In August 2022, astrophysicist Avi Loeb—now more famous as an aspiring alien-hunter than as a highly accomplished space scientist—suggested that an interstellar object that exploded above the Pacific Ocean in 2014 may have been not a meteor, as most observers had presumed, but a technological wonder from another planet. In the interests of “interstellar archaeology,” Loeb is currently seeking $1.5M in funding to dredge the ocean floor and hopefully fish up remnants of the shattered object. “If it has any buttons on it,” he has said, “I would love to press them.”
How quaint to believe that alien tech would still make use of buttons. How quaint to believe alien tech—or aliens themselves—would even be physical in their nature at all. Or, indeed, that they would be remotely comprehensible.
In Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s classic 1972 Soviet sci-fi parable Roadside Picnic, unknown extra-terrestrials briefly land on Earth and, afterwards, leave behind all kinds of amazingly advanced technological detritus (rather like an extra-terrestrial version of this scene from Mad Men). The ETs’ physics-defying trash is wonderful to our primitive human eyes, but utterly incomprehensible in its actual mechanics and purpose: our species are like ants encountering the scattered, half-eaten remnants of a roadside picnic, unable to understand what the purpose of empty Pringles tubes and crushed-up cans of Fanta might be. Like the ants, people can find these impossible items, but have no idea how to use them.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once argued that, “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” Yet today’s sky-watching scientists at SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) scan the heavens in search of ET radio signals, in the hopes that ET’s thought patterns are an analogue of our own.
In November 2022, the University of St Andrews announced the creation of a new SETI Post-Detection Hub, hosted by the establishment’s Centre for Exoplanet Science and Centre for Global Law and Governance, to act as an international clearinghouse for experts from scientific, legal, ethical and political fields to collaborate in “setting out impact assessments, protocols, procedures and treaties designed to enable a responsible response” to any newly detected ET presence. Clearly, it is hoped that the aliens, when they do arrive, will speak fluent government bureaucratese. According to John Elliott, the project’s chief co-ordinator, mankind’s knowledge “will be advanced many steps as we learn “Extra-Terrestrial,” just as happens when schoolchildren learn French.
PR materials promise that the hub’s existence will “close a substantial policy gap,” as there are no agreed global First Contact protocols established in international law for when aliens land for real. Accordingly, the hub will enlist “policy experts to work on topics ranging from message-decipherment and data analytics to the development of regulatory protocols, space law and societal impact strategies.” In H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, the invading Martians are ultimately defeated by the accidental ingestion of common Earth-borne viruses and bacteria; in Elliott’s Law of the Worlds, they will be disarmed instead by the forces of impenetrable twenty-first-century global contract law.
Moral philosopher and professor of bioethics Peter Singer has explicitly considered whether alien beings might possess human rights—“inalienable rights,” as he punningly puts it. Singer is notably interested in the idea of animal rights and accuses humans of practising speciesism because we exploit animals, plants and bacteria for food, fur, pharmaceuticals and so forth. Referencing the 1982 Steven Spielberg movie ET, Singer habitually asks his students, “Would it have been ethically permissible for [human] scientists to kill ET and dissect him for the purposes of what would surely be extremely interesting scientific research?” He finds that they “unanimously reject” the idea.
As Singer points out, this response is probably due to the fact that Spielberg’s cute, wide-eyed ET has a broadly humanoid form and is presented as enjoying an unlikely emotional friendship with the movie’s main character, a ten-year-old boy. In reality, any true alien being mankind encounters may well be so unutterably alien that we might not feel quite as well disposed towards it, any more than we do towards the spiders we unthinkingly squash with a rolled-up newspaper. “It might be difficult to tell whether extra-terrestrial life-forms are capable of suffering or experiencing happiness,” Singer warns. Unless the aliens were roughly humanoid, would we treat them like we do bugs? Beetles and woodlice might be pleading for mercy every time we stamp on them as they scuttle across our carpets. How would we know?
According to Jill Stuart, a “specialist in the law of outer-space” at the London School of Economics, the true value of such exercises as those pursued by SETI is that, “We search the universe to discover ourselves, because it forces us to reflect back on how we relate to each other, how we relate to our environment, and how we relate to other species and people.” Maybe so; Wells himself meant his tale of Martians destroying primitive humanity with their hyper-advanced futuristic war-machines to be an allegory of European colonialists doing similar things to Australian Aborigines, armed as the natives were with only puny spears and boomerangs in the face of western Maxim guns and iron-clad warships.
Sourcing the Saucers
Back in 2017, Avi Loeb, the man currently trying to dredge the Pacific in search of a crashed ET space probe disguised as an asteroid full of handy little push-buttons, argued that a large, unusually shaped object which had just sped through the solar system had actually been part of an interstellar communications network, ingeniously allowing ET to phone home. But even if this were so, the truly interesting question would not be how such a network could work, but what were the aliens broadcasting?
