UFO-abduction narratives and the technology of tradition.

Author:Ball, Kimberly

The first to point out a connection between UFO phenomena and the supernatural phenomena of tradition was astronomer Jacques Vallee, who, in 1969, suggested that the similarity among accounts of UFOs, demons, angels, fairies, and ghosts provides evidence against the extraterrestrial hypothesis of UFO origins (Vallee 1969). Folklorists have since heeded Linda Degh's call to study reports of encounters with UFOs and those who pilot them as legends, hence as part of a tradition of anomalous-experience narratives describing human dealings with unusual beings of various kinds (Degh 1977). In particular, Thomas Bullard and Peter Rojcewicz have contributed to an understanding of the links between UFO- and fairy-lore, observing that informants' descriptions of aliens bear a remarkable resemblance to traditional accounts of anthropomorphic supernaturals, not least in the propensity of both groups to abduct human beings (Bullard 1989; Rojcewicz 1991).

A major factor distinguishing the two groups is the aliens' use of highly advanced technology, which is, from a human standpoint, futuristic. Accordingly, several scholars have interpreted the UFO-abduction narrative as a reaction to technological change, in one form or another (Dean 1998, 126-52; Luckhurst 1998, 38-40; Bullard 2000, 156-7; Barbeito 2005, 206-10; Dewan 2006, 197; Kelley-Romano 2006, 394; Brown 2007, 70-82, 85-99). I would like to contribute to this conversation by proposing that these narratives are especially concerned with developments in those technologies used to transmit information over space and time--what I am terming "technologies of tradition." I introduce this term to refer to any device for conveying knowledge or culture from one context into another, and to serve as a reminder that technology is intrinsic to tradition, even if it is only that most fundamental technology of tradition: language. Casting the matter in this way discourages the tendency to see technology as opposed to tradition, and allows the anxieties engendered by recent developments in new media to be contextualized within a long history of anxiety over changes to the ways in which elements of the past are brought into the future. The latest major development in the technology of tradition is the advent of the Internet, which represents the culmination of advancements in two spheres: digital information technology and mass media. Through an analysis of various motifs, I will argue that UFO-abduction narratives express anxieties over the rapid changes in these two spheres during the period in which these stories have been told, from the mid-twentieth century to the present. In particular, I argue that these narratives thematize the circumstances of their own transmission, which occurs today in large part via the Internet. (2)

Though referencing studies published by abduction investigators, this article focuses on the UFO-abduction narrative as it exists online, where numerous sites host discussion fora in which participants report their own and comment on one another's abduction experiences. (3) I have amassed a database of a little over 200 abduction narratives from Englishlanguage discussion fora, each of which is embedded in or, indeed, constituted by a discussion with multiple participants. Online-forum participants contribute their narratives spontaneously in an informal setting, responding to questions and comments from other participants who stand on a more or less equal footing with themselves. Instead of playing an active role, the researcher may choose, as I have done, to stand outside this process. As Jan Fernback and Trevor Blank have individually observed, the online discussion forum is therefore an ideal site to study legend, a genre that unfolds in conversation, often as a debate regarding matters of contested ontological status which informants might feel abashed to discuss in the presence of the academic researcher (Fernback 2003; Blank 2007). Despite these inherent advantages, there has thus far been little study of legends on the Internet. The UFO-abduction narrative is a particularly apt subject for such a study, and a legend of particular interest at this time, in that it confronts one of the central concerns of our age: humanity's transformation through its engagement with technology.

