Friday, June 17, 2005

I see Obi-Wan has taught you well

Using Star Wars as Exhibit A, Neal Stephenson writes in a NYT op-ed that today’s blockbuster movies have become incomprehensible to all but the geeks among us. In the original "Star Wars" (Sorry, I won't call it "Episode IV: A New Hope"), anyone could follow the action. In "Episode III: Revenge of the Sith," the plot, motivations, and technologies employed have all become too complex or obscure to understand. To figure out how the Trade Federation relates to General Grievous, Internet databases, cartoons and books are available for the geeks. Otherwise, just sit back and let the imagery and the conflict wash over you.

Stephenson’s main point is to warn about mounting technological and scientific ignorance – a growing divide between geeks and everyone else that isn’t just helping to make bad movies, but leading to outsourcing to India and a host of other problems. Everything is just so damn complex, let’s just ignore it and pound ourselves silly with surround-sound! Ann Althouse counters that it’s movies that are in decline, not the United States.

While I don't agree completely, I do like Stephenson’s argument. Today’s science and engineering – and many of the things that depend on them, such as government regulations, the development of consumer items, medical care, space travel – have created a bunch of “black boxes” that nobody understands.

To use more of a 19th-century analogy, people could understand how sausages were made, even if they didn’t want to look inside the sausage maker. Today, they don’t understand how iPods are made, and even if they could look inside they still wouldn’t get it. But this is inevitable, because science and engineering are more complicated and specialized than ever before. There is more and more compartmentalized knowledge and expertise. What are we supposed to do?

This phenomenon is at the heart of a lot of political disputes – Terry Schiavo, global warming, evolution, etc. You get situations where some people know in their guts that something must be so – despite all available scientific evidence - and act accordingly. Sometimes presenting scientific evidence has the exact opposite effect it should – it’s like waving a red flag at a bull.

But I don’t know that I agree with Stephenson about “Star Wars.” The original movies were easy to understand because they were, uh, simpler. After almost 30 years of mythmaking, Internet gossip, action figures, novelizations, etc. there is just too much backstory. There's no way to squeeze it into the movie. This is not a function of technology or science but popular culture's tendency to generate lots and lots of junk.

I haven’t seen ROTS, but we rented “The Empire Strikes Back” last week because our six-year-old son has been caught up in the Star Wars fervor and wanted to see it. It’s the best movie of the bunch, and has all the hallmarks – bad dialogue, cardboard characters, fetishization of gadgetry, etc. But somehow you did believe in the actors. Lucas just lost his interest in storytelling and actors. The fact that a "Trade Federation" plays a key role in the current cycle's plot should tell you something.