Thursday, November 20, 2014

Science Fiction within Science Fiction

There's something that's always bothered me about Star Wars technology, and that's when people try to implant today's technological marvels into it.  The movies have a real "the future that was" theme to them; technological advancements far beyond our scope and dreams in the 1970s and 80s, but when compared to today a lot of it seems retro.  Personal communications are push-to-talk, effectively.  Video communication is nigh-monochromatic and static-filled.  Computers need to be accessed within the system, and can't be accessed remotely.

Maybe it's because I grew up on those films alongside the development and implementation of the home computer, the video game industry, and the dawn of wireless communications and the internet.  I remember when all phones were analog and corded, when television was only what was broadcast over the airwaves, and when computer data was limited to what stack of floppy disks you had sitting in the library.  I bought into the communications tech level of Star Wars as seemingly permanently stuck in the era the films came out in, and I was okay with that.

Even the prequels did little to counter what's come before.  Information is still delivered in person, communications still very line-of-sight and broadcast based.  Heroes have to walk around to find junk dealers, or visit specific people to uncover information about rare weapon technology.

But invariably, there's always someone in one of my games who tries to apply the technologies of today to Star Wars.  They want to use computer skills to look up information about everything, applying tech like the internet and Google and Wikipedia as galactic sources of information.  They are under the assumption that everything is networked, and every computer system can be accessed remotely.  That vast amounts of information can be sent electronically.

There was a discussion over on the FFG boards titled The Google Effect and upon reading it the poster "knasserII"property verbalized what has been kicking around in my head all these years, but just couldn't put into words.

[The] Star Wars setting is NOT an Information Society. They manage perfectly well without everyone broadcasting personal information everywhere or running blogs and creating Wiki encyclopedia. Indeed, they would probably respond to suggestions that they should with very good reasons why they don't want to.
 Most of his posts in the thread involve a discussion on the type of tech in Star Wars, that it's not electromagnetic-radiation based communication (or if it is, it's not like we have today).  The Holonet is not the internet of today; it can share some things like the internet (news sites, government alerts) but it's not the be-all information source from anywhere in the galaxy.  You're certainly not using it to hack a database from across the sector.

He presents an interesting argument that the level of holographic communication (that allows for real time conversation from light years away) could theoretically suffer from a limited bandwidth issue, which is why holo-communications are so "low tech".

In Star Wars, a droid the size of an office copy machine floating around a back-water world looking for evidence of Rebel Bases takes a grainy picture of a shield generator and sends it off to the Empire hundreds of light years away.  Darth Maul's probe droids have to fly back to get him to show him where Qui-Gon and Padme are on Tatooine.  Droids have to plug in to terminals directly to manipulate doors, schematics, and to issue commands.  The biggest system Artoo is able to access on the Death Star is the garbage smasher schedule and reset it; the only reason he could do that was because the Death Star is probably the largest computer network  ever, he was inside of it, and he could only access minor systems commands.  He couldn't remotely deactivate the tractor beam, or let the Princess out of her cell, or turn off the alarms from Cell Block AA-23.

I wonder if the reason is generational.  Or maybe it's simply that we've gotten so accustomed to having our smartphones and internet so close at hand that we can no longer imagine a universe with any sort of advanced technology not having that tech.

I'm kinda curious what "technological advancements" we see in Episode VII.  Will there be an obvious internet-like system, or will the tech stay the same?

Guess we'll find out in 13 months.

May the dice be with you.


  1. This is a pretty good point, and I think that you're right in that younger generations of gamers, for whom tech like smartphones and high-speed internet are taken for granted, see the tech of the Star Wars films as "outdated" and "archaic," in contrast to us older gamers for whom said tech was "sci-fi" given what we actually had at the time.

  2. This also plays into the core nature of Star Wars: it was a film!

    Things happen, or don't happen, because the writer wanted/needed them to for dramatic effect, explanation, or development. How dramatic would it have been if R2 had simply opened Leia's cell remotely? Lukes quest to rescue her (in person) would have been ruined. R2 is also slicing open doors in the thick of battle to make things more dramatic for him.

    Also, the visual medium allows/requires things to be shown, not explained. The probe droids return to Darth Maul, to show that they belong to him.

