38 years ago, in a galaxy that’s fairly nearby, it forever became safe to be a nerd. But this week in particular, it’s time to let your geek flag fly and think about how Star Wars changed our perception of the future.
In case it has somehow escaped your notice, the seventh Star Wars movie is being released this week, bringing a tsunami of nostalgia along with it. And while many of the technological innovations the original movie and its sequels brought us in its depiction of the future seem commonplace now, it wasn’t always that way.
In fact, in many ways, Star Wars and its brethren helped create a vision of what our future would be like, much like Star Trek had done just a decade earlier. Keep in mind that we live in a world where multiple Presidents have evoked the series, whether it was the Reagan administration’s “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative, or the Obama administration explaining why it didn’t intend to build an $850 quadrillion Death Star, despite a citizen petition. (Just mopping the floors would take a third of the U.S. labor force, let alone building the thing.)
In honor of the new film, here’s how the Star Wars vision was different—and how it affects our world today.
The future didn’t always work all that well. After decades of gleaming, futuristic cities and immaculate people gliding around in white or metallic outfits—such as in George Lucas’ first film, THX-1138—this was a real change. We’d never seen a spaceship where you had to hit the dashboard, like an old Chevy, to make it shift into gear. Nobody had ever really thought about bands of roving surplus goods dealers or garbage compactors.
Think about it: Without Star Wars, would we have ever had Wall-E?
Similarly, much as we might all like to have the newest and shiniest, we still have to deal with that one computer in the corner that still runs Windows XP but we can’t get rid of it because the system it runs doesn’t work on anything else. We’re all used to having to unplug and plug devices periodically, or reboot them, to get them to work. Our present isn’t perfect, and Star Wars’ future wasn’t, either.
At the same time, human talents were still important. Whether it was “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” or “Use the Force, Luke!” this future was still a world that recognized the value of human intuition, persuasion, and abilities. Unlike many previous visions of the future, here was a world that recognized more than pure intellectualism or muscle—it valued feelings as well.
Not to mention, the whole story of Star Wars, when you take away the light sabers and blasters, is the same Joseph Campbell “Hero’s Journey” archetype you see in myths thousands of years old. Sometimes, some things just need a human touch. Note that Facebook M, Facebook’s answer to Siri and Google Now, uses a combination of AI and people.
Robots would have personalities and be differentiated. For those of us who were fond of the single robot in Lost in Space (which, incidentally, was almost the same robot used in Forbidden Planet in the 1950s), we hadn’t really considered the notion of a house or an office being staffed with robots of different kinds. Not to mention, who would have thought about a robot that knew about manners and protocol? C-3P0—and particularly R2-D2—changed the way we looked at robots, and helped create an industry. Robots didn’t need to be replacement humans, but they could still have personality.
“Designers had spent centuries making androids in the image of humans,” writes Clive Thompson in Smithsonian. “R2-D2 changed the mold. Roboticists now understand it’s far more successful to make their contraptions look industrial—with just a touch of humanity. The room-cleaning Roomba looks like a big flat hockey puck, but its movements and beeps seem so ‘smart’ that people who own them give them names.”
“R2-D2 helped establish an emerging cultural attitude toward robots: Machines could have personality, they could be likable,” writes Adrienne LaFrance in the Atlantic. “Robots aren’t just human replacers; they can be our helpers, and our friends. Like an iPhone, R2-D2 is a multi-tool and also a trusted companion.” Let’s be honest—with jokes like how she responds to “Are you real?”, Siri owes quite a debt to Star Wars.
The future would be paperless—but security still needed some work. While Star Trek and other shows did depict computers holding all the knowledge of the world, it took R2-D2 to show us the value of the USB port that would let us download all that information in an instant, to peruse at our leisure. In Star Trek, people went to the computer to see the documents—in Star Wars, the documents go to the people, by giving them an opportunity to take them on a thumb drive or other device.
At the same time, Star Wars also showed us the value of security—and the ramifications if it wasn’t followed. Without encryption or authentication, a robot could just waltz (well, roll) into a space station and download its full blueprint, thereby discovering that the $850 quadrillion weapon was vulnerable. “Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?” the White House asked in its response to the citizen petition.
Just goes to show: Present or future, the Force always needs to be with the security experts.
Photo by Roy Kabanlit (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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