Nothing is real right now. Soon, everything will be.
The era of open-source, verified intelligence stands at the door of our old institutions.
Unless there’s a sealed lid on your attention that this piece managed to penetrate, you’ll have noticed that a seemingly sudden shift has taken place in the world of UFOs.
Throughout modernity up until a few years ago, the UFO subject was broached in public only by those willing to risk their reputations, or those not concerned with one. The conversation has, for decades, been largely confined to a niche subculture of cheesy television series, late night radio, a few podcast personalities and authors, and the social media mutterings of the figuratively and literally anonymous. That is to say - rarely openly entertained by serious establishment outlets, or people.
We apparently do not live in that world anymore. A steady momentum toward mainstream legitimacy tipped into motion by the New York Times in 2017 and sustained by the claims of former intelligence officials has been snowballing of late and broke some incredible barriers this week.
In this new world, society’s most prominent, trusted and respected voices - 60 Minutes and President Obama, no less - are green-lighting the UFO discussion with careful sensibility; one to which much of the mainstream media is not yet accustomed. Traditional news organisations are catching on to this brave new reality. Television in particular, is a picture. Most of the hastily-assembled segments doing the rounds had an atmosphere you could cut with a knife - moments of rattled incredulity, sandwiched of course by nervous giggles and tired jokes. Can you see the old paradigms crumbling, too? These revelations are making serious ground on the decades-old reflexes of ridicule.
However far this story seems to have come, it’s also barely gotten started. Everything said so far is merely to admit that a naked-eye, open-sky phenomenon reported by populations for decades around the world and long-corroborated by the nervous testimonies of credible, accomplished professionals - does indeed, after all, exist.
Sensitive to the disposition of an at least partly unsuspecting public, the potential implications of a not-ours UFO outcome remain mostly out of the discussion for now, and those with a prevailing interest in this topic note too the absence of surrounding subject matter. Proper historical framing is mostly absent - muted too are the questions of materials or crash retrievals. This new era of acceptability is in its infancy, and for now the extra-terrestrial hypothesis - the galactically-proportioned elephant in the room and the Occam’s Razor, to some - remains yours to assemble from the pieces you’ve been given, if you wish.
Nonetheless, the milestone is significant, and the online response is a sight. Respectable journalists and popular personalities are newly engaged and emboldened. Some, you can tell, have been itching to speak with candour for a while. Others are openly shocked - those short of speechlessness have questions, unsurprisingly.
One question, however, is ringing more loudly than the others at the moment.
People are asking this one whether they believe what they’re being told or not.
Common retorts include:
It’s a need to justify increased military spending and the Space Force.
It’s a desire to heighten the perceived threat posed by Russia and China.
It’s a distraction from some other news-story du jour (the pandemic response, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, etc.)
All healthy cynicism. But also, I think, symptomatic of our shortened, twenty-four-hour-news-cycle attention spans.
Some long-time believers even appear high and dry, as if disclosure itself must be the nefarious plot.
Because really, why now? This topic’s been in the public consciousness for going on 80 years.
To understand, we need to think in terms of broader societal trends, rather than the specific timing.
What this matter boils down to is a gradual, controlled disclosure of verified intelligence by elements within the intelligence community itself. How else would you put it?
At the forefront of the charge are former intelligence officers Lue Elizondo and Chris Mellon. Emerging in the public eye in 2017 around the time of the first New York Times article, they explained that they must regrettably exit the confines of a system that they were unable to change from within, in order to achieve their goal of UFO transparency. Whatever the full story there is - whether they’re acting alone or have powerful allies - it’s clear to those who’ve paid attention that they’re bringing out information over a protracted period.
Elizondo and Mellon’s disclosure project has been public for at least four years, meaning its inception would date back at least to the Obama administration.
And now that the man himself has weighed in (regrettably not in a sudden Oval Office address during his tenure, which would have made a better sci-fi movie to live through than Covid-19), even the most hardened UFO skeptics must accept that there must be more than just weather balloons up there after all.
So if they’ve been bringing this information out for a long time, and they’re telling the truth, then the question is not why now, why this year, even why this administration.
It’s more like - why finally in our age, our era? After all these decades?
A Waning Monopoly on Intelligence
Not long ago, Microsoft fought tooth and nail to suppress competition from open-source software. Their tight-fisted control of the personal computing industry was upended by the work of programmers collaborating via the internet for free - and they didn’t like it very much. Today of course, they have embraced it. They provide source code, embed Linux, own GitHub, and enjoy a warmly renewed reputation as a result.
Microsoft came to understand that the tide was against them, and they wisely accepted that when the distributed, open-source era arrives on the shores of your monopoly - you either sink, or you swim with it.
