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This is the Modem World: So where are all the ghosts and aliens?


Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

I love movies and books about ghosts and aliens, especially the older ones from an era when technology didn't allow too many special effects. For me, it's what you don't see that freaks me out.

Scariest scene ever? George C. Scott, center of frame, approaches a staircase in 1980's "The Changeling." You see him from a landing above, a voyeuristic angle with wooden rail near field. Focus shifts to his eyes. As he walks to the stairs, they lock onto something halfway up. They widen. He sees something. Something that scares the heck out of him.

That combination of irrationality and things you can't see creates a sense of dread and anxiety that I find incredibly fun. I don't believe in ghosts and aliens in general, but I enjoy flirting with the notion that I could, one day, be proven wrong. I love movies like "The Blair Witch Project" and "Paranormal Activity" in which seemingly normal people are confronted with something that really doesn't make sense. Their skepticism and neurosis in an escalating context of plausible evidence adds a believability that, to me, is more compelling than simply seeing the monster or bad guy in -- arguably impressive -- CGI.

I used to scare myself as a kid at night, imagining that one day someone would catch a real ghost on camera and we'd all see that they were real. It was an easy proposition: video cameras were expensive and rare and generally used for weddings and family events. The likelihood of such an event was comfortably miniscule.

But now virtually everyone is walking around with a smartphone that doubles as a capable high-definition video camera.

So ... where's the evidence? Has the ubiquity of personal video cameras unintentionally disproven the existence of ghosts? A few videos have surfaced on YouTube that, at the time of their uploading, looked pretty compelling, but they've all been proven fake or coincidental tricks of the light.

Before I begin the next paragraph, logic students, assume that ghosts exist. Just for fun.

Okay, the fact that we're all walking around with video cameras has increased the statistical likelihood that we'd finally catch a ghost on camera, and in doing so we decrease the likelihood that they exist every day we don't catch Casper. Back when cameras were rare, we all thought, "Hey, it could happen ... we just haven't been in the right place at the right time yet."

Now that we're in the right place all the time, are we waiting for the moment that someone finally catches an entity, or are we entering a new mini-era of rationalism through technology that finally settles all of our irrational fears as humans?

Or, better yet, has technology enabled more creativity on the part of story-tellers, giving rise to such recent classics like "The Ring" or "Pulse" in which technology is simply a paranormal conduit?

Sure, the ubiquity of cameras has shown us all some amazing things, from political revolutions to unsung stars. But don't you think we would have discovered something that would give Spielberg a run for his money by now?

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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