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Close Encounters of the Digital Kind

When Silicon Valley usurps the transcendent potential of extraterrestrial life

What kind of man would you let drive you blindfolded into the New Mexico desert? Would it be a man who reminds you of Tyler Durden from Fight Club? A man who trains in MMA? Would it be a man who encases his body each day in an exoskeleton of concealed surveillance devices? Or who flies in a private jet? Would you agree if he promised to show you an alien spacecraft?

In D.W. Pasulka’s new book American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology, we know this man as Tyler D., which is not his real name. But he is a real person, though perhaps also more than a person. Certainly, he is better looking and better rested than you are, with a lower BMI and a higher net-worth. He wears Gucci. He is middle-aged but looks so young that a friend suspects he might be an angel. Tyler does not think of himself as an angel, but you might say that he’s a kind of prophet. It all started decades ago, when Tyler, then an employee of the American space program, watched the Challenger explode and rain pieces of his friends all over the Atlantic Ocean. In the months after, he began to have ideas. These ideas came to him, shimmering and complete, out of his own interior darkness, as though remembered from another life, or another lifeform. He turned these ideas—memories, really—into patents for biomedical technologies. He turned the patents into millions of dollars. He believes that his time working for the space program, absorbing the emanations of strange and powerful machines, altered the “frequencies” of his body and made it receptive to the communications of nonhuman intelligence. To recharge his receptive capacities, Tyler sleeps and sunbathes frequently.

Both because and in spite of his peculiarities, Pasulka, a professor of religion at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, agrees to be blindfolded by the man she calls Tyler D., provided she can bring a friend with her into the New Mexico desert. She hopes that the journey, which she describes in the opening chapter of American Cosmic, will gain her access to a sacred UFO relic. The reader just hopes she won’t get murdered.

American Cosmic, Pasulka writes, is a book “about contemporary religion, using as a case study the phenomenon known as the UFO.” If the UFO community, as Pasulka suggests, is a kind of church, then Tyler is one of its high priests. It’s strange, perhaps, to think of UFOs as a religious phenomenon—too many subreddits, not enough stained glass. But UFOs, as Pasulka demonstrates, have always had their zealots and proselytizers, their holy relics and sites of pilgrimage. And like Christianity itself, belief in UFOs is founded on a mythology of “contact events”: face-to-face encounters between solitary believers and celestial lifeforms. UFO experiencers see floating orbs, spinning disks, and flashing lights; Ezekiel saw a chariot with “wheels within wheels” descend from the sky. Add lazers and some spooky synths, and his chariot becomes a spaceship. 

Pasulka is interested in how technology, whether human or alien, sustains and sanctifies the UFO phenomenon. Her approach is sociological, and much of American Cosmic consists of an “ethnography of believers”: clandestine ufologists, space industry luminaries, amateur debunkers on Facebook, and a married couple who believe that an otherworldly orb manifested in their living room and healed their paralyzed terrier. Drawing on the theories of Jean Baudrillard, Carl Jung, and her own duties as a “religion consultant” on the set of the horror franchise The Conjuring, Pasulka argues that belief in UFOs proliferates through media technologies—movies, TV, newspapers, social media—which intentionally blur fact and fiction. Such technologies don’t merely confuse our understanding of what’s real and what’s fake, she argues; they collapse the distinction between experiences we’ve lived and the media we’ve consumed. “Things we commonly take to be unreal in a materialist sense,” Pasulka writes, “have real physiological and cognitive effects. Media technologies have as much an impact on human bodies as biotechnologies, and perhaps even more.”

UFOs have always had their zealots and proselytizers, their holy relics and sites of pilgrimage.

Put simply: UFOs were fake news before Fake News, and fake news often feels like real life. But American Cosmic is only in part a scholarly investigation of the technological basis of UFO phenomenon. It is, perhaps primarily, “a story,” Pasulka writes, “of [her] own participation in a group of scientists and academics who study the phenomenon anonymously.” That group is a secret brain-trust of ufologists committed to their belief in “the reality of the phenomenon”; they belong to a “parallel tradition” within the UFO community that Pasulka, borrowing a term coined by J. Allen Hynek, styles as the “Invisible College.” These individuals are highly credentialed within their chosen scientific fields, and they insist on anonymity because they fear “backlash from their professional colleagues.”