Flying saucers are roughly the same shape as satellite dishes, so maybe they were simply broadcasting themselves. The year 2022 marked the 75th anniversary of the first reported flying saucer sighting, made by pilot Kenneth Arnold in Washington State on 24 June 1947—but, curiously, Arnold did not see any saucers at all. The craft (if such they were) were actually bat-winged in shape. Arnold merely said that they flew as saucers would if skimmed over a lake like pebbles, but contemporary newspapers innocently misquoted him, and the notion of flying saucers was born.
Thus, the saucers were a media invention, which, like the Yeti and the Loch Ness Monster, caught on quickly and sold well to the public. Although they did not originally exist except as a printing error, people soon began seeing such impossibilities for themselves. Like Sherlock Holmes or Count Dracula, the saucers seemed so archetypal that they really ought to have existed in real life long before someone first thought of them. Might the aliens that supposedly crew them occupy a similarly confusing relation to actual physical reality? What if aliens are actually a species of post-biological media adverts?
One of the most original UFO theorists of the last seven-and-a-half decades was an Oxford-educated Englishman named Colin Bennett, practitioner of what he termed the “New Ufology.” To Bennett, the old ufology was an outmoded, nuts-and-bolts affair, involving concepts like physical, metal-built spaceships transporting equally physical, meat-built Greys and xenomorphs, pathetic relics of a pre-Internet past. And aliens, it seems, do have their own Internet—at least according to astronomer Claudio Maccone, co-chairman of SETI.
In 2013, Maccone proposed that the phenomenon of gravitational lensing—the way in which light rays are bent by gravity when they pass close enough to super-massive objects like stars—could be exploited to send signals across entire galaxies. By positioning spaceships at strategic equidistant points billions of miles away, on either side of stars, alien signals could theoretically be sent between them by being focused along the bent light rays, thus creating a wi-fi network whose transmissions would travel at light speed. It would still take four years for a funny meme about cats from Alpha Centauri to reach us, but Maccone thinks this system of “cheap interstellar links” would be “quite affordable” from a power-transmission viewpoint and operate at “a reasonable Bit Error Rate”— hence space emails or video files would not become too scrambled by distance for their recipients to be able to decipher them.
Maccone calls this comms network a “galactic Internet.” But Earth’s Internet can contain viruses as well as beneficial media files and programs. What if the aliens themselves were one such species of Trojan Horse space virus?
Those Wonderful Memes in their Flying Machines
Colin Bennett argued that “all information is media” and human culture itself is just an elaborate “advertising system.” Bennett’s New Ufology viewed reality as a subjective mental construct, which became reified—sociologically manifest—in the real world, causing fiction to magically become fact. For example, perhaps you consider Christianity or Islam to be literally untrue, but you cannot deny that these religions are a social reality for millions worldwide who think that belief in them can perform miracles. Bennett believed that UFOs operate similarly.
In his 1957 book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, written during the worst tensions of the Cold War, psychologist C. G. Jung posits something similar, arguing that saucers are technologically flavoured placebo pills, psychic symbols of desired political reconciliation appearing in the heavens. Many of those who encountered aliens in the 1950s described them as beatific blonde godmen, who promised to impose universal nuclear disarmament, making them saviours from above, updated gods for a new scientific age of atoms, not angels. The emotional appeal of this concept—the aerial advertisement—made the meme of saucers spread virally throughout the collective human imagination, whether the saucers themselves were actually real or not.
Bennett thought that these amazing flying memes may have been alive: “When we imagine, we create a form of life.” Mankind’s collective Jungian unconscious was, for Bennett, analogous to the Internet, and its in-dwelling viral life forms were competing species of “cultural advertisements,” locked in an eternal Darwinian war for survival, just like competing brands of shampoo. The aliens that witnesses claim to meet differ with the times: in the 1950s, benign blonde Nordics wisely warned us to ban the bomb; in the 1990s, bloodless, black-eyed Greys subjected abductees to invasive anal probes—such changes parallel the way in which fashions in consumer products, TV shows, music and other media ephemera change over the years.
Bennett termed these memetic UFOs “Fast Transients”—endless, short-lived, subtly altered variations on the same basic theme, like infinite competing prototypes of the same basic chocolate bar intended to gauge just how many spoonfuls of sugar the manufacturer should add to ensure maximum sales figures. As public tastes changed, the alien memes changed with them, until eventually the cumulative tiny adjustments resulted in a major transformation, as when fish evolved into amphibians, or the classic circular saucers of the 1950s finally became rival flying triangles during the 1980s in the ufological equivalent of the invention of the Toblerone bar.
