The Droids Have Ears: Surveillance and Technology in the GFFA

There’s an odd thing that happens in properties (intellectual properties, or “IPs”, which encompass the entirety of published fictional media) which were created decades before our contemporary social and technological developments went from being fiction to reality. Things we take for granted are mysteriously never added to the official IP, and even fanworks which blend in pop culture tend to leave some parts out.

I’m leading with this because acknowledging the meta when discussing fictional culture is important.

Theory: Star Wars and the GFFA* at large do not have a surveillance culture.

*”GFFA” is common shorthand for “Galaxy Far, Far Away” and used among the fan community to encompass all related media including fanworks.

Back in the ’70s, when Star Wars featured an all-encompassing Evil Empire, the Cold War was in full swing but the modern internet and ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras had yet to appear. The HoloNet as a concept wasn’t even a part of the IP until the much-derided Holiday Special, where it was more for telecasts than personal communication, and the characters had no fear that their own ship’s computer system or personal comm units might be passively collecting every bit of conversation and sending it to an Imperial dataservice, where it would be washed through filters searching for voiceprint matches and vital keywords.

This, by the way, is our lived reality in 2019. More than 40 years after its initial creation, our contemporary world contains a level of control that Palpatine could never have dreamed of, because he and his Empire were conceptualized in the late ’70s.

Even the Prequels don’t come close to our modern informational dystopia, despite the introduction of the HoloNet concept. The prequel films were conceived in the ’90s, before a certain disaster made people in the US more willing to lose a little personal freedom in exchange for what we were told is better security (it’s not, but that’s a rant for a different time), and the films still don’t take that leap into the true perpetual-wartime paranoia that we know today.

Early IP writers barely remember that characters can have a comm on their belt, never mind a HoloNet-connected datapad. Even contemporary IP writers, who make more pop culture references and have average characters using computers with a contemporary ease which wasn’t common in the 1970s, don’t take that plunge into cyberpunk dystopia. Fandom creators take it maybe a half-step further, bringing HoloNet usage into characters’ everyday lives.

But even in media where the deeply authoritarian Sith Empire has been in place for thousands of years, the presence of surveillance is limited to private security cameras, seeker drones, and sentient spies. Despite slicers being the canon equivalent of real-world hackers and crackers, they’re almost an afterthought: easily replaced by droids and used primarily for breaking electronic locks and engaging in industrial espionage — it’s not the corporations selling your data, it’s the slicers selling other corporations’ data. Corporations — which are notably more corrupt and blatantly evil than any we deal with on our contemporary Earth, almost eldritch abominations in their ability to survive for literally thousands of years and their ruthless inhumanity —  don’t passively collect data from personal comms to sell to private or public security agencies, advertising doesn’t follow individual users from location to location, and even the government intelligence services have to send agents in to collect records a company won’t willingly hand over. It’s relatively easy for a character in the GFFA to obtain a false ID that’s solid enough to get them past security checkpoints at transit stations, and somehow their biometrics don’t get traced to their original IDs.

Part of this is a facet of the writers’ will: the person doing the creating either doesn’t know what’s possible given the technology, or they choose to ignore the possibility. Part of this is because — as a result of earlier writers from a radically different social background — these factors were never part of the IP to begin with.

And part of it is idealism: the desire to create a world which — whilst dark and troubling and possessing many of the conveniences we have today — doesn’t contain the everyday intrusions which wear us down. A world where we’re not creeped out by email ads offering things we were talking about to our friends yesterday and where nobody feels the need to put stickers over their computer cameras when not in use.

The result is a fictional world which is, in a sense, a technological utopia: there is some legal or social matter which prevents even the most corrupt of corporate and security leaders from engaging in intense mass surveillance and personal invasion.

It makes a certain amount of sense: the population of the GFFA can be numbered in the quadrillions. Despite the wide variety of species and hybridization, that’s still too many to maintain a useable database on. You’ll get a million instances of a rare name and upwards of a billion if the name is common. The equivalent of the population of a developed world could slip through the cracks and the oversight would go unnoticed. Some worlds don’t even have a population registration program, either because they prefer to remain low-tech or because their social structures deem it unnecessarily invasive; the Sith Empire doesn’t care because they’re not a threat, and the Republic wouldn’t enforce it unless the world wanted a seat on the Senate.