The Invisible College may be a national or even global community—it’s hard to gauge its scale, given its secrecy—but it is spiritually headquartered in Silicon Valley. The existence of a so-called Invisible College was first publicized in a 1975 book of that name by Jacques Vallee, a computer scientist, venture capitalist, and ufologist who, in American Cosmic’s preface, drives Pasulka around her old San Francisco neighborhoods, offering up little encomiums to what he lovingly calls “the Valley” (“Pure scientists,” he enthuses, “fueled by discovery”). Unsurprisingly, then, the cosmic theories advanced by College members bear a suspicious likeness to Silicon Valley technologies. Tyler talks about his own body like it’s a next-generation Apple product. Jacques Vallee suggests that the fateful coincidences often reported by UFO observers reveal the technological basis of the universe:

You should expect, since we are an information machine—that’s what our brain is, it’s primarily an information machine and consciousness gives us the illusion of a physical world and there is an illusion of time—if this is the case, then you can expect coincidences. It’s like putting a relevant keyword into Google or Yahoo!: you put it in and get a lot of relevant information back. That doesn’t seem strange to me because that is the way the information has been organized. Maybe the universe is the same way. If it is this way, then coincidences are nothing strange. It is just an indication that this is the way the universe functions.

The idea seems to be that we all live in the great database in the sky, occasionally summoning aliens with our minds. This is plausible enough, or at least as impossible to debunk as it is to verify. What seems more plausible, however, is that the “millionaires and billionaires and successful innovative scientists” Pasulka encounters in the Invisible College are full of shit, and that their pretense to extraterrestrial insight is merely the projection of their egos into the outer reaches of the universe. Tyler sounds less like a credible space researcher than a New Agey blowhard who believes his business ventures are cosmically ordained. Pasulka doesn’t spend much time theorizing the first part of her book’s title, but Tyler’s distinctly Silicon Valley hubris might be the most American thing about American Cosmic.

Pasulka is drawn to Tyler and the Invisible College because of their status as “scientist-believers,” whose entrepreneurial bonafides would seemingly disprove Stephen Hawking’s assertion that belief in UFOs is for “cranks and weirdos.” On the contrary, she explains, her research has disabused her of the notion “that belief in UFOs is associated with those on the ‘fringe’ . . . The truth is just the opposite.” But if Tyler, a man who believes that all of his highly profitable ideas were literally transmitted to him by aliens, isn’t a crank, I don’t know who is. To Pasulka, Tyler’s “recharging” strategy  recalls the “physical protocol” of monks and religious ascetics. To me, it sounds like butter-coffee capitalist and noted charlatan Dave Asprey striving for immortality through “biohacking.” The fact that the world’s wealthiest people believe all kinds of crazy things isn’t interesting in and of itself: anyone familiar with the antics of aspiring demiurge Elon Musk or exuberant psychopath John McAfee will be unsurprised to hear that a millionaire inventor self-identifies as an alien prophet. It turns out that the Venn Diagram of “millionaires and billionaires” and “cranks and weirdos” is probably just a circle.

Ultimately, though, Pasulka is less interested in evaluating the soundness of the College’s beliefs than in documenting their role in a “new religious form.” But she is often so eager to convey the mystique of her anonymous sources—perhaps to justify their centrality in her project—that she seems overly enthralled by their prestige. While American Cosmic vaguely cautions readers against an “unreflective embrace” of technology, the book itself models an unreflective embrace of tech oligarchs. Pasulka dedicates American Cosmic to Tyler, a man who secretly films everyone and everything near him with expensive cameras concealed around his body. Incredibly, she suggests that Tyler is “obsessed with recording videos because his story was erased, and had to be erased” on account of the College’s code of secrecy. In other words, Tyler doesn’t spy on people because he’s a voyeuristic sociopath; he spies on people because he wants to be remembered. Pasulka’s tendency to paint Tyler as a wounded genius can make American Cosmic read less like an ethnography of UFO culture than a hagiography of a millionaire. One can imagine a book about the so-called Invisible College that meaningfully examines the role of Silicon Valley in producing and sustaining batshit belief systems, but it is precisely this examination that American Cosmic lacks.

The idea seems to be that we all live in the great database in the sky, occasionally summoning aliens with our minds.

And yet, however unintentionally, Pasulka’s book does clarify some of the depressing ironies of living in a world shaped by Big Tech. The first widely reported UFO sighting in the United States occurred in 1947, at the dawn of the Cold War and the Atomic Age. These sightings went nationwide in the early 1950s, a decade that saw the launch of Sputnik and the birth of NASA, and they continued through the 1970s, buoyed on a woozy wave of New Age spirituality. The phenomenon reached its pop-cultural zenith in the 1990s, thanks to The X-Files, which premiered at a moment when “public trust in the government had dropped . . . to a historic low,” as the scholar Kathryn Olmsted writes. The UFO phenomenon began, it seems, as a response to an increasingly surveilled and technocratic world. If you believe in the extraterrestrial origins of UFOs, there’s a good chance you also believe a draconian surveillance state is concealing it from the public.

