Author, Fortean, futurist, and friend Mac Tonnies passed away this week aged 34. Mac was an original thinker, a poet who could explain strange and confronting topics with intelligence, grace and humour. In his final days, Mac had finished the manuscript for his new book The Cryptoterrestrials (which may yet be published post-humously by Anomalist Books). The following article from the Darklore anthology series shows how honest a thinker Mac was, as he simultaneously considered an alternative and contradictory theory to his own 'cryptoterrestrial' musings. Godspeed Mac.
UFOs as Vanguards of a Post-Biological Intelligence
by Mac Tonnies
"We are property." - Charles Fort
"We are part of a symbiotic relationship with something which disguises itself as an extra-terrestrial invasion so as not to alarm us." - Terence McKenna
Part of the fun of being a Fortean is second-guessing myself. While many endeavors encourage us to trust our first impressions, the study of unexplained phenomena offers no such luxuries. Researchers of the "paranormal" are instead tasked with policing their own streams of consciousness - a process as rewarding as it is laborious.
In my own case, the study of UFOs and occupant encounters has led me to two predominant interpretations, each at odds with the traditionally accepted Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH). In one scenario, the beings sighted since at least the 1950s (and, if folklore is any indication, long before) are the denizens of an invisible landscape: technologically savvy but impoverished hominids I've dubbed "cryptoterrestrials." In the other, the enduring UFO spectacle is the product of an almost inconceivably ancient machine intelligence not unlike that portrayed in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001. I'll limit the scope of this essay to the latter possibility.
As the human species enters an era of rampant existential threats and finds itself mirrored in the quantum circuitry of would-be artificial intelligences, there's reason to suspect our existence has been monitored (and perhaps even groomed) by a "post-biological" super-intelligence. Although the galaxy is formidably vast, it's also ancient. A growing chorus of pundits clamors over the perceived "Great Silence" that greets our arsenal of electronic listening gear; either we're alone, condemned to solitude on the edge of an unremarkable galactic disk, or we have neighbors. And if even one of these neighboring intelligences has managed to spawn an artificially intelligent offshoot, there's no end to how expansive it might have become in the ensuing millennia.
Suppose we've not only been detected, but catalogued and studied, our very identity eviscerated and infiltrated. What might we expect? Overt acknowledgement on behalf of the overseeing intelligence might be too much to ask, but it seems reasonable to expect an echo imprinted in our mythological and historical records, however faintly. Indeed, our collective psyche itself might bear mute witness to a visitation we don't dare acknowledge for fear of staring too deeply into the abyss.
UFOs: A Social Engineering Campaign?
Like most proponents of an imminent technological "singularity," I'm troubled by the seeming absurdity of UFO behavior. But instead of trying to dismiss the mystery outright, I've become convinced that the phenomenon is substantially deeper than the "mere" comings and goings of predominantly biologically beings in metal spacecraft How likely is it that UFOs might represent a spectacle enacted by an ET machine intelligence? As noted by acclaimed researcher Jacques Vallee, the ETH fails to account for the phenomenon's enduring weirdness. Drawing from world folklore, Vallee posits that UFO sightings might be staged events that unfold according to the mythological syntax of any given era.
The UFO puzzle certainly represents an intelligence of some kind. Once we exclude the fashionable notion that all "good" sightings must invariably be the result of misinterpretation or hoax, it becomes apparent that we're dealing with an extremely adaptable form of technology (or at least compelled to think we are). If the UFO intelligence is ET in origin, it's conceivable that the enigmatic "flying disks" and apparent "occupants" that have come to populate 21st century mythology are so much theater designed to appeal to our sense of planetary selfhood. (It bears mentioning that the UFO phenomenon has never been exclusively American. Nor did it begin in the 1940s, as often assumed by ufologists and committed skeptics alike.)
As Vallee has argued in books such as Passport to Magonia and Dimensions, we're witnessing the latest permutation of a richly historical drama that challenges researchers to re-examine the ETH. Like accounts of gods and "little people" before them, UFOs fulfill a significant psychosocial role. Examined superficially, this alone seems like grounds for debunking sightings of unlikely humanoids and their alleged vehicles. Yet UFOs behave in ways that refute a simple psychological explanation. Decades of multiple-witness encounters, complete with anomalous radar returns, leave little doubt that UFOs are a physical reality.
