This story appeared on Network World at


'Net Insider


Sleep paralysis and the phone biz


By Scott Bradner, Network World, 10/03/05


I happened to glance at the Harvard home page the other day and the top story caught my eye: "Alien abduction claims explained." Strangely enough, the telecom industry sprang to mind when I read the piece.


The story described the work and upcoming book of Harvard researcher Susan Clancy, who spent five years talking to people who claim they were abducted by beings from outer space. She found that many of these people told similar stories: "Victims wake up and find themselves paralyzed, unable to move or cry out for help. They see flashing lights and hear buzzing sounds. Electric sensations zing through their bodies, which may rise up in levitation. Aliens with wrap-around eyes, gray or green skin, lacking hair or noses, approach. The abductee's heart pounds violently. There's lots of probing in the alien ship. Instruments are inserted in their noses, navels or other orifices. It's painful."


Clancy, working with Harvard psychology professor Richard McNally, suggests that this type of abduction experience could be related to sleep paralysis, a common condition that prevents people from thrashing about and hurting themselves while dreaming.


At some point in our lives about a quarter of us wake while still in a paralyzed state. In some people this can lead to visual and auditory hallucinations. Not everyone agrees that all, or even some, abduction experiences can be explained by sleep paralysis (Psychology Today has a good story on the topic)


Under Clancy's theory, you can be peacefully sleeping away, dreaming of slowly meandering through green pastures or building elaborate sand castles beside tranquil seas, and wake up unable to move, thinking that you are in the company of aliens who are probing your every orifice.


That is a pretty accurate picture of traditional phone companies over the last few years. They slept blissfully away, dreaming of their "regulated to produce green balance sheets monopolies", building castles (for example, see this building) and ignoring, for the most part, that Internet thing. Then, one by one, they began to wake up only to find Internet-savvy, alien-acting (at least to telephone folk) geeks and start-ups poking at them to find any opening that might be exploited. A painful process indeed.


The majority of telephone companies have been paralyzed, unable to do any creative thinking. They figure the old phone network and services, maybe implemented in a slightly different way, are all the world needs. They seem incapable of understanding the Internet phenomenon. Many of them assume that the phenomenon is just the result of some confused customers who just do not understand that the Internet does not have the reliability and quality of the phone system and will abandon the 'Net for superior (if overpriced) services from the phone companies.


The phone companies are crying that freeloading aliens have abducted "their" telecom networks. For example, Ed Whitacre, SBC's chairman and CEO, complained late last year that "companies like Vonage and Skype are laying a voice application on broadband connections. They're getting a free ride."


Hmmm, I thought the customer already paid for the line.


Some people can never accept that their alien abduction experience never actually happened. Maybe in the case of the phone companies, it actually happens.


Disclaimer: I did not ask the Harvard researchers if their sleep paralysis theories applied to Harvard or to phone companies, so I guess the above is my own theory.


All contents copyright 1995-2005 Network World, Inc.