    Since the 70's, our visual medium has also come a long way. We're used to fast cutting action, multiple developments simultaneously (thanks in part to Star Wars), or even seeing things out of order (a la Pulp Fiction). So these days, you see the hacker working remotely to support the second story team, and it feels normal.

    I think the threat is spot on for what the tech level, and focus, of the Star Wars universe is. And I think it's something to address with any would-be Slicer PC's in a game.

  3. A great post Phil, and one I will share with my players! I have a slicer that wants to slice all he can (and I'm okay with that, from a game standpoint) but you've given me reasons to NOT allow certain things...

    This week we have been in Act II of Echos of the Past and the slicer was trying to control systems outside the "room" he was in. For "module" reasons he couldn't do it, but I did allow an "impossible" roll (Destiny point just to try and 5 purple) - he made it, but I only allowed it to be a limited duration effect... The two players in the "trap" still had to make rolls to get out quickly (yes, I'm trying to be somewhat vague so as not to spoil it for others).

  4. Hrm, I wonder what the Galactic Senate's stance on HoloNet Neutrality was before the Clone Wars ended? I mean they basically treated Corporations as sovereign powers if my knowledge on that is correct, I can't help but think the Trade Federation or Techno Union would probably lobby for faster connections for its employees and subsidiaries or something like that.

  5. The Star Wars universe is similar to Traveller in that, for the majority of people, there's no FTL communication. The Empire controls the Holonet, which is used for government and military communication only. It's expensive and full holographic data is going to be cheaper in black and white (or blue and white) than in full colour. There are libraries, vast ones, but they're on local planets. You have access to that information in the same system and accept that the response may take a little while, or take a copy of the information from the library. There are devices that can store large amounts of data, which fit in the palm of the hand. Datapads in Star Wars seem to hold entire libraries of information, potentially terabytes of data. A ship can store vast amounts of data, a galaxy of navigation information for a start. There are palm sized holographic communicators. There's FTL travel and spaceships. The Core worlds are going to be high-tech and completely sci-fi in feel. The Rim worlds will have a more frontier feel, with high-tech (speeders, blasters, etc.) mixing with lower tech stuff. There may not be a local world-wide communications network that can be hooked in to to find the local junk trader. Some asking around would be required. Some of the folks out on the Rim are possibly living there for that exact reason. They like not having the Core world linked up (and heavily surveilled) lifestyle. They're there for the peace and quiet, and the ability to avoid official notice.

    For the push-to-talk communicators, I'm sure that there's voice activated (the comlinks Luke and C3P0 use on the Death Star for example) as well as push-to-talk. There's an advantage to the push-to-talk model though. For example, you're not constantly transmitting, cutting down on the chances of being traced. I'm sure on a Core world, the locals will be using the high tech equivalent of their smartphones and tablet computers to do business in comfort, much as we do today. Once off-world, communication slows down to due to the distances involved. Even at the speed of light, communication will take a few seconds between worlds. Intra-system communications are likely to be available. Extra-system communications requires access to the restricted Holonet. The Empire doesn't want quick and easy communication between worlds. It controls the Holonet, so it controls the fastest way of communication between worlds. Official propaganda can beat word-of-mouth news from the tramp traders roaming the galaxy.

    Yes, it's probably a product of the time, but I think that the tech is still way beyond what we've got. Even the lower tech in Star Wars is still beyond what we'd have now and some of the tech is just accepted. It's part of the way of life to have a prosthetic limb that functions as well as the original if needed. Frowned on, as it's becoming more droid-like and droids are second class citizens at best (or not even citizens but a property slave class).

    "The biggest system Artoo is able to access on the Death Star is the garbage smasher schedule and reset it; the only reason he could do that was because the Death Star is probably the largest computer network ever, he was inside of it, and he could only access minor systems commands. He couldn't remotely deactivate the tractor beam, or let the Princess out of her cell, or turn off the alarms from Cell Block AA-23."
    Artoo was hacking the systems of the largest and most modern of Imperial battle stations. It's fortunate that he was even able to get a prisoner list of the cell-block out of the computers, never mind accessing the security systems. There would be firewall on firewall to navigate. The garbage masher would have been a lower security system.

  6. Very well put Ian! Also going to share that with my players! :-)