But why would visiting aliens behave in such a maddeningly elusive manner, eschewing open contact yet persistently presenting themselves in the most bizarre context?
While humanoid aliens engaged in a scientific study of our planet might very well inadvertently reveal themselves from time to time, UFO researchers must grapple with the peculiarly theatric flavor that accompanies so many credible sightings. It seems that whatever we're witnessing is intentionally tricking us, adopting prudent disguises that fit the reigning zeitgeist.
Vallee - and other researchers of an esoteric bent - suspect we're the recipients of a social engineering campaign that has little or nothing to do with flesh-and-blood visitors. If they're right, we might be on the cusp of a new way of addressing ET contact that enlivens the UFO debate and casts new light on our own technological future.
Incompetent Alien Overlords
I've always been intrigued by the essentially clumsy methods employed by the purported pilots of UFOs. Alien abductors fare little better. Their induced amnesia has a way of crumbling over a curiously brief period of time; almost inevitably, their victims share stories of their experiences that, while often sincere, seem most unlike the machinations of an advanced extraterrestrial task-force.
Worse still, alien craft - which proponents of the ETH would have us believe are arbitrarily more advanced than our own - tend to leave incriminating scars on the terrain, if not crash with worrisome frequency. Coupled with their occupants' human mannerisms, such seeming anachronisms all but beg that we rethink the standard interpretation offered by the ETH; instead of dealing with beings wielding technology "indistinguishable from magic," UFO files reveal beings with the seemingly limited capabilities familiar to readers of pulp science fiction.
Indeed, their arsenal of gadgets, while impressive, is only a few decades in advance of our own. This observation, culled from a near-inexhaustible catalog of close encounters, hints that the phenomenon is at least partly physical, yet extraordinarily unlikely to represent the sort of ET visitation we might expect after viewing Close Encounters.
For example, abductee Betty Hill reported a pregnancy test identical to amniocentesis, a technique invented only shortly after her abduction. Similarly, accounts of electromagnetic effects on car engines and appliances are more in keeping with proposed earthly propulsion technologies than the sort of stealthy efficiency in keeping with a species hundreds of thousands of years ahead of us.
Scientists are already creating microscopic robots for use in medicine and industry. Given the inevitability of such devices, the presence of large metallic craft manned by humanoid pilots would appear, at best, a remarkably inept way to go about observing and cataloging life on this planet. Wouldn't a genuine ET survey mission employ miniaturized surveillance in keeping with its need for secrecy?
Instead, UFOs cruise our skies with an implacable arrogance. If our visitors are indeed extrasolar aliens, then they have a most curious penchant for drama. If, on the other hand, we're observing the activities of a machine intelligence, the apparent desire to be seen can be readily explained in terms of misdirection.
"Alien" imagery of the sort encountered in science fiction of the 1950s is the perfect cover, as our own military understands all-too-well. Greg Bishop chronicles just one example in Project Beta, a devastating critique of the black-ops underworld and its readiness to exploit ET mythology in order to deflate serious interest in secret Air Force projects.
By utilizing our innate fascination with flesh-and-blood interplanetary visitors in resplendent metallic spacecraft, the operative intelligence has ensured that any "accidental" sightings will be ascribed to the ETH. The mainstream media, quick to "debunk" for fear of inciting ridicule, thus ignores credible sightings and inadvertently assists the overarching agenda. And if by some chance the sighting is undeniable, its cultural connotations will almost certainly relegate it to our collective Fortean attic.
In a related vein, I don't think it's accidental that so many UFOs are adorned with mesmerizing flashing lights. While one can always argue that conspicuous lights indicate the presence of some truly unearthly propulsion system, it's just as possible that they're a deliberate ploy to appeal to our sense of the unearthly, thereby eliciting the excitement of the very ET enthusiasts whose sightings are certain to be ignored . . . or, at best, published in some obscure journal or website.
As Vallee has astutely noted, many accounts of UFO landings have the undeniable flavor of staged events. The controversial events at Rendlesham Forest, for instance, seem to make sense only if they were intended to be witnessed, perhaps in an attempt to further impress us with the extraterrestrial meme. Similarly, the famous Washington National sightings, in which objects were tracked over Washington, D.C. with ground- and air-based radar and confirmed visually by multiple witnesses, smack of an orchestrated event intended to arrest our attention.
