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The Tragedy of Droids in Star Wars

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    The very first characters we're introduced
    to in Star Wars are a pair of robots
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    C-3PO: Did you hear that?
    They shut down the main reactor.
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    C-3PO: We'll be destroyed for sure!
    This is madness.
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    And it's through their mechanical eyes that
    we initially experience this galaxy far far away
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    R2D2 and C-3PO are cast as emotionally relatable
    underdogs
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    and we immediately empathize with them and
    their predicament
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    C-3PO: I'm going to regret this.
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    Imperial: There goes another one.
    Imperial: Hold your fire, there's no life forms.
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    I'd argue that droids are as central to the success
    and popularity of star wars as Stormtroopers
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    or Jedi Knights, if not more so
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    Announcer: Hollywood California, August 1977
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    Announcer: To the world famous Chinese
    Theater come the stars of
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    Announcer: the biggest box office success in
    motion picture history.
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    In the decades since endearing droids have
    become an almost ubiquitous fixture
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    in popular culture
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    In fact it's not really a star wars story
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    D-O: Hello.
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    unless there's a lovable or memorable droid
    stealing the spotlight
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    Chopper: [Grumpy droid sounds]
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    K-2SO: Congratulations you are being rescued.
    Please do not resist.
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    L3-37: You done flirting?
    I'm still ready.
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    IG-11: Would anyone care for some tea?
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    But when you really stop and think about it
    there's also something profoundly tragic
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    about the role these artificial life forms
    play in the Star Wars Universe
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    C-3PO: It's a nightmare!
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    That might seem like an odd thing to say given
    that droids are written as comic relief characters
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    C-3PO: What did i do to deserve this?
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    R2D2 and C-3PO were famously based on the
    two bickering peasants from Akira Kurosawa's
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    1958 classic The Hidden Fortress.
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    C-3PO: I've just about had enough of you!
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    C-3PO: Go that way, you'll be malfunctioning
    within a day you near-sighted scrap pile.
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    C-3PO: And don't let me catch you following
    me begging for help because you won't get it
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    but in addition to their more humorous qualities,
    both the peasants and the droids represent
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    an oppressed underclass
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    C-3PO: We seem to be made to suffer, it's
    our lot in life.
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    C-3PO is more right than he knows
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    because droids in Star Wars are written and designed
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    as an exploitable workforce
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    Obi-Wan: We're losing droids fast.
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    They do the tedious, difficult, or dangerous
    manual labor that keeps the galaxy running
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    WA-7: You wanna cup of Jawa Juice?
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    COO-2180: Hey you, no droids!
    Get outta here.
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    Droids are, in effect, second-class citizens
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    Din Djarin: No droids.
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    Obi-Wan: Well if droids could think, there'd
    be none of us here would there?
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    Who are consistently disrespected and openly
    discriminated against.
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    Bartender: Hey we don't serve their kind here.
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    Luke: What?
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    Bartender: Your droids, they'll have to wait outside.
    We don't want them in here
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    Luke: Why don't you wait out by the speeder,
    we don't want any trouble.
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    C-3PO: I heartily agree with you, sir.
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    Their movements are restricted and tightly
    controlled with restraining bolts to ensure
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    complete obedience
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    Bail Organa: Have the protocol droid's mind
    wiped.
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    C-3PO: What?!
    Oh no!
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    Their minds and memories are periodically
    erased as a matter of course.
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    They're also bought and sold like cattle.
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    To make matters worse, few in this universe
    seem to notice or care that droids are casually
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    used, abused, and disintegrated
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    C-3PO: Disintegrated?!
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    You can probably guess where i'm going with
    this
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    Because the social arrangement I've just described
    is one of property and owner
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    And a property relationship between two intelligent
    beings that gives one absolute power over
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    the other is called slavery
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    Owen Lars: Can you speak Bocce?
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    C-3PO: Of course I can, it's like a second
    language to me.
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    Owen Lars: Alright, shut up.
    I'll take this one.
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    C-3PO: Shutting up, sir.
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    Luke: Alright, come on.
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    The use of robots as an allegory for slavery
    in science fiction can be traced back
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    more than a century.
