Friday, October 16, 2009

Balloon Boy: The 21st Century War of the Worlds

See Update for additional UFO link

I won't go into the details about the Balloon Boy fiasco, but there are a couple of point worth noting, some of interesting comparison with the infamous H. G. Wells/Orson Welles War of the Worlds radio play 71 years ago this month.

- Like the radio play, this incident (I can't call it a purposeful hoax at this time, but mistake doesn't quite cover the mess) took advantage of recent developments in media and communication. The 1938 radio play was done in the manner of live international news broadcasts, which had just come into being shortly before the play aired, and had taken up a lot of the 1938 radiosphere due to concerns about a second European war breaking out (an element alluded to in the play). We know that this was on the minds of many, because many of those who believed the radio play was real did not believe it was an attack from Mars, but instead misidentification of a German air raid. A psychological/sociological study was immediately put into action, resulting in the 1940 book The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic

With Balloon Boy, a number of commentators have noted that this story spread via twitter and other new media, with bursts of micro-information keeping people glued to their cable news networks. This story, however, was entirely a creature of those networks, and reflects how they do business. People are making the inevitable "baby down a well" comparisons, and they do apply. But the breathless chase, the child in danger, the constant "breaking news" marks this as being very similar to the "child/white girl in peril" stories that have come to dominate the news landscape, the cable nets in particular. An outlandish story in 1938 could be believed if it conformed to the format of breaking war news. In 2009, such a story is believable if it conforms to a drawn-out and information poor individual peril story.

The great difference between the 1938 War of the Worlds and the 2009 Balloon Boy is that while the former was scripted by a media outlet and fooled the people, the latter was (as currently described) an accident happening to someone quite familiar with new media (entertainer on a reality show and Youtube vlogger who apparently had his kids on the roof when the balloon apparently escaped), then spun into a narrative by the media, which then fooled itself. This brings up the second point.

- The news media is absurdly bad at basic reasoning. Last year, CNN and other news outlets made a frenzy about the unveiling of a supposed Bigfoot corpse. Even the most basic investigation made it clear that the Bigfoot hoax was, well, a hoax. The "finders" acted like braying jackasses for months on Youtube. The man responsible for bringing the "body" to the media had been involved in a Bigfoot hoax before (he says he was fooled, but even if that is the case, that doesn't make the media reaction any better). And just looking at the images made it pretty clear, in the shady context of it all, that this was bunk.

At the time, I thought CNN and co. were just going along because it would get them some ratings as an amusing piece. Maybe they did, but after yesterday, I'm not so sure. The media did a horrible job with this story yesterday in either not thinking things through for even a second, or not thinking to ask basic questions. As soon as one knew the size of the balloon, either by numbers or by seeing it in video, it becomes apparent that it is quite small. But they kept peddling it. There was the question of a basket, leading one to ask if this balloon was intended for human use. There was no way an adult could ever be lifted by such a thing, so was there ever a plan for a child to go in this, in case you somehow thought it might even lift a child?

Either members of the tv news media really are as stupid as I have always feared but assured myself they couldn't be, or they keep spinning this story in full panic mode when they knew better. Given the freakout by CNN on 9/11/09 earlier this year, transforming a radio-only exercise into a terror scare on the Potomac, and the performance of its anchors on Celebrity Jeopardy this fall (Wolf Blitzer's infamously bad loss, and last night's third place showing, though at least not requiring a rule-bending bailout from negative territory ala Blitzer, by Soledad O'Brien), I'm leaning towards the stupid.

- This whole thing was quite interesting to watch from a paranormal/Fortean reports perspective. Never mind that the balloon was a flying saucer, or the oft-noted belief of Richard Heene regarding evidence of intelligent life on Mars. Throughout the coverage, we had eyewitnesses talking about having seen a basket or similar object fall from the balloon, and of course the claim referenced though not confirmed that the other Heene children saw Falcon enter a basket attached to the balloon. I don't know what the eyewitnesses saw, but it was quickly inserted into a false narrative. But my favorite has to be the photograph supposedly showing the fall of this basket. A neighbor snapped a photo, and only upon examining it, sees what they believe to be an object, perhaps a basket, falling from the balloon. Of course, once one sees the photo, it resembles nothing more than a standard "blurry photograph" of UFO/Bigfoot/Loch Ness fame, with no idea if the "object" "under" the balloon has anything to do with it, is a bird, or something else.

Ugh. You know, at least an invasion from Mars is awesome. This is just pathetic.

Update 1 PM 10/16/09: In his 9/11 call, Richard Heene says his balloon is actually more complex, and there is a directional or propulsion system that has 1,000,000 volts coursing over the skin of the balloon. As others have noted and I suspected, this is tied into the fringe-appeal science/engineering/community of electrogravitics. the most high-profile expression of this has been the lifter community (wiki here). Elements of this community are tied into fringe science, ufology, zero point energy, conspiracy theories (Nick Cook's The Hunt for Zero Point: Inside the Classified World of Antigravity Technology is a major expression of this), and the like. Given Heene's interests, this makes a lot of sense. No idea if he actually was electrifying the balloon or not, but that seems to be what he is talking about.

Here's the sort of thing I'm talking about. Tying Adamski into all of this is just icing on the cake.