On the Web, however, the context created by juxtaposition with Friedman makes it seem as if he is a real “professional.”

Follow the Money

The UFO game needs teams so the game can be played. The “for-team” and the “against-team” are essential to each other. The famous “alien autopsy film” exploited by Ray Santilli illustrates this. This film allegedly showed the autopsy of an alien retrieved from a crash site. Many web sites were devoted to this film; Usenet groups hummed with endless conversation about the details. One major thread was devoted to finding the cameraman. (Once again, the key player or detail was absent, the audience addressed by a “spokesperson for the event.”) A great deal of money was made by debating the film, regardless of which side one was on. Stanton Friedman was off to Italy for a screening, Schmitt to England to “examine the evidence,” and so on. Meanwhile reports like that by Dr. Joseph A. Bauer on CSICOP’s web site that exposed the film’s “overwhelming lack of credibility” were ignored. The lack of credibility was obvious from the beginning, but had it been acknowledged, there would have been no game to play – no Fox-TV special, no books or debates, no conferences in Europe. The Santilli episode is about played out, but other “evidence” is taking its place. At the moment, an anonymous tipster claims to have a fragment of the crashed saucer. The story is spreading on the Web, mutating as it grows. Now, fifty years after the alleged crash, others claim to have fragments too. The good thing about fragments of crashed saucers is that they are endless. Even better are the claims made by “professional investigators” that they are negotiating with shadowy figures who have fragments but are afraid of being killed if they go public. Those stories are endless too. To know someone’s motivation, follow their checkbook. Look, for example, at the heated rivalry in the town of Roswell between museums competing for tourist dollars with trips to rival crash sites. You can even sign up for the tour on the Web.

Information? Misinformation? Disinformation?

The Santilli film could be dismissed as a non-event, did it not reveal a deeper dimension of life in the UFO world. What were its effects? Energy was displaced, the focus of the debate shifted, and the “Roswell incident” – ironically – reinforced. When someone says, “These are not the real crown jewels” they imply that real crown jewels exist. If this is a fake autopsy film, where is the real autopsy film? That implies a real autopsy which implies real aliens and a real crash. Or was the film an ingenious piece of disinformation by the government? Was it designed to throw investigators off the track? See how we responded to news of real aliens? Hide some real data among a snowstorm of false data? Is all this confusion… intentional? It’s X-Files time.

Ready for a Headache?

Now we’re closing in on the Snark. Are government agents using the subculture to manipulate or experiment with public opinion? To cover up what they know? Are the investigators “useful idiots,” as they’re known in the spy trade, real spies, or just in it for the buck? One of my online adventures illustrates the difficulty of getting answers to these questions. A woman in Hamilton, Montana, was speaking to Peter Davenport, head of the National UFO Reporting Center in Seattle about a UFO she said was hanging around her neighborhood. She said she could hear strange beeps on the radio when it was hovering. Then, while they spoke, some beeps sounded. “There!” she said. “You hear that? What IS that?” Peter played the beeps over the telephone. I recorded them. Then I posted a message on alt.2600 – a hacker’s Usenet group – asking for help. I received several offers of assistance. One came from LoD. LoD! The Legion of Doom! I was delighted. If anybody can get to the bottom of this, the LoD can. These guys are the best hackers in the business. I recorded the beeps as a .wav file and emailed them to LoD. They asked a few questions and said they’d see what they could find. Meanwhile I received another email. This writer said he had heard similar tones over telephone lines and shortwave radio in his neighborhood, which happened to be near a military base. Then he wrote, “I have some info that would be of great interest. Government documents…” He mentioned friends inside the base who told him about them. Meanwhile the LoD examined the switching equipment used by the telco and reported that they were evaluating the data. A third email directed me to a woman specializing in the “beeps” frequently associated with UFOs. She sent me a report she had written about their occurrence and properties. LoD asked for my telephone number and someone called the following week. They could affirm, the caller said, that the signals did not originate within the telephone system. They could say what the signals were not, but not what they were. One negative did not imply a positive. Then the correspondent near the military base sent a striking communication. “The documentation and info that I am getting are going to basically confirm what a member of the team has divulged to me. “They are here and they are not benign.” He gave me information about other things he had learned, then acknowledged that all he said was either worthless hearsay or serious trouble. Therefore, he concluded, “I am abandoning this account and disappearing back into the ether.”

The Twilight Zone

There you have it. Without corroboration or external evidence to use as a triangulating point, that’s as far as the Internet can take us. Words originate with someone – but who? Is the name on the email real? Is the domain name real? Is the account real? Secrecy. Fascination. High energy. Maybe it’s a sign of the times that I was pleased to have the help of the LoD. While I would have dismissed a government or telco statement as maybe true, maybe not, I trusted LoD. They did a solid piece of work. Technically they’re the best, but more than that, I knew they’d be true to their code. Like me, they’re need-to-know machines and they love a good puzzle. What about the next-door-to-the-military source? Was he who he said he was? Were his contacts telling the truth? Are “they” here and are “they” not benign? Or was he a government agent trying to learn what I knew? Or just a bored kid who felt like killing a little time? How do we separate fact from fiction? Jacques Vallee, a respected writer and researcher, recently authored a work of fiction about UFOs. Is he really writing fiction so he can disguise the truth, as some say? Or is he just another guy selling a book? Or a serious investigator who has blurred his own credibility by writing fiction that’s hard to distinguish from his theories? Or is he a secret agent working for the government? The UFO world is a hall of mirrors. The UFO world on the Internet is a simulation of a hall of mirrors. The truth is out there, all right… but how can we find it? Plato was right. We need to know who is speaking. We need to stay with the bottom-line data that won’t go away.

The Bottom Line

What does it look like? One piece looks like this. I know a career Air Force officer, recently retired as a full colonel. He worked at the Pentagon and the War College., He is a terrific guy who has all the “right stuff.” He’s the kind of guy you’d willingly follow into battle. Many did. A fellow B47 pilot in the sixties told him of an unusual object that flew in formation with him for a while, then took off an incredible speed he could not match. The co-pilot independently verified the incident. Neither wanted to report it and risk damage to their careers. When he first told me that account in the 1970s, I remember how he looked. He usually looked confident, even cocky. That time he looked puzzled, maybe a little helpless. I knew he was telling me the truth. I have seen that look many times as credible people told me their account of an anomalous experience. They don’t want publicity or money. They just want to know what’s happening on their planet. Data has accumulated for at least fifty years. Some of it is on the Internet. Some of it, like email from that retired air force officer, is trustworthy. Much of it isn’t. Are we hunting a Snark, only to be bamboozled by a boojum? Or are we following luminous breadcrumbs through the darkening forest to the Truth that is Out There? The Net is one place to find answers, but we’ll find them only if our pursuit of the truth is rigorous, disciplined, and appropriately skeptical.

Richard Thieme is a writer and speaker from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He delivered a keynote address at DefCon IV in Las Vegas in 1996 entitled “Hacking as Practice for Trans-planetary Life in the 21st Century.”