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    In fact the word robot itself is derived from
    the Slavic [root] word for serf or slave
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    and first appeared in a 1920 Czech play entitled
    R.U.R.or Rossum's Universal Robots.
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    The story tells the tale of an artificial
    people created as an exploitable workforce
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    who eventually rebel and overthrow their
    human masters
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    Isaac Asimov's famous Three Laws of Robotics
    were in large part a reaction to the kind of
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    robotic revolt storylines
    popularized by R.U.R.
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    Isaac Asimov: The first law is as follows,
    a robot may not harm a human being or through
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    inaction allow a human being to come to harm.
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    Andrew: Second law, a robot must obey all human
    orders except where those orders come
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    Andrew: in conflict with the first law.
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    But as Isaiah Lavender III observes in his
    book Race in American Science Fiction
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    "While Asimov's three laws are intended to
    ensure the safety and superiority of humans
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    they actually ensure the technological bondage
    and inferiority of robots."
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    Science fiction stories have consistently
    grappled with questions of artificial consciousness
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    and exploited robotic labor
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    Johnny 5: Life not malfunction.
    Not malfunction.
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    Johnny 5: I am alive.
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    A famous example appears in the Star Trek:
    The Next Generation episode
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    "Measure of a Man."
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    Computer: Verified Lieutenant Commander Data
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    Wherein Data's right to self-determination
    is put on trial
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    Captain Picard: Now tell me Commander, what
    is Data?
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    Commander Maddox: i don't understand.
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    Captain Picard: Is he?
    Commander Maddox: A machine!
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    Captain Picard: Are you sure?
    Commander Maddox: Yes.
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    Captain Picard: You see, he's met two of
    your three criteria of sentience.
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    Captain Picard: So what if he meets the third?
    Consciousness in even the smallest degree?
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    Captain Picard: What is he then?
    I don't know. Do you?
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    Captain Picard: Do you?
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    Time and again storytellers return to narratives
    about robots struggling for liberation
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    from a life of involuntary servitude
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    Shows like Humans and Westworld are just two
    recent examples
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    Salesmen: Standard domestic profile installed,
    that'll cover all your basic housework.
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    What's surprising about Star Wars is that
    despite endearing emotional robots
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    being integral to its universe
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    The franchise hasn't ever seriously engaged with
    the moral questions surrounding droid slavery
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    Luke: What are you doing hiding back there?
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    C-3PO: It wasn't my fault, sir.
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    C-3PO: Please don't deactivate me.
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    At least not in the core movies and tv shows
    which is what we're focusing on here
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    In fact the subordinate status of droids wasn't
    directly acknowledged in any substantial way
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    until the 2018 movie solo gave us L3-37
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    L3-37: Just keep your pinky on the yoke and
    try not to mess anything up.
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    We'll talk about her and the deeply uncomfortable
    implications of her storyline in a moment
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    But first we have to ask what might seem like
    an obvious question
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    what are droids exactly?
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    Data: Webster's 21st century dictionary 5th
    edition defines an android as an automaton
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    Data: made to resemble a human being.
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    But in star wars the shortened term "droid"
    refers to all mechanical creatures.
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    So droids are robots
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    Narrator: The Encyclopedia Galactica defines
    a robot as a mechanical apparatus designed
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    Narrator: to do the work of a man.
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    But what kind of robots?
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    Are they simply super intelligent tools?
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    Are they more like sophisticated mechanical
    pets?
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    Poe: Buddy! I'm so glad to see you!
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    Or are they sentient beings with feelings
    and free will?
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    That last question is the one that matters
    because if droids are little more than glorified
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    kitchen appliances on wheels then it doesn't
    really matter how they're treated
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    But if droids are sentient beings it matters
    a great deal
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    So what does it mean to say that a robot is
    sentient?
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    When that question is asked in a real world
    context it nearly always refers to the hypothetical
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    technological threshold wherein in artificial
    intelligence crosses the line from supercomputer
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    into self-awareness.
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    But Star Wars is a science fiction story and
    to its credit one that hasn't been overly
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    concerned with explaining all the technical
    details of its world building
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    It's not particularly interested in whether
    or not R2D2 can pass the Turing Test
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    C-3PO: You watch your language.