Likewise the limitations of communication across distances on a galactic scale makes passive monitoring expensive and virtually impossible. There are hyperwave transceivers suspended in hyperspace across the galaxy to connect everyone, with an immediacy we can’t even get between the Earth and our best satellites; however by the time of the Prequels, the network still had not been expanded into the Outer Rim. Personal communicators are still limited by range — Obi-Wan’s message from Geonosis barely reached Anakin on Tatooine, the system’s nearest stellar neighbour* — but are still somehow operating on a faster-than-light principle, or it would have taken months if not years before anyone knew what was going down on Geonosis.

*For a real-world reference, the Voyager 1 space probe is 148.3 astronomical units (AU) away and it takes 20.56 hours to receive a lightspeed signal from it; the probe still has not left the Sun’s gravitational influence, which is estimated to extend to 100,000 AU, at which point a lightspeed signal back to Earth would take 1.58 years.

It’s worth noting that, while an invasion force in the GFFA may set up local jammers on a planet or system, they never interfere with the Republic-created HoloNet network the way contemporary authoritarian regimes interfere with internet access, possibly because everyone relies upon the exact same network.

(We do not mention the Yuuzhan Vong in this household.)

When we take into consideration the fact that droids and even starship computers exhibit a form of artificial intelligence, we may consider that there might be some level of rights involved, but it’s pretty clear that the droids and ships themselves have no control over their programming, personality, usage, or how frequently they experience a forced memory wipe at the hands of the sentients who own them. The few droids who are noticeably liberated are still bound in some way as legal property to a given non-droid sentient. They’re treated more akin to a pet than a walking, self-aware computer, but unless their owner offers them a modicum of self-determination, droids are at the mercy of their handlers. Despite this, there is no evidence of corporate or government co-option of droids and ships against their owners*: once it is sold, the AI-sentient is no longer considered the company’s problem. This is likely an aspect of droids being treated by the writers as individual characters in their own rights whilst still acknowledging through their treatment by the other characters that they have no rights to speak of.

* It has happened in the IP that a character’s ship was broken into and their droid and computer were reprogrammed by the individual responsible. But there is no evidence of the GFFA’s invasive corporate or governmental entities engaging in such behaviour en masse.

We are also, interestingly, dealing with a population where the common citizen might carry a sidearm and even pilot a vehicle or a ship without any form of licensing; and we know this because otherwise all the smugglers would find themselves impounded as soon as they landed or docked on a government-controlled planet. Border control, in a 3-D spatial environment, is literally impossible, and blockades only work if you have a Scarif-style planetary defense shield. As they say, only law-abiding people will use the door: only pilots who give a crap about the law will use the pre-determined planetary approach coordinates, or wait patiently in the queue for permission to land. Or even land somewhere where their license will be checked and verified.

It can therefore be surmised that, through a combination of unintentional design and intentional later development, the GFFA is a universe that has — except in extraordinary circumstances — given up on such attempts at surveillance and populace control.

Individual planets and local governments may engage in personal surveillance, businesses may operate their own security networks or hire contractors. But the GFFA as a whole is a technological utopia where modifying or even building one’s own communication device allows one to access the HoloNet without charge or censure, and where surveillance culture died the moment it attempted to find a databank large enough to store and collate all the collected information. Even Sidious’ Empire — arguably even more authoritarian than Sith Empires of previous generations — doesn’t go to such extremes, or else the Rebellion would have been decimated in the early stages.

It’s remarkable enough that the Sith Empire isn’t as technologically invasive in its citizens’ lives as our modern governments in 2019 have become. It’s an authoritarian, speciesist, meritocratic oligarchy nightmare which rewards its subjects for playing unfairly against anyone they see as opposition, but it still doesn’t track its citizens and demand technological back-doors into their personal technology. Despite all its many, many flaws, at least it hasn’t become a cyberpunk dystopia. And in spite of its own myriad problems, the Republic never does so either.

It’s a unique look into a mirror universe that we might have had: a futuristic, highly technological society which has no surveillance culture. In 2019, the knowledge that the FBI or other government agencies might be spying on us right now is so ubiquitous it’s spawned memes, but in the GFFA even the most heinous of governments don’t even suggest trying.

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