Now that the new Star Wars is upon us — which, as we all know, is the real Reason for the Season — it’s time for what is now my yearly overthinking of the entire franchise. Last year, I came to the realization that if the galaxy had adequate women’s health care, Anakin would have never turned to the dark side. This year, I want to point out that Rogue One, a tremendously underrated installment of the series, is really about internet freedom.
Think about it.
(Spoilers ahead for Rogue One.)
Star Wars is life, but Star Wars is also not very good, which is why Rogue One — a Frankenstein’s monster assembled from a butchered first cut and an excessively large space antenna that only exists to add another 30 minutes to the film — is one of the better Star Wars movies.
The climax of Rogue One is a truly relatable struggle: Uploading A Very Large File Under Time Constraints. We’ve all been there, albeit probably with less bloodshed.
In Rogue One, the hero, Jyn Erso, climbs up to the top of a tower so that she can use the giant space antenna to transmit the Death Star plans to a Rebel ship in orbit. Once received, the files are copied onto a disk (yes, one single disk without backup copies). The ship comes under attack, the disk makes a narrow escape onto Princess Leia’s ship, and from there, the events of A New Hope begin.
This raises some questions: would it have killed Jyn to email the plans to herself? Or put it on Dropbox? If she could upload the plans to the ship, why not to a ship farther away and less likely to get shot down, or even to the Rebel base?
One obvious explanation would be to attribute this setup as an artifact of the recutting process. Early trailers for the movie suggest that the previous cut of Rogue One culminated in the theft of physical data tapes containing the Death Star plans, and rebel ships were posted nearby to receive the stolen tape. But that explanation is boring, and anyway, this is not the first questionable file management decision in the Star Wars universe.
The fate of the whole galaxy depends on these Death Star plans making it back to the Rebel base, and for the entirety of A New Hope, our heroes are running around with the sole copy on one little disk.
No one thought to make backups, upload the files somewhere else, or even better: post them publicly somewhere. After all, only the Empire wants to keep the plans secret. It’s no skin off the Rebel Alliance’s nose if the entire galaxy can see the schematics of the Death Star. Why go cloak-and-lightsaber if you could just make an anonymous Tumblr?
It’s fun to make fun of Star Wars for its various plot holes, but in this case, this is consistent with the rest of the series: throughout the movie canon, there appears to be very limited access to interstellar long-distance communications. Luke, Leia, and Han spend much of the original trilogy floating around in space, not communicating with the Rebel Alliance, or each other, for that matter, when they do get separated.
But it’s not that faster-than-light data transmissions are impossible. Vader teleconferences with the Emperor from across the galaxy in Empire Strikes Back. In Phantom Menace, Senator Palpatine communicates in real time with the Naboo government via hologram, and does the same with the Trade Federation in his capacity as Darth Sidious.
In Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan ventures out to the remote planet of Kamino on the edge of the galaxy, and keeps the Jedi Council updated with regular calls. Toward the end of the film, he contacts Anakin and Padme Amidala in a nearby star system, asking them to relay a message to the Jedi Council, since his “long-range transmitter has been knocked out.”
So long-distance communications require specialized technology, and it doesn’t appear that everyone has access to it. In fact, it seems that most people are cut off from the galaxy at large.
Star Wars features little to no mass media to speak of. Coruscant might be lit up by bright advertisements, but there’s no news media. The lack of books and newspapers has led at least one writer to speculate that most people in the Star Wars galaxy are totally illiterate, but you don’t need literacy to consume television or radio, and there is very little of either.
I don’t subscribe to the illiteracy theory since there’s a scene in Empire Strikes Back where Han Solo clearly reads Lando Calrissian’s name off a console on the Millennium Falcon, but Ryan Britt is right to point out that it is super weird that in Episode I, Queen Amidala has trouble “proving” to the Galactic Senate that Naboo has been invaded.
Amidala can barely start a sentence before the Trade Federation screams about fake news and derails the entire Senate proceeding. And because there were apparently no news cameras on the ground filming an army of battle droids marching into Naboo’s capital city, their ploy works.
In fact there’s no news or journalism at all. There appears to be some form of limited local broadcasting (for example, the broadcast of the podrace in Episode I), but no media seems to circulate between planets. There is no fourth estate to either critique or cheer on the government, and so the populace is silent while the galaxy spirals into a quagmire of a war in which the executive branch repeatedly expands its power in unprecedented ways. (Science fiction! It’s so improbable!)
The politicians of the Republic never express much concern about voters or polls. Public outrage never factors into decision-making for better or for worse. When the Jedi Order begins to suspect that the Chancellor is a Sith, they decide that their only recourse is to march into his room and chop his head off. No one thinks for a second that maybe the voters would want to know? Perhaps they don’t. Voters in Star Wars are thoroughly disengaged. Indeed, when Luke meets Leia, he seems to have no idea who this senator for the planet of Alderaan even is.
The democracy of the Galactic Republic is a farce, because the voters of the Republic have no idea what’s going on. And they have no idea, because there is no media to disseminate information — and there is no media, because bands for long-distance signals are restricted.
Every person in the Star Wars movies who is portrayed engaging in real-time long-distance communications is a member of the government in some capacity: Senator Palpatine / Darth Sidious, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the Jedi Council. The Republic created a system in which only politicians and high-ranking members of a military religious order could use long-distance signals, and that set up the conditions in which the whole galaxy succumbed to a thinly veiled reference to Nazism.
And that’s why Rogue One, property of the Walt Disney Company, is actually a movie about internet freedom. It is a movie about data transmission as a political act, and one in which unequal access to bands of transmission puts people’s lives at risk. Star Wars knows what everyone in this country except three FCC commissioners knows: discrimination across data speeds is a form of censorship.
And while the end of net neutrality probably won’t lead to a giant space station blowing up the planet with a death laser, I’m not stoked to have to live in a world where I get to find out for sure.