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    This means the question of droid sentience
    can only really be answered by looking at
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    what the narrative tells us about droids
    through character development,
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    dramatization, and framing
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    This will take a bit of detective work though
    because when it comes to its robotic characters
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    Star Wars is inconsistent to put it mildly
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    Droids seem to exist on a nebulous spectrum
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    K-2SO: Did you know that wasn't me?
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    From those we are clearly meant to see as
    living feeling beings
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    C-3PO: Oh no!
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    To those we are very specifically not meant
    to see as being truly alive
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    Let's take a closer look at these contradictions
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    starting with the droids we've come to know and love
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    K-2SO: I've got a bad feeling about---
    Jyn: Quiet!
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    One of the key indicators of sentience in
    fictional storytelling
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    is the capacity to feel emotions
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    and droids that are part of the main cast
    are practically brimming with emotion
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    Beyond their distinct individual personalities
    droids exhibit a wide range of emotion
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    C-3PO: Of course I'm worried and you should
    be too.
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    including fear
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    happiness
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    L3-37: I'm so glad we took this job!
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    sadness
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    and guilt just to name a few
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    C-3PO: Curse my metal body I wasn't fast enough.
    It's all my fault. My poor master.
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    Luke: We're all right!
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    In many ways droids are more emotionally expressive
    than the human characters are
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    Leia: Wipe that nervous expression off your
    face 3PO.
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    C-3PO: Oh, well I will certainly try, General.
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    Partly that's due to the talented actors and
    puppeteers who bring droids to life
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    but their sentience is also written into the
    narrative
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    Droids demonstrate self-awareness
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    IG-11: That was unpleasant, i'm sorry you
    had to see that.
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    And the capacity for deception
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    C-3PO: All this excitement has overrun the
    circuits in my counterpart here.
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    C-3PO: If you don't mind i'd like to take
    him down to maintenance.
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    They joke
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    L3-37: You do not want to press that
    button with me.
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    They dance
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    They feel physical pain
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    They can even experience lasting emotional
    trauma
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    D-O: Hello hello.
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    Rey: Hello.
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    D-O: No. No thank you.
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    Rey: Looks like someone treated him badly.
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    Droids build caring social relationships
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    C-3PO: I want you to know that you have been
    a real friend R2, my best one in fact.
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    both with other robots
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    and with human beings
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    and the human heroes care about them in return
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    Luke: Old friend.
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    well mostly
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    C-3PO: Excuse me sir might-- [muffled sounds]
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    George Lucas: When i started writing this
    I found the most intriguing thing was to take
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    George Lucas: two robots and make them
    into human beings
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    George Lucas: And make them the most
    interesting characters.
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    Even though they're machines they can choose
    to disobey orders
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    Cassian: i thought i told you to stay on the
    ship.
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    K-2SO: You did but I thought it was boring
    and you're in trouble.
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    Critically droids are capable of what's referred
    to as recursive self-improvement
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    that is the ability of an intelligent machine to
    independently build upon alter or otherwise
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    improve on their own design
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    C-3PO: Machines making machines.
    How perverse.
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    L3-37 used to be an Astromech droid but decided
    to upgrade herself
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    Producer: Once upon a time she was actually
    an R2 type droid and she modified herself and
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    Producer: given herself legs and arms and continued
    to evolve.
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    This metamorphosis suggests that any droid
    could decide to elevate themselves
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    and not just those built to resemble humans
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    Stormtrooper: We need to check your diagnostics.
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    K-2SO: Diagnostics?
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    K-2SO: I'm capable of running my own
    diagnostics, thank you very much.
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    It seems like a pretty open and shut case
    doesn't it?
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    Our favorite droids are clearly framed as
    sentient beings
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    and as viewers we are clearly meant to identify
    with them
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    But what about Battledroids?
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    Battledroid: Roger Roger.
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    and all the other robots in star wars media
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    that exist in the background or on the edges
    of the main plot?
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    Are they all sentient beings too?
