economics

Star Wars: A Social Commentary

If you’re going to make a prequel to the most iconic, imitated and merchandized movie in modern American culture, you’ve got some pretty heavy decisions to make before doing it. And if you decide to make that prequel end at pretty much the exact moment that the iconic movie begins, and 40 years have passed since you stopped filming the first one, then you’ve got some more decisions to make. And some problems to solve too. Like making people dead or 40 years since aged appear to be neither. Or making spaceships move and sound the same even though special effects technology has been reinvented several dozen times over. I’ll spare you the spoilers. They did just fine with both of those. And as a lunatic Star Wars geek since long before it was cool to be a lunatic Star Wars geek, I loved every minute of it.

I realized something about halfway through my second viewing of it though. Something that you would probably miss, unless you were sitting next to a curious seven year old who got his first WIFI enabled iPad when he was three. It occurred to me, when he leaned over and in his extra loud whisper voice asked, as the heros of the movie were hatching their plan to get their hands on a society saving piece of data, “why don’t they just download it from the cloud?” And there it was. Somewhere between a mouthful of popcorn and a draw on my 90 ounce diet coke, it occurred to me that the fantastic Star Wars drama Rogue One, was an accidental social commentary on the great stagnation of our times.

Chances are, you’re going to need me to unpack that one a bit.

One of the fun decisions that the makers of Rogue One made, very effectively so, is to cinematically keep true to the futuristic technology levels shown in the first Star Wars movie. In the 40 year old Star Wars, there were space ships and light speed travel and special reactors powering things. They had vehicles that levitated and machines that harvested moisture from the atmosphere. There were no wheels inefficiently conquering surface friction on just about anything. Nothing appeared to be burning anything to propel it. And there were robots everywhere with real artificial intelligence to the extent that they had their own limited free will and personalities. In almost every way, it was a glimpse into the far distant future. And what 1977 would have you believe, in a way that recreating it in 2016 makes painfully obvious, is that fantasy future is powered by computer technology that would have been nearly obsolete by about 1995. screen-shot-2016-12-28-at-7-59-36-am

About the same time that the original Star Wars was being filmed in the mid seventies, Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel made his proclamation that would be referred to ever since as Moore’s Law. Moore claimed that computing capability would double every 18 months. Over the last few decades, his assessment has been correct. In the 60’s we sent men 240 thousand miles to the moon and back on a rocket designed to go even further, Mars perhaps, using a navigating computer with 265 thousand times less memory than my Iphone. screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-5-58-30-pmWhich means even a decade or so later when Star Wars came out, what we saw on the screen, cd ROMs with secret plans, buttons instead of touch screens, vacuum tube televisions and data ports you had to plug a giant robot phallus into to transfer info, looked futuristic. Because it was. But when we had to duplicate it and pretend it still was forty years later, it looked, well, kind of silly. 

So what right? Clearly I spend too much time thinking about what things say about us as a society. That’s entirely true. But consider this. In 1969, we were conducting space travel and flying super sonic passenger flights. We had no WIFI or even internet, almost no data storage or computing capacity and nothing that resembled the cloud. Today, my 11 year old operates an iPhone hundreds of thousands of times more powerful than anything we had then, and we haven’t flown super-sonic passenger flight in 13 years. And America is no longer capable of manned space flight. What space flight is happening, is limited to low earth orbit. Because over the last 40 years, the world of bits (computers) hasn’t just outpaced the world of atoms (everything else), they’re no longer even headed in the same direction.

But why?

There’s a few thousand pages you could put into that question alone. But I’ll hopefully leave you wanting more instead. You could take the path that Paypal founder, Facebook Board member and venture capital investor Peter Thiel takes. Thiel who famously critiqued Silicon Valley’s output by saying,”We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” believes that the barriers to entry for industries like energy and automobiles are too high because of things like regulation and a failing education system and a lazy baby boomer generation that rode the coat tails of their parents to a comfy life with no problems to solve. Thiel believes that we have deep societal and government structure flaws that we could overcome, if we get it together to get it moving again. Which is probably why he spoke at the Republican National Convention.

Or you could listen to economist and author Tyler Cowen who takes another spin on it. He thinks we’re pretty much done innovating, for awhile, as an American species. We’ve picked all the “low hanging fruit” over the last 400 years or so, with free land, immigrant labor and technology, now it’s time for it to slow down. And it has.

So who’s right? Thiel? Cowen? I don’t know. As it tends to be with massive systems discussions like the economics of innovation, it’s complicated. But I like to put my mental energy into a space that it’s likely Cowen would find silly and optimistic. It sounds like this. There was a lot of money made in Silicon Valley over the last few decades connecting the world and creating a future that, from a consumer software and electronics perspective outpaced even the great creative mind of George Lucas. And now some of that money is going towards combining the first principles of Silicon Valley-lean agile start up aggression- with old dinosaur industries like automobiles and aerospace. Elon Musk is launching rockets at Space X, putting solar power on houses with Solar City and building electric cars and charging stations at Tesla. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is stealing Musk’s employees to come work for his own space company Blue Origin. And Google is making cars that drive themselves.

The point is this. I don’t know if Cowen or Thiel are right. It doesn’t really matter. Because it’s moving again. And the types of people moving it appear to have the resources to get it moving for real. And our job, as a people, is to expect it to keep moving. And to see the value in progress and innovation beyond things that make our lives easier. It was easy when we had no choice, when we needed to make rockets and technology to keep up with Russia and stave off nuclear annihilation. Without that push we’ve lost a bit of the oomph though. But we need it back. And quickly. 2.7 billion industrialized Asians are going to happen over night. And if we do it with last century’s energy and transportation technology, it’s just another type of annihilation.

It’s time to start seeing the world like a seven year old who looks at a problem and asks with the great curiosity and wonder, “why don’t they just use the cloud?”  In 1977, that was a crazy idea, even for the future. But as Google founder Larry Page said, who was once told the idea of translating all the books in the world into data was crazy, “Good ideas are always crazy, until they’re not.”

And right now, that guy and his buddy Elon are building a zero emission car that drives itself. Which sounds crazy right?

Until the world needs it. Until it doesn’t.

 

3 replies »

  1. But what say you to the likelihood that the technology we need to move forward out of necessity, or inorder to keep up with the Jone’s of other industrialized nations, will most likely eliminate tens of thousands of jobs (or more) as our work forces get more and more automated by technology? How is that going to work for the millions of people who voted for Trump because their jobs are being sent overseas or replaced by robots and/or who do not get the education they really need to keep themselves a float in a world that will demand that everyone have decent (higher) education that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg? It seems like we need to a lot of ground work and problem solving before we blindly adopt Elon Musk’s and Jeff Bezo’s way into the future.

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  2. It may never have stopped moving, but especially now that the election is over, it does feel that collectively we can begin focusing on bigger things as a society.

    To Rachel’s point above, there is still a gap between what technologically is and soon to be possible and what we as individuals and as a society will accept. Many advancements, such as Self-driving cars, robotic trucking, fully automated factories, drone deliveries, self-serve groceries and shops, automated AI customer service, etc., will come with significant workforce upheavals and societal displacements.

    Navigating this gap seems to be the first step to unleashing the true power of technological innovation in the next decade.

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  3. The “cloud” is as we know it cannot exist between planets and galaxies as its ability to transmit information is dependent on the satellites, if any, of a planet, and one’s ability to be on a network and provider that uses that system, so no, probably would not have worked even by our standards today. Not to mention, it might have been hackable.

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