Intriguingly, the objects over Washington were limited to inexplicable sources of light - not the "structured craft" described in other notable cases. Could the UFO intelligence use a form of holography to trick us into thinking we're observing tangible vehicles? The possibility can't be easily discounted. Michael Talbot supports the holographic theory in his book The Holographic Universe, noting that some UFO displays have more in common with sophisticated projections than nuts-and-bolts spacecraft.
The same can be said of many close encounters of the third or fourth kind in which witnesses report anomalous spatial effects. Some witnesses have described the interior of apparent alien vehicles as considerably larger than the craft as seen from outside. This odd detail, so bizarre when considered in isolation, might be explained as a perceptual trick enacted by the "aliens" to render their vehicles more impressive than they actually are. Upon exiting, a witness would be more likely to describe her experience in otherworldly terms.
That the ufonauts use a form of mind control is taken as a given by most abduction researchers. But once we concede that our visitors are able to induce or dampen perception at will, where does one draw the line? Who's to say the bulk of abduction narratives can't be interpreted as induced hallucinations? Perhaps some incredible abduction reports, while sincere, reflect an intimate brush with virtual reality rather than encounters with humanoid extraterrestrials.
Establishing the Foundations
But what do we know about the phenomenon? What can researchers agree on, if anything? I certainly don't expect them to abandon the notion of biological visitors in favor of immersive virtual reality. Neither do I expect ufologists to agree on the ever-nebulous Interdimensional Hypothesis, which raises at least as many reality-altering questions as it purports to answer.
At the same time, the Null Hypothesis, maintaining that UFOs can be universally ascribed to misidentified natural phenomena and sightings of unconventional earthly aircraft, has grown decrepit and toothless. Fashionable debunking aside (up to and including the brittle posturing of self-styled "alien experts" such as the SETI Institute's Seth Shostak) something absolutely fascinating is happening.
Taking stock of the situation, I'm tempted to reduce the UFO riddle to a few guiding tenets which I think can be reasonably supported by the evidence provided since the "modern" era of sightings began 60 years ago. A list of pertinent characteristics might go like this:
- Regardless of their origin, UFOs are physically real.
- UFOs are sometimes observed engaged in behavior which can only be described as intelligently directed.
- The psychological and sociological impact of the phenomenon is especially enduring and should be a topic of paramount interest for scholars and researchers in fields as disparate as cultural anthropology, aeronautics and neurology.
- The sometimes theatrical behavior of unidentified flying objects suggests the possibility of some form of dialogue, whether directed by ourselves or orchestrated by the phenomenon itself. Likewise, military encounters in which weapons systems have been apparently manipulated in intelligent fashion invite the prospect that the UFO intelligence is at least partially amenable to understanding in terms of human psychology.
A Post-Biological Booster
Assume that something very much like the imminent "Singularity" we've been hearing so much about from futurists and transhumanist pundits has already happened elsewhere in the galaxy. Now imagine us awash in its wake, scrambling to summon a vocabulary up to the task of making sense of it.
If I'm right, a postsingular intelligence would eschew formal contact for the simple reason that such disclosure would destabilize us, possibly to the brink of obliteration. Lest this sound unnecessarily dire, it's worth recalling that theorists have attacked the assumptions underpinning radio-based SETI for much the same reason. If our own history is any example, technologically robust civilizations inevitably subsume less sophisticated cultures, not merely by violently dismantling them, but by introducing a virulent strain of apathy. (The infamous Brookings report to NASA, recommending that the potential discovery of extraterrestrial artifacts be covered up for fear of paralyzing research/development enterprises, stands as perhaps most explicit elucidation of this idea.)
The UFO/"alien" phenomenon described by Vallee, John Keel and even Whitley Strieber is alarmingly congruent with a "postbiological" hypothesis. We appear to be interacting with an exceptionally patient intelligence which, despite its advantages over terrestrial science, seems limited by a steadfast refusal to make itself widely known. (Whether this indicates a guiding morality or pragmatic necessity remains to be seen.) Contrary to mainstream expectations, our visitors have opted for a much more gradual form of contact, evidenced both by the often theatrical nature of the apparent vehicles in our skies and by the behavior of the presumed occupants (who seem to enjoy letting us assume they're predominantly human-like, governed by such familiar traits as curiosity and even sexuality).