Technology vs. Humanity

Reports of anomalous objects in the skies go back at least as far as the description of Ezekiel's visions in the Old Testament, and the extraterrestrial hypothesis was adduced as early as the nineteenth century, when mysterious "airships" were sighted over various locations in the United States and presumed in the popular press to contain emissaries from other planets (Ezekiel 1, 4-28 NRSV; Sanarov 1981, 163; Denzler 2001, 5-6). The beginning of the UFO era is, however, usually dated to 1947, when "flying saucers" were first described by pilot Kenneth Arnold, who saw a group of disc-shaped objects above the Cascade Mountain range in the state of Washington; later that year stories surfaced about a crashed alien saucer in Roswell, New Mexico (Arnold and Palmer 1952; Coates 2001, vii). First-hand accounts of contact with the occupants of these craft began to appear in the 1950s and initially described benevolent beings who proffered gentle advice to willing human interlocutors (Leslie and Adamski 1953; Angelluci 1955)--but reports of a more sinister kind soon started to emerge. The best known UFO-abduction report of this era, and the first to exhibit a pattern that has since become familiar, was made in 1961 by Betty and Barney Hill, who, under hypnotic regression, told psychiatrist Benjamin Simon of being taken off a New Hampshire road by aliens who used mind control to force the couple into their craft and subject them to medical examination (Fuller 1966). (4) Several similar accounts gained wide publicity in the 1970s, and in the 1980s and 90s UFO-abduction narratives became almost commonplace, as investigators obtained stories from hundreds of individuals who underwent hypnosis to recall periods of "missing time" they suspected might indicate alien interference with their memories. (5) Today, UFO-abduction narratives flourish online.

The UFO-abduction narrative is, then, a phenomenon of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. What distinguishes this era from previous eras is the proliferation of increasingly sophisticated technology and its growing presence in the daily lives of ordinary people. When the modern UFO era began in 1947, many of the household electronic devices in use today had already been developed, but ownership of these devices was not widespread, even in relatively wealthy countries. Advances in mass production in the 1950s and 60s together with increased prosperity in the wake of World War II greatly expanded the presence and number of such items in the average homes of industrialized nations. Electronic television sets, for example, became available for purchase by the general public in the 1930s, but the proportion of U.S. households owning televisions in 1950 was just 10%, increasing rapidly to 94% by 1965 (Steinberg 1980). By 2005, ownership had increased only slightly, to 98%, but the average number of televisions per household had grown to 2.6 (U.S. Census Bureau 2008). Other technologies have taken longer to infiltrate the home. The 1940s saw the beginnings of computer technology, but it was not until the introduction of the microchip in 1975 that the home computer became a possibility. In 1984, just 20% of Americans used a computer, and most of this usage was confined to the workplace, but by 2007 this number had increased to 80%, with 76% of Americans owning personal computers (U.S. Census Bureau 1988; Pew Research Center 2007). Even more intimate than technology in the home, the use of technology in the body also increased dramatically during this period. The first electric pacemaker was implanted in a heart patient in 1958. Today, roughly 250,000 cardiac pacemakers are surgically implanted each year, and the use of other medical implants, such as neurological stimulators and cochlear devices, is growing (Haddad, Houben, and Serdijn 2006, 38). Perhaps the most startling developments have occurred in the realm of assisted reproductive technology, or ART. Since the birth of the first "test-tube baby" in 1978, an issue of great controversy at the time, in-vitro fertilization has become a relatively routine practice, especially in Europe and the United States, with some 200,000 ART babies born worldwide in 2004 (Horsey 2006).

Our current idea of the future is, logically, one in which technological advancement has continued apace, and technology has become embedded even more thoroughly in every aspect of our everyday existence. The aliens in UFO-abduction narratives, with their high-tech devices that allow them to intrude into the most intimate realms of human life (the interior of the home, the interior of the body, the "recesses of the mind") aptly represent this vision of a hyper-technological future. UFO-abduction-forum participants regularly comment on the advanced state of alien technology, which they attempt to contextualize by estimating how far in the future human beings might be expected to reach similar levels of technical expertise. AmentiHall, for example, characterizes aliens as possessing "technology and mental faculties far exceeding our own from hundreds to thousands of years," while LooseLipsSinkShips puts a finer point on it, stating that the aliens use "technology that is roughly 2,500 years more advanced than where we are in the year 2007" (AmentiHall 2009; LooseLipsSinkShips 2007). Bart5050 goes further still:

If a species reached the industrial age say four billion years ago, manipulating the physical laws might be simple. We manipulate the physical laws of the universe every time we turn on a PC. Scale that up a few billion years. (Bart5050 2009, Post 9) (6)

The aliens in...

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