Jacques Vallee: Of Crop Circles, meme wars and web-based flypaper

Based on the three earlier posts I have made on this subject, an objective reader might be justified to conclude either that crop circles are the product of hoaxes or the result of experimental military developments. In both cases he or she would also have to admit that they represent a masterful project in social engineering.

If they are hoaxes, the authors have succeeded in capturing the attention of the world in a way that few works of art even achieve. Their productions are surrounded with mystery and the breathless suggestion of Alien contact or ancient druidic magic. The designs even hint at a cosmic signal about the future of our species.

If they are military experiments hidden in plain sight, then the social manipulation of information that serves as camouflage is a remarkable achievement. It shows that the most open form of public communication in the world, namely the web, can be used as a device to hide the reality of a massive technological effort and to distort the debate about the tools it uses and the goals it pursues. Those of us interested in the evolution and future of the Internet should take notice.

Most of the discussion about the circles in books, magazines and websites has been devoted to the physical methods that may be used to generate them: from wooden boards, rakes and brooms to beams from hovering platforms (my personal choice) or even orbiting satellites. Sadly, the social engineering aspect, which represents an equally great achievement, has rarely been mentioned. For me that aspect is the most fascinating part of the crop circle phenomenon, and I submit that the dialogue we have seen on Boing Boing illustrates it well. What we have here is a remarkable example of misdirection around a stunning experiment that remains in full view of a wide public that consistently fails to ask the right questions and keeps re-asserting bogus answers.

The unveiling of the "Doug and Dave" hoax itself was a notable example of media promotion. The two British retirees enjoyed front-page articles in the international press and special placement on prime time on world TV programs, a treatment usually reserved for major world events or announcements supported by heavy, professionally-managed advertising budgets. Their "revelation" had an immediate, irreversible effect of locking the concept of crop circles as a hoax in the mind of a very large public, most notably the academic and 'intellectual' community.

As we saw in the responses to my previous posts it is extraordinarily difficult to dislodge such a certainty and re-open the minds of people to alternate views once they have satisfactorily locked onto such an easy, convenient explanation. The presentation of new facts (such as the node explosion that lies beyond the technical capability of our friends Doug and Dave, or the recent announcement that the military had, in fact, deployed beam weapons fired from above) makes no difference in the debate because people just ignore it As we saw, most of the responses to my earlier posts simply re-asserted an existing position (sometimes with considerable aggression) rather than debating the relevance of new data.

This goes well beyond crop circles. For those of us who have followed the development of networks for many years the lessons are sobering. The web is becoming the medium of choice for disinformation and misinformation, including official efforts to inject new "memes" into the culture. Although I remain an optimist about the web as a medium for free exchanges of data and faster communication of high value, it is also a potential tool for propaganda, false rumors intentionally planted and for a range of techniques designed to alter or filter social reality.

This intentional distortion has certainly become a fact of life among ufologists. It seems that every month or so some website claims to have received data from a hidden source, often a "highly-placed" defense or intelligence person, about UFO crashes, live Aliens, secret missions to Mars or contact with hush-hush cosmic locations such as Ummo, Serpo and other wonderful places. The curious thing is that, in cases when it has been possible to reverse-engineer these links, they were often found to originate within the intelligence community or people close to it. The purpose may be to divert attention from real projects, to confuse an adversary or even to release new ideas to test society's reactions. In such situations the community of UFO believers is used only as a convenient resonating chamber: Since the content can never be checked or the origin verified, there is absolutely nothing a researcher can do with the alleged information: photos of bizarre drones that could be digital fakes (or simply the spines of an umbrella thrown up into the air), blurry glows flying over Mexico, official-looking minutes of U.N. meetings that never happened, actual Presidential papers where a few words have been substituted to suggest official contact with Aliens, or pictures of monsters in the woods. These websites attract plenty of attention and a lot of users who in turn amplify the signal with their own fantasies. The process is reminiscent of flypaper: you deploy a device that will make would-be researchers stick to your concept and spend a lot of time discussing and amplifying it instead of going after real data.

The main result is to disturb, drown or negate genuine research into paranormal phenomena, but the intent may well go beyond this effect. Web social patterns have become a strategic global tool. Like the crop circles themselves, they can now be used to alter the public's perception of the present and the future. Mastering such a tool is well worth a few bent stalks of corn.

Art from "Pentagram Papers: Crop Circles" (1993)