I propose that this intelligence has played a significant role in hastening our species' development as well as keeping us in a periodic "standby" state, rendering us less likely to destroy ourselves. In a way, the human legacy has been scripted to conform to an alien template about which we know nothing. But the available historical, mythological and experiential evidence tends to support a largely benevolent raison d'etre. Perhaps we're being groomed in preparation for our own Singularity, after which the "others" could have no choice but to deal with us as equals.
Accessing the Interzone
I've speculated that the diverse humanoid forms encountered by "abductees" and UFO witnesses might be best understood in terms of a "hive society," replete with "drones" engineered to perform specialized tasks.
Science fiction writers continue to debate what methods we'll use when colonizing a planet such as Mars. Ultimately, we might choose to terraform the world into a facsimile of our own. But we could just as easily decide to modify ourselves to tolerate inclimate conditions. A space-faring post-biological intelligence could take up residence elsewhere and populate the surface of its designated planet with lifelike, semi-autonomous drones.
Such a civilization might seem remote, but the general concept is already in practice; if our own robotic space probes continue to increase in sophistication and brain-power, they'll eventually become indistinguishable from living creatures, at which point we will have effectively achieved the "Singularity" advocated by technoprogressives such as roboticist Hans Moravec and inventor Ray Kurzweil. We will have also created the forebear to the very sort of resourceful, self-replicating machine envisioned by John von Neumann, whose idea suggests that our night sky should be veritably illuminated by the comings and goings of ETs (or their technology).
Taken to its logical extreme, telepresence offers an expansive - if tentative - explanation for myriad "occult" phenomena. It potentially explains why we seldom see aliens in the flesh unless they want us to. And we can't dismiss the possibility that some UFO sightings, while seemingly physical events, might be enacted on a psychological level. Our own neurological dabbling demonstrates that such techniques are less exotic than some may expect; indeed, if neurologist Michael Persinger is correct, radiation emitted from natural phenomena can sometimes result in convincing hallucinatory states.
To be sure, the realm of the UFO intelligence has the visual flexibility of a multimedia installation or high-bandwidth website. It's conceivable that "trippers" can access this interzone, even if inadvertently. The beings seen - described similarly in both UFO and drug narratives - might be the equivalent of neuropharmacologists and system operators. If so, what role might be in store for us?
A Sort of Amnesiac Stupor...
UFO researchers like their aliens to abide by 20th century preconceptions of what alien beings "should" look like; encounters with "absurd" entities (such as the goblin-like, levitating creatures made famous by the Hopkinsville case) comprise a kind of viral assault on conformist ufology by insinuating themselves into reigning conceits and quietly subverting ETH dogma. Ultimately, their existence is marginalized and becomes less ufological than "Fortean." We're asked, in effect, to consider the Hopkinsville visitors and their like as somehow separate and distinct from "hardcore" case-files that more readily suggest "traditional" extraterrestrial visitation. We do so at our peril.
Even UFO cases central to advocates of the ETH sometimes betray a psychosocial agenda. ("Dogfights" and radar-visual engagements with UFOs, while impressive evidence that the phenomenon is anything but simply visionary, also present the specter of an inexplicably "playful" disposition; this clashes with dogmatic assurances that humanoid aliens would refrain from such childish behavior.)
Encounters with "Hopkinsville-type" beings demonstrate an undeniable commonality with both folkloric sources and the contemporary UFO phenomenon. Taken together, these inconvenient similarities force us to question the easy certainties that prevailed in the 1950s, when human-like space aliens in comprehensible spacecraft seemed all-but-inevitable. "Limbo" cases like Hopkinsville allow us to assess the phenomenon in a brighter, less sullied light.
While one can argue endlessly in favor of a traditionalist extraterrestrial interpretation, a holistic approach leads us to consider that the UFO intelligence not only wants to perpetuate itself via dramatic encounters with ostensible "occupants," but intends to discredit its own machinations: it stages exciting UFO events that infect both the research community and the popular imagination, knowing that the phenomenon's inherent absurdity will eventually undermine attempts to arrive at an indictment.
We're thus conditioned to accept the ETH one moment only to succumb to the "giggle factor" the next, never peering past the curtain to see the agenda behind the special effects. We're kept in a sort of amnesiac stupor, occasionally graced by visits from what can only be structured ET craft . . . and then deflated by the latest bizarre "occupant" report or account of "missing time."
Our infatuation with the unknown is systematically provoked and dismantled by a memetic campaign that's never less than astute in its grasp of human belief.