In a review of D.W. Pasulka’s new book American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology at The Baffler, Emily Harnett offers her take on Silicon Valley’s appropriation of UFO culture.

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.

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.

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Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.