And, curiously, the growth of the UFO phenomenon does mirror the growth of the national security state. The UFO historian and crypto-conspiracy theorist Richard Dolan, author of the 2000 book UFOs and National Security State: Chronology of a Cover-up, 1940-1975, believes that the UFO phenomenon is closely guarded by government agencies whose duties primarily consist of “spying against the American citizens.” Dolan, who maintains a colorful YouTube channel, traces the history of government surveillance from the “wiretapping and bugging of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt” in the 1930s to the revelation, in the wake of Watergate, that “the FBI installed 2,465 microphones (bugs) against the American citizens from 1940 to 1975, nearly all of which required break-ins.” Over the course of the book’s two volumes, Dolan accumulates a mountain of supposed evidence for federal interference in the UFO phenomenon. As he suggests, the primary UFO antagonist seems to be the dark-suited G-man, spinning or suppressing evidence of extraterrestrial contact. UFO narratives are, among other things, a mythology of government cover-ups.

Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the UFO community reflexively invokes Watergate. The scandal inspired Spielberg’s concept for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files, describes Watergate as the “the big bang of [his] moral universe.” Search “cosmic Watergate” and you’ll find documentaries about Roswell, UFO-obsessed scientists condemning the government in the press, and perhaps an article about Larry Bryant, who filed a federal complaint (Citizens Against UFO Secrecy vs. Air Force) accusing the government of perpetrating a “cosmic Watergate” by allegedly holding three extraterrestrials in secret custody.  The UFO phenomenon has always been a cradle for organized, if eccentric, opposition to government secrecy and surveillance. Somehow, it has been usurped by the very Silicon Valley blowhards who now enable the surveillance state’s metastatic growth.

This might explain why Vallee’s suggestion that aliens are just like Google is so powerfully soul-killing. His theory suggests that the feeling of being digitally surveilled is one of almost mystical possibility. But when Google’s advertising software intuits, for instance, my desire for an Instant Pot, it doesn’t feel to me like a revelatory encounter with a celestial being. It feels like I’ve been psychically violated by an algorithm, which is to say it feels like everything else on the internet. Yet it’s true that both UFOs and data-mined advertisements are marked by “synchronicities,” or “powerful, meaning-filled coincidences.” UFO experiencers will often observe, for instance, mysterious pulsing lights in the sky for days after an initial sighting. Similarly, I need only contemplate the ugly ubiquity of sneaker startup Allbirds before flocks of them alight menacingly on my browser. In the former case, UFO experiencers may begin to suspect that a cosmic intelligence is tracking their movements. In the latter, I begin to suspect that my thoughts are being tracked by hideous sneakers, or at least the people who want to sell them to me.

Perhaps the intended effect of these ads is to make consumption feel providential, as though the Universe has conspired to lead you to a given product. (Did I choose the Instant Pot, or did the Instant Pot choose me?) But synchronicities in the physical world are so powerful precisely because they feel sublime, both terrifying and transformative. They seem to indicate some intelligent design in the universe, alien or divine—a higher power through which we might transcend, or at least ascend, perhaps in a spaceship. Whatever sublimity there is to be found on the internet is increasingly subsumed by what Will Davies, writing for The New Inquiry, calls the Data Sublime: the incomprehensible, often incomputable scale of Big Data itself. Big Data, which is to say mass surveillance, can never be transcended. The higher power it discloses is simply that of “our own domination.”

When Google’s advertising software intuits my desire for an Instant Pot, it doesn’t feel to me like a revelatory encounter with a celestial being.

The sublime—whether a feature of the natural world, or of UFOs, or of religious experience—is a sense of our own vanishing smallness before something impossibly vast: a mountain range, a churning ocean, the universe, God. What we get in return for being so existentially demeaned is freedom from the tyranny of our own personalities, a sort of liberating oblivion. But data-extracting platforms don’t sublimate our personalities; they multiply and magnify them. And the Data Sublime, far from making the internet feel thrillingly big, has conspired to make it feel smaller, claustrophobic, and profoundly boring. As Facebook and Google metastasize, the more interesting destinations on the internet are dying off; recent sweeping media layoffs were also largely the result of Facebook, Google, and Amazon’s stranglehold on advertising revenue. The sublime promises a sort of redemptive immensity, but Silicon Valley strives to compress all of digital experience into a single, monotonous feed, mainlining capital into the pockets of billionaires.

This sense of diminished possibility is what makes Silicon Valley’s appropriation of UFO culture somehow spiritually offensive. UFOs have always promised a bigger and fuller world, the possibility that something strange, transformative, and possibly sexual can happen to you in the sky. But now tech billionaires plan for their own transcendence while denying it from the rest of us. As real and online spaces continue to collapse into one another—as our social and political lives are further absorbed by social media—our collective experience is increasingly determined by Silicon Valley practice. We languish in the digital panopticon while the people who built it plot deliverance from their own mortality by uploading their consciousnesses into the Cloud, doomsday prepping their New Zealand bunkers, or communing with extraterrestrials. All the rest of us can do, perhaps, is wait to be abducted, and pray that whatever takes us believes we’re worth saving.