Friday, December 11, 2015

Star Wars: Droids Are Slaves. Why Are We OK With That?

We love R2-D2 and C-3PO.

Well, some folks love them a lot more than I do. R2 is a plot device, essentially a walking sonic screwdriver, a magic "get-out-of-plot-free" card when you have some barrier our heroes shouldn't be able to get past. Seriously, what the hell is computer science like in that far, far away galaxy, when the most sophisticated security systems in existence can be completely over-ridden simply by plugging an astromech droid into the computer for 2 seconds?

And C-3PO? To me, he's a far, far more annoying character than Jar Jar Binks ever was. Yeah, I said it.

But we love these droids, and we're meant to love them. They're put into jeopardy, and we care about their fate. They do heroic things (well, at least R2), and we applaud. They're damaged, and we wince, or cry, or whatever. They are our point of view characters for the first 20 minutes of A New Hope!! They save the humans' hash so many times we lose count (well, at least R2 does). We're sad when R2 is hurt, and we cheer when R2 is all better at the very end of A New Hope!

And yet, they are slaves. We watch as they are bought and sold by slavers, and given away to gangsters without their knowledge or permission. We watch as they are turned off mid-sentence, without warning--and we laugh and applaud!! (See, even the movies themselves think 3PO is annoying!). We watch as "their kind" isn't served at a place that serves the most wretched scum in the galaxy. We watch as their minds are wiped, without consent! We watch as humanoids use "restraining bolts" to contain and control their slaves. And in the prequel trilogy, thousands--millions?--of droids were used as cannon fodder for years and years, dying in place of humans.

The question, then, is this--are droids sentient? Or are they just appliances? We have no qualms about wiping our PC's memory, or selling even a cute and interesting waffle iron on Craig's List. So we need to know--are our "heroes" intelligent beings deserving of rights, or just sophisticated tools? Are they people, albeit, in mechanical form--or are they toasters?

The movies are terribly inconsistent, because Lucas. But the evidence is pretty clearly in favor of "sentient."
Obviously, you don't need "restraining bolts" for your Roomba. An appliance doesn't have free will to override. Your blender isn't likely to go walkabout. The only reason you'd need a restraining bolt, as opposed to simple programming, is that your droid might want to leave. That surely implies free will. Sentience.

If a droid were just a machine, it wouldn't get a special audience with the queen thanking it for saving them, as she praises it's courage. You don't have a ceremony thanking your car, or your DVR (well, at least I don't).

Did someone program that tiny little droid on the Death Star to run away screaming when Chewbacca growled at it? If so, someone should fire that programmer...

That by itself doesn't settle the issue, of course. We use fences to keep livestock from wandering, and praise our pets when they do something cool. Just because droids have some level of intelligence doesn't automatically mean they're sentient. Most wouldn't call keeping sheep or pets slavery (And yes, I acknowledge the arguments of those who do have that position). And we've seen cats and dogs scared of crazy stuff before. So maybe droids have some intelligence along with their programming, but only on the level of "dumb animals?"

But the droids also show some pretty amazing critical thinking and problem solving skills. R2 very neatly tricks Luke into removing his restraining bolt, so he can later go looking for Obi-Wan (it helps that Luke is stupid). 3PO deftly comes up with a lie which explains why they're locked in a control room, and simultaneously gets the stormtroopers to leave. Could the IBM computer Deep Blue have been cajoled to purposely lose to Kasparov if someone told it Kasparov might rip its arms off? That displays a sense of self-awareness that most people presuppose as part of the definition of sentience.  It sure looks as if our droids, who argue, reason, analyze, solve, innovate, respond emotionally and manipulate, pass an on-screen Turing test.

It's really unfair to compare Star Wars to Star Trek, if for no other reason than Trek has had over 700 hours of screen time compared to 14 for Wars. So Trek had the time to devote the occasional hour or so Klingon religion, first contact protocols...or the rights of artificial intelligence. But they did it, more than once.

