Contra Stephenson

Neal Stephenson believes that the latest Star Wars trilogy caters to the passive "vegging out" experience of movie-goers and leaves out the "geeking out" experience of actively understanding the subtleties of the creation.

The first "Star Wars" movie 28 years ago was distinguished by healthy interplay between veg and geek scenes. In the climactic sequence, where rebel fighters attacked the Death Star, we repeatedly cut away from the dogfights and strafing runs - the purest kind of vegging-out material - to hushed command bunkers where people stood around pondering computer displays, geeking out on the strategic progress of the battle.

All such content - as well as the long, beautiful, uncluttered shots of desert, sky, jungle and mountain that filled the early episodes - was banished in the first of the prequels ("Episode I: The Phantom Menace," 1999). In the 16 years that separated it from the initial trilogy, a new universe of ancillary media had come into existence. These had made it possible to take the geek material offline so that the movies could consist of pure, uncut veg-out content, steeped in day-care-center ambience. These newer films don't even pretend to tell the whole story; they are akin to PowerPoint presentations that summarize the main bullet points from a much more comprehensive body of work developed by and for a geek subculture.

He further claims that this dumbing down of movies reflects a cultural disrespect for science in American society.

Scientists and technologists have the same uneasy status in our society as the Jedi in the Galactic Republic. They are scorned by the cultural left and the cultural right, and young people avoid science and math classes in hordes. The tedious particulars of keeping ourselves alive, comfortable and free are being taken offline to countries where people are happy to sweat the details, as long as we have some foreign exchange left to send their way. Nothing is more seductive than to think that we, like the Jedi, could be masters of the most advanced technologies while living simple lives: to have a geek standard of living and spend our copious leisure time vegging out.

If the "Star Wars" movies are remembered a century from now, it'll be because they are such exact parables for this state of affairs. Young people in other countries will watch them in classrooms as an answer to the question: Whatever became of that big rich country that used to buy the stuff we make? The answer: It went the way of the old Republic.

I can't seem to remember a time when movies were ever "geek out" material, even in the original Star Wars trilogy. Did anyone really scrutinize the details of the rebels' battle plans? Nobody I know. It was as much about "vegging out" back then as it is today- about feeling the force, special effects and battle sequences, a coming-of-age messianic figure, and embracing a beeping robot and grunting wookiee, neither of which spoke an intelligible word. The difference in the trilogies is not a matter of science, but rather interesting characters and a compelling human narrative.

Even if one were to accept Stephenson's thesis about the diminishing role of "geeking out" in movies, the rise of sophisticated modern day television provides a counterpoint. As Steven Johnson wrote in the NY Times,

For decades, we’ve worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the ‘’masses'’ want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want. But as that ‘’24?’ episode suggests, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less. To make sense of an episode of ‘’24,'’ you have to integrate far more information than you would have a few decades ago watching a comparable show. Beneath the violence and the ethnic stereotypes, another trend appears: to keep up with entertainment like ‘’24,'’ you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships. This is what I call the Sleeper Curve: the most debased forms of mass diversion – video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms – turn out to be nutritional after all.

When the original Star Wars trilogy came out, television shows of the caliber of 24, Alias, Buffy, The Sopranos, Firefly, and Deadwood simply did not exist. A typical season of any of the aforementioned shows demands the viewer to note all the subtle twists and turns that hint at future conflict maturation. Season-long story arcs allow writers to weave together a large number of subplots simultaneously. Characters with depth who change and grow with time are developed. "Vegging out" will leave viewer on the outside looking in when Arvin Sloane masterminds the downfall of the Alliance in season 2 of Alias. The moral complexity of Al Swearengen's character by the end of the first season of Deadwood will remain unappreciated. As will the mystery behind Shepard Book's past and purpose on board the Serenity. Modern television - the cream of it anyway - forces the viewer to use his mind more than ever before.

Contra Stephenson, I don't think the state of movies says anything about the fate of this country. But if it does, then television series surely mark more data points by which to evaluate the same thesis. And by those standards, the future of the Republic may not be as dire as Stephenson believes.


Semi-related prior post: Grand Theft Culture

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