The length and breadth of the UFO topic is the preserve of the handful of meticulous and dedicated researchers who have attempted to tackle it. But for the sake of some context, let’s remind ourselves of the 30,000ft consensus of their collective work here.
There are earlier accounts - ancient accounts, even - but the prevailing timeframe among UFO researchers places the beginning of the modern phenomenon at the end of the Second World War. With much of the planet in strife, humans were taking to the skies en masse for the first time - and some of them reported inexplicable things. As the trickle of “flying saucer” reports turned into a tide along with news of crash retrievals, public panic ensued, and the national security infrastructure in the Cold War that followed intervened to implement a policy of denial, obfuscation and whitewash that lasted through that period and persisted to the present day. This much is becoming less tin-foil, more like received wisdom at this point. What the motivations were, would depend on who you ask.
In decades gone by, it was certainly possible for governments to flat-out deny the existence of unidentified craft operating with seeming impunity in their sovereign airspace. After all, who would argue otherwise? Who had the credibility, the resources or the reach? Because it was possible too, in an era of centralized information and power, to contain those who might by hanging a culture of shame, ridicule and worse over their heads.
Compare and contrast the old world with our world today - with its free-flowing information, endless streams of pictures, videos and commentary swirling on social media around the clock, and a not-coincidental resurgence of public interest in UFOs.
The old institutional strategy of denial and containment has been dangling for years on a singular, fragile thread - that we still can’t prove that the countless images and videos we’re seeing are real. Many of them definitely aren’t, in fact.
So, despite soaring access to information, the signal to noise ratio is still way off, and the time and resources required to verify any specific content or claim is prohibitive to most people.
For members of the public, the door is left comfortably open to doubt.
What the people behind this disclosure process probably understand, and what they’re trying to get ahead of, is that the door is about to close.
The Reality Problem
Let’s park the UFOs for a moment to think about the current state of information in general. We’ll get back to them in a moment. To illustrate the point I’m about to make, consider the following video of not-Tom-Cruise, that never happened:
If we thought that our society had been strained by the fake news era, then the era of deepfakes would seem well-placed to shatter consensus reality completely.
Hyperbole? Hardly. This one’s almost impossible to overstate.
You might have noticed that we’ve been having a hard enough time coming to grips with our adversaries commenting on our affairs online. Paranoid, aren’t we, of Russian bots polluting public opinion?
Now you’re telling me they can generate videos of our leaders saying things they never said and doing things they never did? And distribute that content on the same channels that we rely on for truth? If ever there was an existential challenge for open and democratic societies, deepfake technology being dropped into them is it. Game, set and match.
“Fact checks” and moderators aren’t going to cut it. They already don’t.
This is an intolerable vision of the future. Lucky us then, that the solution is relatively technologically simple, and imminent.
What we’ll be getting used to in the near future is cryptographically signed and verified social media content. Not verified? Not real. That’s an easy enough mental habit to form. In fact, you already possess it. Would you interact with a banking website that didn’t feature the padlock?
The infrastructure just remains to be adopted. The only thing that surprises me, in fact, is that NFTs came first. See how cryptography has already been applied to verify ownership of digital content. All we’re going to need to verify in most cases is authenticity.
Preferably in time for the next election.
So, the good news is that the looming deepfake dystopia that’s been keeping people awake at night shouldn’t last for long.
The resulting crypto-media landscape, and the habits of verification that will form around it, could even converge on a new consensus reality that’s more stable than our current one. Our sense of what’s real and what’s not could receive a much-needed re-grounding.
The snag, is that it will be slightly different to the reality we know today - and some old myths will be giving way to some new truths.
Consider the position of the people tasked with defending our airspace and that UFOs are a reality. Perhaps, even, some of them aren’t ours and they don’t have a handle on it. But for now, images captured by the public still look like this:
Whoever (or whatever) it belongs to - if this is a real craft and you’d been part of keeping it quiet, wouldn’t now be the time to get ahead of the impending loss of that old narrative that they don’t even exist when they so clearly do? Engage the public and emerge with your legitimacy intact?
Or would a better strategy be to keep your head in the sand and watch it evaporate with one viral, cryptographically verified video?
Because to me, it feels like we’re a few camera hardware revisions and a software update away from this:
It should hardly be surprising to suggest that the people driving this process are thinking a few years ahead. It’s what they are paid to do.
Whatever the UFOs are, wherever they’re from and however much the government knows about them - it feels like we’re in for some truth, before the story gets away from them.
That this should be the moment in history for it? Makes perfect sense to me.