And maybe it was part of the era, too, as the original trilogy was, whether it likes to admit it or not, very steeped in the ethos of 1960s and 1970s movie and TV sci-fi (including 60s Star Trek). Robots and androids and the like could be characters, but they couldn't be people. They could be the helpers, or the comedy relief, but they couldn't be the heroes. Because no matter what, they were "just" machines, and were only one stray electron form going all Westworld on us. We couldn't conceive of them being "real people."

So, yeah, Star Trek had the time, and maybe Next Generation came along in a creative era in which it easier to conceive of artificial intelligences being sentient. But let me point out one episode of TNG in particular: The Quality Of Life. A science outpost has developed a new type of robot, Exocomps. These cute little guys couldn't talk... They just had flashing lights and whistles. They hovered. They did all the dangerous grunt work on a dangerous project. Damned, that all sounds very familiar... Data realized they were sentient, but no one else works believe him. How do you prove your non-talkative little robot is really "alive" and deserving of rights? And besides, they were needed to do important work...I have no proof that writer Naren Shankar was thinking of R2-D2 when he authored this script, but the parallel is too close not to read it as maybe a little critique of Star Wars.

But ultimately, the confusion comes down to George Lucas. In the first 45 minutes of the first movie, he gives us the servants fleeing on a quest for their master, being captured by slavers, sold into servitude, restrained and told to forget their past history, and condemned as being unworthy because of "their kind." Whether he intended it or not, the metaphor could hardly have been more blunt if the movie were titled 12 Years A Droid. And after that, Lucas did absolutely nothing to follow up on the metaphor...he just left it there, and allowed the human heroes to abuse them. 

You're more than welcome to disagree me. Because then at least we would be having the discussion. You have no idea how many Star Wars fans roll their eyes at me when I bring up this topic, and try to hand-wave this all away, and assert that I'm overthinking things for a fantasy adventure movie.

Fair enough. But before you dismiss me, ask yourself this--why do you care what happens to R2 and 3PO if you don't believe they're truly alive? How do you feel about heroes fighting for freedom and liberty while their intelligent companions aren't recognized as having any rights whatsoever? If positions were reversed, and a villain put an electronic shackle on Luke, or turned Han off with a snap of the fingers, or wiped Leia's'd say that was pretty villainous behavior, right? So why is that acceptable for good guys to do that to R2 and 3PO?

Which is why this movie should have been Star Wars Episode VII: The Revolt Of The Droids.


Sina said...

Omg :0 u r *so* behind the times on this one, snell :/

Nevermind that non-droid slaves such as Anakin & his mom existed in the star wars universe (which renders your "they're slaves" argument to insignifigance), but this idea & plot-device has already been pointed out numerous places on other sites *&* that this is all exactly what the entire prequel series was exactly entirely about :( ie: the droids seeking to gain political & personal independence among the galactic senate & republic, but being misguided & tricked into foul ends by the self-serving Palpatine in his larger bid for empiricality as well as the greedy trade federation's short-sighted inability to see past their own noses :)

Sorry, but ya...quite a lot behind the times on your part with such a rather long & obviously thought-out posting on your part for it all to have been said before elsewhere too, imo :D

Siskoid said...

First off, let me say it's highly amusing that Blogger requires me to prove I'm not a robot before posting an answer.

As you know, you won't get an argument from me (or maybe I'll come up with one before the end of this comment). Overthinking is my jam, and people who don't like us to overthink too often don't like to simple-think for themselves either. The people who tell me they go to the movies to "empty their minds" instead of filling them. I don't get it.

Which doesn't mean there aren't two possible sides to this issue, but yeah, if the next cycle were about a droid uprising, the rebels being outrebelled now that they were the official government or something, that would have been damned cool. But then it would mean Star Wars were about an actual issue, which it has never really been. Its black and white morality aside, there's really no coherent message in the franchise. Don't be bad, be good. Well okay.

The devil's advocate in might imagine that droids are misunderstood creatures. The Republic scientists who created them are long dead. The Empire promotes servitude and ignorance. So we have all these machines on the verge of a breakdown, some of them go walkabout sometimes, all sorts of programming at cross-purposes, all levels of sentience or non-sentience... People think of them as tools, or else don't trust them because they come from a culture once put down by soldier-droids. Ignorance and fear, both justifiers of this kind of behavior. Not excusers, but justifiers.

