It’s always exciting when a pop culture event occurs that has relevance to my archaeological interests, and none cuts deeper to my core than Star Wars. It’s perhaps the only thing that has captured my imagination for longer than archaeology, and getting to talk about both things in the same space is what inspired me to create this blog.
Here you can find a pretty interesting article that talks about some of the ways Rogue One creates an archaeological past in which the movie can exist. This one talks about the peculiar ways in which they use data in the Star Wars universe, and how it’s basically a tutorial on how to do everything wrong with your data.
What particularly caught my eye was this thought-provoking piece from The Atlantic, which discusses why Star Wars is so “techno-retro.” It talks about why much of our own technology seems so much more advanced than what’s in Star Wars. It does a great job of explaining the artistic (and, let’s be honest, commercial) choices behind presenting technology in this way. Essentially, it explains the lack of things like touchscreens, smart phones, etc. because of the necessity to adhere to the original movie’s aesthetic, and also because it is fantasy blended with sci-fi. The assumption seems to be that the Star Wars universe would have these things if it wasn’t restricted by George Lucas’ imagination in the 1970s and the commercial interests of the movie studios. It implies that a society with the capability of interstellar travel could not exist without technology that is basic today.
But is that necessarily true?
Archaeology provides insights into the ways culture changes because it provides a long-term view of human society. Much like organisms, culture changes incrementally on a time scale that often prevents us from seeing some kinds of change over the course of our own lifetimes. We then have to examine evidence from the past and observe, using material culture, the changes that past societies experienced.
Also similar to biological evolution is the misplaced yet common assumption that cultural evolution is unidirectional. In our vernacular, we often use the term “evolution” to describe something that’s getting objectively better. Take another example from pop culture: the X-Men. Their powers are explained as the result of the “next step” of human evolution, the evolutionary force of mutation giving people extraordinary powers that continues a trajectory of objective improvement of the human species. But evolution is not a steady march of objective improvement in a species: it is descent with modification, whether good or bad.
Likewise, in popular culture and in the Western zeitgeist, cultural evolution is often considered to be unidirectional, starting with hunter-gatherers thousands of years ago and progressing into the urban, technologically advanced complex states that you probably live in if you’re reading this blog. The vernacular understanding of this has misappropriated archaeological terminology when talking about this, particularly when we say things about people “living in the Stone Age” or the like, which place unnecessary value judgments on other peoples’ way of life. The archaeological record shows that human societies are not in a constant march toward “civilization,” (a term which, by the way, we don’t even really use in archaeology anymore) but, rather, can change in many different ways, and do so in response to various stimulants including population, climate, and unequal accumulation of wealth or power. Societies change through time and each one does not do so in the same manner.
In a way, thinking about Star Wars as “techno-retro” places it in reference to our own culture on a false trajectory of cultural evolution. We know from the archaeological record here on Earth that the Inka never developed a writing system, and yet achieved great feats of engineering and a complex economy. Instead, they had an elaborate system of knots called quipu by which they kept records.
Inka quipu. Knots used as record keeping.
Maybe it’s not the most efficient method of record keeping to our minds, but it worked for them, just as digital networks and coding could have been outside the imagination of people living in the Star Wars universe.
Even when exposed to “advanced” technologies, people do not always adopt them. Hunter-gatherers have always known that planting seeds in the ground produces plants, and yet for the great majority of humanity’s existence on the planet, they chose not to adopt this method of producing food. A famous study by C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky (one of my academic grandmentors), a former professor at Harvard, discussed the advent of writing in Mesopotamia, and how it did not spread to some neighboring societies. Even though writing was invented in Mesopotamia to keep economic records and make trading easier, these neighboring cultures refused to adopt writing. Lamberg-Karlovsky argues that this is because writing also facilitates administrative control and authority, and they did not want to adopt a technology that would impact their culture in that way.
So, while we value some of the benefits that our modern technology provides us, the possibility exists that, under different circumstances, these technologies might be avoided based on particular cultural values. The danger of losing digital information (we’ve all forgotten to save and back up our documents!) could be judged to be too great to have massive digitally based systems. Likewise, a completely networked lifestyle might conceivably be avoided because of a value on privacy. Think about the problems hacking has the potential to cause (which, um, if you’ve been under a rock, already is a problem): maybe people in the Star Wars universe saw that coming and actively avoided it, or abandoned digital technology because it became too great of a problem.
It’s certainly interesting fodder for the authors, screenwriters, and artists who are developing the new Star Wars canon (since the old Expanded Universe has effectively been erased) to explore. I would love to see more exploration of cultural and societal changes brought about by the end of the Republic, and those that would have developed over even greater time scales dating to before the prequel trilogy.
Even if you’re not particularly a Star Wars fan, or just not particularly interested in hypothetical cultural evolution a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, it serves as a reminder, particularly to those of us in the West, that we are not living at the pinnacle of human cultural evolution. Our culture has adopted certain practices because of our perceived shared needs, and based on the cultural values of those who came before us. To call another culture primitive because they maintain a different kind of societal structure from our own, or because they have chosen not to adopt technologies which we value is ethnocentric and misunderstands human history.
Please, feel free to comment if you have other examples of this kind of technological avoidance in human history, or other things relating to cultural evolution and Star Wars you wish to discuss!