Home People Star Wars: George Lucas’ Cold War Vision of the Digital World

The evil Darth Vader stands amid the broken and twisted bodies of his foes. He grabs a wounded Rebel Officer by the neck as an Imperial Officer rushes up to the Dark Lord.

IMPERIAL OFFICER: The Death Star plans are not in the main computer.

Vader squeezes the neck of the Rebel Officer, who struggles in vain.

VADER: Where are those transmissions you intercepted?

Vader lifts the Rebel off his feet by his throat.

VADER: What have you done with those plans?

REBEL OFFICER: We intercepted no transmissions. Aaah….This is a
consular ship. Were on a diplomatic mission.
[source]

George Lucas' Cold War vision saw computers primarily as tools of battle.

Star Wars: A New Hope is one of the greatest movies of all time and one of my personal favorites. So, in a departure from the usual content of this blog – and as an early Christmas present to MAP readers – here is an analysis of the digital vision of Star Wars.

Not only is Star Wars a great work of science fiction, it is a great work of computer science fiction. (The word “computer” appears 48 times in the screenplay, “Jedi” only 19). The digital world of Star War is deeply shaped by the computer science of the early 70’s. This is not surprising, since George Lucas wrote his screenplay at that time in California, a part of the world buzzing with early computer research. In the 1970’s, computers were expensive Cold War command-and-control devices funded by the military, not the personal and social tools we know today. This 1970’s vision of the computer is what we see in Star Wars.

This command-and-control conception of computing is necessary to Lucas’s plot and the difficulty of digital content transmission forms the dramatic tension of the film. The plot revolves around a set of stolen digital plans for the Imperial Death Star, which are ferried across the galaxy to the Rebels by Luke Skywalker in the hard-drive of a robot called Artoo. Darth Vader and the forces of the Empire are hot on their trail, trying to apprehend them and retrieve the plans.

If email existed, the movie’s plot would evaporate. Imagine the scene above, if email existed in the world of Star Wars:

IMPERIAL OFFICER: The Death Star plans are not in the main computer.

VADER: Where are those transmissions you intercepted? What have you done with those plans?

REBEL OFFICER: The moment we received the plans we emailed them immediately to the top Rebel commanders. They are already reviewing them to launch an attack on the Death Star. It’s already too late!

VADER: Well, crap!

The absence of email in the world of Star Wars is an artistic choice by Lucas. If the digital plans could be “transmitted” to Princess Leia’s ship (where the above scene occurs), then why couldn’t they be transmitted by the same means directly to the rebel leaders? They could, of course, but the film’s audience did not know that computers could do that. Though email did exist, the Internet at the time was a military-owned research network, and ordinary Americans did not know email or a computer-based communication networks existed. So the idea that plans could be transmitted one time and then needed to by carried across the galaxy on a physical disk inside a robot was a credible proposition.

Computers have a role in Star Wars beyond the central drama of the plot. Computers enter the action in ways large and small. In the world of Star Wars, however, they are command-and-control devices used in the operation of complex industrial and military machinery. Lucas has a Cold War vision of computing.

A computer runs the complex agricultural machines on Luke’s home planet of Tatooine:

Uncle Owen: What I really need is a droid that understands the binary language of moisture vaporators.

A computer helps Han Solo navigate his ship, the Millennium Falcon:

Obi Wan Kenobi: How long before you can make the jump to light speed?

Han: It’ll take a few moments to get the coordinates from the navi-computer.

The ship begins to rock violently as lasers hit it.

Luke: Are you kidding? At the rate they’re gaining…

Han: Traveling through hyperspace isn’t like dusting crops, boy! Without precise calculations we could fly right through a star or bounce too close to a supernova and that’d end your trip real quick, wouldn’t it?

Computers also help Luke and Han fight spaceship-to-spaceship through a neat 3D targeting interface on their laser cannons (this would be a Cold Warrior’s wet dream). A targeting computer is also used by the pilots when they attack the Death Star at the end of the movie (though Luke ultimately relies on the intuitive power of the Force over the computer).

Again, this is a fairly old-fashioned vision of the future of computing. Targeting was the technology that first got the American military into the business of funding computer research during WWII, when the military realized computers could be useful in calculating trajectories for firing missiles at fast-moving aircraft.

A single computer system also runs the Death Star itself. This computer is a little different, because it is part of a network – yes, like the Internet! In the middle of the movie, Luke and his friends are captured on the Death Star and one of the robots accesses its computer:

THREEPIO: We found the computer outlet, sir.

Ben feeds some information into the computer and a map of the city appears on the monitor. He begins to inspect it carefully. Threepio and Artoo look over the control panel. Artoo finds something that makes him whistle wildly.

BEN: Plug in. He should be able to interpret the entire Imperial computer network.

Artoo punches his claw arm into the computer socket and the vast Imperial brain network comes to life, feeding information to the little robot. After a few moments, he beeps something.

THREEPIO: He says he’s found the main computer to power the tractor beam that’s holding the ship here. He’ll try to make the precise location appear on the monitor.

Again this is a classic Cold War view of the Internet. In the 1970’s Vint Cerf, the Father of the Internet, was a scientist at DARPA, the Pentagon-funded research center that built the Internet. In a 2010 talk, Cerf described DARPA’s vision in building the Internet: “DARPA was looking for ways to build command-and-control systems that had no central structure, and were highly distributed, and that could be readily reconstituted.” A computer network that could run a huge military facility like the Death Star was very much what the Pentagon had in mind when they funded research on computer networking.

George Lucas and the Pentagon shared the same vision of the value of computing: better war machines. Today computers are certainly used by the military, but the most transformative use of computers is not targeting technology, but the Internet, another Pentagon-funded computer research project that received relatively little attention during its development in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s.

Targeting systems, military aircraft navigation, a command-and-control network for a military facility: this was the Cold War vision of computing in the 1970’s, but it wasn’t the only vision. At the same time counter-culture technologists envisioned computers in the way they act today: as personal devices for individual expression and creativity. In his 1974 book Computer Lib/Dream Machines, philosopher of technology Ted Nelson wrote:

Somehow the idea is abroad that computer activities are uncreative. This is categorically false. Computers involve imagination and creation at the highest level. Computers are an involvement you can really get into, regardless of your trip or your karma. COMPUTERS BELONG TO ALL HUMAN KIND.

This touchy-feely personal vision of computers is diametrically opposed to Lucas’ military vision, but it was a more accurate prediction of what computers became.(Ironically, Lucas embraced the intuitive and metaphysical worldview of the counterculture in the idea of the “Force,” created by all living things and used by the Jedi. Yet in his conception the Force and the computer are in opposition to one another. This is why Luke turns off his targeting computer and instead relies on the Force to guide him during the film’s climax.)

In the end, George Lucas got it wrong. The Cold War vision of computing was more a function of the prejudices and priorities of than period than the actual capacities of the computer. He would never guess that one day the Force would run through the Internet.

2 replies to this post
    • I know! Darth Vader chasing the Death Star plans across the galaxy is like the State Department saying “give us back the leaked cables!”

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