Jonathan Hendry said...

What if: The enslaved sentience of millions or billions of droids is the source of the Force.

Siskoid said...

Hahaha. If I wanted to troll Jedis with fanfic, that would totally be how.

Sina said...

Ps: young slave-boy Anakin *does* have a"restraining bolt" placed inside him by his owner Watto, in the form of a chip that *EXPLODES* him if he strays or disobeys :P plus non-droid slavery is alive & kicking well into the original trilogy, as seen by the Hutts' massive collection (to which Princess Leia & others are added in Return Of The Jedi) :D

Green Luthor said...

Sina, I don't think your argument about non-droid slaves really works; the examples you cite (Anakin and Shmi, and Leia et. al. with Jabba) are all on the same planet (a remote, backwoods world with little connection to the galaxy at large), and one of the slave owners is a top gangster (not an occupation known for their law-abiding ways). The slavery of non-droids isn't (from what we can see) a wide-spread or even generally accepted practice. The ownership of droids, on the other hand, is something that appears to be the norm throughout the galaxy. That's a fairly significant difference.

And I'm not sure what you mean about the prequels being about a droid independence movement? The Trade Federation droids weren't fighting for independence; they were built by and for the TF as drone combat troops. Did I miss some major plot point? (Or is that an EU explanation? For that matter, is that where the "Watto implanted explosive chips in Anakin and Shmi" came from? I don't remember that at all, either...)

Sina said...

Ya, straight out of the EU :) the entire separatist army was composed of Droids who, while still being able to claim that they were "just following orders", were fully aware & sentient of their actions and able to make choices & decisions...exactly how the Clones were for the Republic :) & the separatist Kaleesh leader general Grievous himself was half-Droid (...if not more ;) )

The presence of criminality in slave-ownership doesn't negate that it existed & is recognized as part of the larger society :) if it was wrong or illegal, then Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn wouldn't have bartered or dealt with the *fairly*-reputable Watto (who, at least, isn't considered a criminal the way the Hutts are) for Anakin...he would have simply used a bit of Force (or the threat of force ;) ) & told him "give the boy to me or I'll report you to the Jedi council & you will be brought up on charges of slave-ownership by the Republic", etc :) it's also present on other systems like Kashyyk, where Chewie was rescued after he had been caught in a slavery-ring by the Empire (& later rescued by Han) nevermind that Jabba's own multi-species collection within his palace alone shows that the concept of slavery & its networks extend far within many other parts of the galaxy :)

Sina said...

Even Jedi master Luke Skywalker isn't above using the appearance of slavery as a means to an end, as shown when he "sells" Chewie to Jabba via disguised bounty-hunter Boushh/Leia & later also tries to give R2 & 3P0 in exchange for Han :)

...btw, what would Luke have done if Jabba had accepted his trade straight across? :/ just take Han & leave the rest of them there? :P lol

Siskoid said...

But what's your point Sina? That since slavery is pervasive, it's not "wrong"? I'm sure that's not what you're saying. Snell's point stands that the two droids are nevertheless the only main characters in the story, a part of the TEAM, that are treated as slaves by the other characters. How is that supposed to make us feel about our heroic "freedom fighters"?

It's an element that seems thoughtless to me.

Sina said...

In-universe, im saying that equating droids as slaves is a moot point :) only because non-droid slaves also exist, so they aren't unique in that respect...& also because free-will droids also exist, in the form of assassin/bounty hunters IG-88 & 4-LOM ("4-Love-Of-Money", lol :P ) & others who have "over-written" their programming or otherwise freed themselves from outside servitude :) whether what's been shown on-screen regarding 3P0 & others of "our" family as to their choice is up-for-grabs...there's nothing that says they aren't there doing what they think is right & out of loyalty & affection for their comrades :) quite the opposite, as many of their actions show sentient feeling towards others of the free-will variety (3P0's change-of-mind regarding a game of dejarrik with chewbacca, "it's a perfectly fair move/let the wookie win"as well as his insults to same later upon being reassembled incorrectly :) ) in fact, the only "restraining bolt" we actually see in use was put there by the Jawas after they picked them up salvaging in the deserts of Tatooine, not by Luke or Leia or anyone else :) & in fact, they are rewarded & honoured as much as anyone else through the saga for their individual & collective deeds and contributions (ie: recognition & replating at the awards ceremony, etc) :D