Alleged anomalies like UFOs, aliens and Men in Black typically appear suddenly out of nowhere and then disappear, leaving precious few solid physical traces of the kind sought by Avi Loeb and SETI behind them. For many sceptics, this is yet more evidence they do not actually exist. For Bennett, however, this made them into “short media clips”—much like GIFs—trace elements of extra-terrestrial life forms that “evolved into pure media” aeons ago. Each individual sighting of these Snapchat-like, time-limited, self-deleting “ghost messages” represented “a limited simulation possessing a very short half-life, rather like a collection of discarded film-edits.” Bennett would have found the project of dredging up an alien spaceship, as Avi Loeb aims to do, just as wrong-headed as searching for the Internet by hunting down its physical data centres, rather than by simply booting up your laptop.
Being great market researchers, these incorporeal aliens never chose to appear as little green men in centuries gone by, preferring to manifest as other, more culturally appropriate sky phantoms like dragons and gods; for aliens to advertise themselves as aliens in the Europe of 1453 would have been as anachronistic as launching Facebook via Morse Code. So, the saucers were not launched—in both the aerospace and advertising senses of that term—until 1947. But what made that such an auspicious date, marketing-wise?
1947 witnessed the following key events in the development of the military-industrial-computing complex that now dominates our lives: that year marked the first recorded use of the word computer in its modern sense; the founding of that real-life employer of shady, dark-suited Men in Black, the CIA; the creation of the Atomic Doomsday Clock; the breaking of the sound-barrier; and Bell Labs’ invention of the transistor, the indispensable widget that made all modern electronics possible. In short, 1947 was almost made for UFOs to be born in. They were the best adapted, bestselling meme-product of the year, selling every bit as well as Doomsday cults did in AD 1000. Kenneth Arnold was just a ufological early adopter, like one of those fanboys who queue up to get their hands on the latest iPhone at one second past midnight on launch day.
War of Ideas
In Bennett’s disembodied memetic broadcasting service, all the different idea-animals compete to dominate what he termed “prime-time belief,” the governing cultural outlook of their times. For Bennett, religion once enjoyed this position until it was replaced by science, but perhaps UFOs represent some new form of cultural advertisement that will one day occupy the highest chart position in the epistemic Nielsen ratings.
According to computer scientist Jacques Vallée, who was one of Bennett’s intellectual inspirations, UFOs probably represent not a physical invasion of Earth, but an insidious cultural one, as they wage the rough equivalent of Russia’s contemporary doctrine of hybrid warfare. According to Vallée, UFOs are not spaceships but a weaponised “control system” designed to manipulate human behaviour.
Once mankind began sending out radio broadcasts in the 1900s, it became theoretically possible for potential aliens to pick up such transmissions. Any space-dwelling media entities would thus have been able to identify us as easy prey. Perhaps, like the deities in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, they can only live if they are fuelled by the minds of those who believe in them, so they quickly downloaded themselves here in search of further mind-sustenance via their imagined galactic Internet.
In 1997, retired US Army Colonel Philip J. Corso published a book about the mythical 1947 Roswell incident, claiming that the physical spaceship that supposedly crashed there, with its charred alien bodies, was just an elaborate decoy. The true, incorporeal, space invaders inhabited the onboard silicon chips and transistors—tech surely too primitive to power genuine ET spaceships, but conveniently graspable by the best minds of 1940s science. These were designed to be back-engineered by the foolish humans at Bell Labs, thus spawning the world of always-on smartphones we all enjoy today and providing the ideal environment within which disembodied parasitic meme-aliens could flourish.
Or perhaps the media tech with which they seeded humanity was psy-ops weaponry, intended to make our planet collapse from within in preparation for some future, more comprehensibly physical invasion. Much as some people swear that TikTok is secretly a Chinese psychological tool, designed to foster social division in the west by acting as an addictive new vehicle for endless viral political partisanship, so UFOs and smartphones alike could be some cunning ruse to make us commit collective civilisational suicide long before any space battleships actually arrive here. Perhaps this is the “control system” spoken of by Jacques Vallée.
I don’t actually believe any of these ideas but, as with all the best science fiction, I find them profoundly thought-provoking. I consider such far-out notions infinitely more tantalising than the prospect of biologically and politically mundane alien visitors eventually subjecting themselves to the jurisdiction of their fellow non-human jar-brains on the European Court of Human Rights, or the prospect of Avi Loeb digging up a physical ET space probe from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
But if Loeb ever finds his shipwrecked spacecraft, he should think twice before pressing any of its buttons. Once he does, he may find that there is no off switch.