Monday, December 28, 2015

Writers Notebook - 28 Dec 2015

Relationships with Technology

  • The historian Ronald Wright has noted, "From ancient times until today, civilized people have believed that they behave better, and are better, than so-called savages." But this is just not so. It is a belief that is unjustified specifically because we have the same stone age brain as those savages. Their cultures are different from our own, but we cannot be said in any meaningful way to be "better", either individually or as a group. Hunter-gatherers can be just as friendly, brutal, caring, dismissive, helpful and murderous as modern, civilized people. The difference between the two would seem to be simply a matter of technology. Use of technology certainly changes brain structures, but does not change the fundamentals of emotion, including compassion and fear.
  • The word in the Pashto language for an AK-47, the world's most ubiquitous military assault rifle is, disturbingly, "machine". The AK-47 may be the only machine rural Pashtun children ever see. Trucks are rare in their mountain villages, time is told by the sun, and plumbing is unheard of.

Quote of the Day

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Star Wars' Dirty Little Secret: We are the Empire

We all love Star Wars. For those of us old enough to remember the 1977 original Episode IV, it was a life changing event. We absorbed Star Wars memes before the rest of society, and integrated them into our lives. Atheists, Hindus, Jews, and Christians all speak of the Force without irony. Even those of us who wouldn't be caught dead dressing up as wookies or droids feel its influence.

We even love the brainchild of Jedi Master Lucas when the last word should properly spelled "wares". Lucas reportedly made the majority of his fortune selling the marketing rights to Star Wars paraphernalia until Lucasfilm's sale to Disney for more than 4 billion USD as recently as 2012.

Star Wars, though, has a secret. A dirty little secret. As with Avatar, and the much older The Lord of the Rings, the bad guys feature shiny new constructions of huge scale under some form of magical control. They are everything we wish to make in our Brave New World. Never mind the cost.

We are awed by the relative size of the Imperial star cruiser in Episode IV and again by the massive Death Star. Comparisons of scale go right through to the brand-new Episode VII, where we are shown how the new superweapon Starkiller Base dwarfs the original Death Star. The Empire and the First Order like things big, new, shiny, and made of metal. They are as dehumanizing as Saruman's industrial mines or the mining machines of Avatar.

The good guys, on the other hand, are nature-loving tree huggers. Yoda hangs out on a swampy world full of life because the Force is generated by life. Nature is Yoda's place of power. Life, big and often dangerous life, abounds in the Star Wars universe. Our heroes can't turn around without being surprised by an outsized creature, from the driest desert to an asteroid in the depths of space. Life is everywhere. In many ways, it is central player. And it contrasts completely with the modern, clean, metal world of the Empire.

Star Wars rebels live in small, human-centric groups. Luke Skywalker makes his way to the Rebel Alliance on Yavin, only to find his childhood friend Biggs among the pilots. How can two friends meet at random in a galaxy teeming with life and millions of inhabited planets? Because the rebels are a tiny group. In fact, they are a tiny group of tiny groups, each the approximate size of hunter-gatherer groups.

How many "snub fighters" did the "well equipped" Alliance send out against the Death Star? Thirty. That's it. Thirty just happens to be the median size of a traditional hunter-gatherer group.

Everything about the Star Wars universe pits insanely big, dehumanizing, industrial, machine-dominated governmental forces against something else that we can all relate to: Tiny, ragtag groups of friends who know each other well and act as a team only because they wish to. The rebels have choices, as Han Solo's character demonstrates over and over again.

Even the weapons show the contrast of scale. The Empire has the Death Star. The First Order has Starkiller Base. The rebels have one-person fighter ships and the occasional lightsaber.

The rebels fight at human scale with personal weapons against a huge enemy that awes them with its size and power. And yet they win. And we cheer.

There's more. Rebels have babies, real flesh-and-blood human babies. Leia and Han had a baby between Episode's VI and VII. Even Darth Vadar had a mom when he was a cute little kid. Their parents loved them even when they went horribly wrong. But those babies that are even exposed a little bit to the Dark Side start turning into machines, bit by bit. The ultimate expression of dehumanization are the storm troopers. They are clones to the last under the Empire, and orphans painfully ripped from their parents' loving arms under the First Order.

Let's leave the comfortable fantasy of Star Wars for just a moment, and take a trip to Afghanistan. The incredibly brave Afghan reporter Najibullah Quraishi reported on PBS's Frontline on the indoctrination of child soldiers in Afghanistan's Eastern provinces. Quraishi insists that we listen to an ISIS commander as he instructs nine-year-olds in the use of grenades, and AK-47 rifles.

And what is the word in the Pashto language for an AK-47, the world's most ubiquitous military assault rifle? The word is, disturbingly, "machine". The AK-47 may be the only machine these children ever see. Trucks are rare in their mountain villages, time is told by the sun, and plumbing is unheard of.

Machines have a similar relationship in the Star Wars universe. Droids are everywhere. Who makes them? The only droid we see being made was C-3PO, Anakin's homebrew friend. In fact, Anakin's creation of the metal man was the first indication we were given that he would turn to the dark side. We see Luke repairing C-3PO's arm in Episode IV, and charging R2-D2 in Episode V. Chewie fixes C-3PO again in VI. Others hack away on-screen and off at the Millennium Falcon and other gear. But who makes them? It must be the Empire. The rebels sure don't. The rebels are too busy running and fighting.

The droids of the Alliance are machines like the Pashtuns' AK-47. Both groups of backwoods fighters are mere users of high technology. They are not the progenitors.

It is time we faced facts. The terrorists and freedom fighters that we Americans purport to abhor are the prototype for the Rebel Alliance. We are the Empire, just as Iran and Hezbollah have told us we are.

Star Wars shows us the central schizophrenia of modern Western society. We yearn for the tight-knit, human-scale societies of friends working for a common cause. We also want our indoor plumbing, Netflix, regular food supplies, and pornography. We drown our social discomfort with the next hit of sugar.

The great irony of Star Wars is that we collectively sit in air-conditioned comfort, munching our popcorn and drinking our sugary sodas, rapt by the magic of CGI-induced scenes of stickin' it to the man. We cheer the dirty and ill-equipped heroes that tear down the great metal empire of oppression. Then we go to work the next day and keep building the Empire.