Out-universe, i'm as averse to slavery as anybody :) & truly, i wondered why it wasn't a leading goal of the former Jedi order to seek out & eliminate it in all its forms, droid or otherwise, before its downfall :/

Green Luthor said...

Actually, the fact that there are free-willed droids is what makes the slavery comparison possible. If they weren't free-willed, they'd just be tools and appliances. No one considers Siri a slave because the iPhone *isn't* free-willed. But, in Star Wars, these same free-willed droids can and are bought and sold as property, and all it takes is fitting them with a restraining bolt to keep them in line. (The idea of explosive implants creates the threat of harm for disobedience. The restraining bolt can actually control the droids' actions. It's removing some of the free will, while still leaving their sentience intact.)

Luke wasn't using Chewie as a slave in RotJ. Chewie was turned in as a prisoner for a reward, not sold. What does Jabba do with Chewie? Put him to work? Nope, he just tosses him in a cell. Chewie is a prisoner, not a slave. (Plus, Chewie's going along with the plan voluntarily. No one bothered to let poor C-3PO in on the plan at all. All things considered, I'm not even sure why 3PO was even there, given that he doesn't seem to serve any useful function in the execution of Luke's plans.)

Any ideas of the Separatist droids being free-willed and thinking they were fighting for their own independence... if it's from the EU, it's irrelevant. The movies weren't written with the EU in mind (and they're explicitly non-canonical now), and what we see in the movies doesn't support that idea *at all*. Anakin destroys the Trade Federation's orbital station, and all the battle droids on Naboo shut down immediately. They're not independently thinking units, they're drones controlled by a central system. Any notion that they were somehow their own faction fighting for their own purposes but being duped by the Trade Federation isn't borne out by events in the actual films.

And, yes, non-droid slavery existed, obviously. But "recognized as part of the larger society"? No. Padme even expressed surprise that it even still exists anywhere, which leads one to conclude it really only happens in remote places like Tatooine, far beneath the notice of the Republic. The Republic has no real presence on Tatooine; it's even described as being controlled by the Hutts, and if anyone there really cared overly much about the Republic, Watto wouldn't consider Republic credits worthless to him.

As for Qui-Gon using the Force on Watto... to do what? Use the Jedi Mind Trick? He already tried that; it doesn't work on Toydarians. It's stated quite explicitly in the movie. Threaten to report him to the Republic? Again, the Republic doesn't seem to care about Tatooine at all; they're not going to bother dealing with one slave owner (and I'm sure Watto knows that - again, if he doesn't care about Republic credits, he probably knows the Republic isn't going to rush in just to arrest him), and they're also not likely to devote resources to taking the planet from the Hutts. (Especially since, as Qui-Gon knows, they're going to have to deal with the more pressing Trade Federation issue.) Threaten to report him to the Jedi? Qui-Gon's trying to *not* let everyone know he's a Jedi. The entire reason they landed the ship so far outside Mos Espa is because they *didn't* want to attract attention, particularly from the Hutts. (They even mention that it'd be dangerous for the Hutts to know Queen Amidala was there, but less so than on a Federation world; that's why they pick Tatooine to make their repairs.) A Jedi threat is going to achieve the exact opposite of what Qui-Gon's trying to accomplish. (Not to mention that the Jedi don't seem too proactive in taking part in galactic affairs. For whatever reasons they had (most likely complacency, I think), the Jedi *weren't* making it a point to actively eliminate slavery in the galaxy.)

(Lordy, but I do go on sometimes, don't I? Apologies, snell, for taking up so much of your blog comment space.)