I thought I’d offer my lunch companions something bizarre to chew over, as we sat under the carport, watching a brief monsoon blow through. “What do you think the real story is with that guy they keep spotting on a jetpack at LAX?” I asked. 

The most recent sighting was near the end of July, but for at least a year, the sight of a fellow cruising well above the legal altitude for recreational drone use (and well above the functional altitude for the standard fuel capacity of jetpacks, for that matter) has startled a handful of jumbo jet pilots and air traffic controllers. There are reports of him as high as 6,000 feet, which by all accounts shouldn’t be possible (or maybe better put: survivable). He’s been spotted uncomfortably and illegally close to commercial flights. Yet somehow nobody ever spots where he lands, or sees him for long enough to get clear footage of what he or his gear looks like. It’s debatable at this point whether “he” is even human. 

One of my fellow monsoon-watchers ascribes to this last theory. “It’s got to be a mannequin that’s fixed to a drone,” he said. But to what end? There are obvious and dire safety risks that inform the guidance about keeping drones at distance from aircraft and airports, along with the rules about where and how high they can fly. The idea that the military or some other government agency working on some kind of advanced technology would test drive it near one of the country’s largest airports is blatantly illogical. So why? Why is this man (or a mannequin) on a jetpack routinely venturing into the eye-line of pilots and passengers? 

I tend to think it is of a piece with the recent fervor around UFO reports, and the equally farcical claims of the government that these unidentified drone sightings, particularly those which have taken place adjacent to aircraft carriers, are simply unsolvable mysteries. I tend to think it’s all about disinformation. Get us looking up, to stop us from looking around.

One of the unique cultural elements of American life is our preoccupation with conspiratorial thinking. Some of this paranoia is valid, because some of those conspiracies turned out to be very real (Watergate being the most obvious example). But paranoia is a tendency that’s easily manipulated. And in times as bleak as these, with our society teetering on the edge of itself, bloated with poverty and sickness and institutional rot, UFO conspiracies channel our mistrust of the government away from thoughts of substantive revolution and meaningful progress and toward endless, pointless analysis of grainy radar and redacted reports which yield flimsy demands for transparency that are easily discredited and dismissed.

I do think aliens exist, but I doubt that if they are capable of intergalactic travel, there is anything within our technological wheelhouse that would be news to them, nor would our resource-depleted planet seem particularly appealing. What seems more urgent is the vast and well-classified human capacity for technological advancement that our government feels no need to be transparent about, and the unlimited, undisclosed budgets allocated to our defense forces with no public accountability for their activities. There are mysteries which are real, and merit solving, but if we worked on them collectively as a society or even as a species, it might mean that we’d conclude we had no need for things like vague and boundless military spending. We might end up thinking we should spend those resources elsewhere, like our crumbling infrastructure and unchecked public health inequity—just spitballing, of course. 

We might demand that these powers that be, human or alien or otherwise, use all their marvelous technological UFO-related sorcery and make our lives a little better. Possibly even wonderful. Maybe we should.

The man on the jet pack: I think he’s a mannequin, too. Or maybe just a rabbit in a hat. The question is, what happened while we were all looking in his direction?

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