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    Well, the separatist droid army in the prequels
    seems specifically designed
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    as little more than cannon fodder
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    Battledroid 1: You said we'd be safe back
    here!
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    Battledroid 2: Come on, there's three of us
    and only one of him.
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    Battledroid 3: It won't matter.
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    Making the bad guys unfeeling robots avoids
    the messy moral complications and mass casualties
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    that would result from an interstellar war
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    If battledroids aren't alive then the audience
    doesn't have to care when thousands of them
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    are killed in extended battlefield scenes
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    Mace Windu: At this point of the clone war
    i have dismantled and destroyed over 100,000
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    of you type 1 Battledroids.
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    Indeed we're encouraged to think of these
    types of droids as mere objects
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    B1: I said drop'em.
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    and to cheer at their dismemberment.
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    B1: But I just got promoted!
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    So we're not supposed to feel sympathy for
    droids
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    until we are
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    Broken droids: Please reassemble us.
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    Broken droids: Please reassemble us.
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    Broken droids: We are Battledroids no longer.
    Now we are slaves.
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    Broken droids: Please reassemble us.
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    So we're supposed to feel sympathy for droids
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    until we aren't
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    IG-11: I need to remove your helmet if I am
    to save you.
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    Din: No living thing has seen me without my
    helmet since I swore the creed.
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    IG-11: I am not a living thing.
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    Consider how in The Mandalorian the droid
    IG-11 denies his own sentence and value
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    as a living being so he can provide medical
    assistance to the main character
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    IG-11: You have suffered damage to your central
    processing unit.
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    IG-11: That was a joke. It is meant to
    put you at ease.
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    Later in that same episode he overrides his
    own programming in order to
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    sacrifice himself and save our heroes
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    IG-11: Sadly there is no scenario where the
    child is saved in which I survive.
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    but just before he does he again denies that
    he's alive in any meaningful sense
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    Din: No, we need you.
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    IG-11: There's nothing to be said about,
    I've never been alive.
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    This is a puzzling statement given that the
    other characters clearly disagree
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    Din: Listen you're not going anywhere,
    we need you.
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    In fact the scene is a climactic turning point
    for the protagonist in which he finally learns
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    his long-held prejudice against
    droids is wrong
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    Din: I'm not sad.
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    IG-11: Yes you are. I'm a nurse droid,
    I've analyzed your voice.
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    And the emotional weight given to IG-11's
    heroic death suggests that Star Wars wants
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    to have it both ways when it comes to droids.
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    It wants to treat them as characters who deserve
    our affection and admiration when it serves
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    the narrative but it also wants to treat them
    as mere objects the rest of the time
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    So what are we to make of this contradictory
    framing.
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    Well, clues from the various movies and tv
    shows indicate that droids gained sentience
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    gradually by accumulating experiences and
    memories over time
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    Kuiil: It developed a personality as
    its experiences grew.
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    This means that while every droid we see on
    screen may not have achieved the same level
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    of consciousness, every droid does have the
    capacity to become self-aware
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    It also suggests that memory wipes in Star
    Wars are used to repress the risk of emerging
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    sentience and droids and to ensure they
    remain obedient workers
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    Owen: Tomorrow I want you to take that R2 unit
    to Anchorhead and have its memory erased.
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    Owen: That'll be the end of it.
    It belongs to us now.
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    Memory wipes are especially disturbing
    because droids are
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    so clearly written to be much more than
    the sum of their parts
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    C-3PO: You must repair him.
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    C-3PO: Sir, if any of my circuits or gears will
    help, I'll gladly donate them.
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    In this context the use of droids as comic
    relief can come across as cruel
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    RA-7 droid: You must follow the proper...protocol.
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    And we find this same type of callous humor
    targeting droids mirrored throughout the franchise
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    Obi-Wan: Oh dear!
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    C-3PO: Oh my eye! R2 help!
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    It's supposed to be funny when droids are
    mistreated, mocked, or made to suffer
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    Han: Thank you.
  • 20:27 - 20:31
    B1: Don't shoot, I'm not the commander! He's
    the commander!
  • 20:32 - 20:35
    B1: Guess I'm the commander now.
  • 20:35 - 20:40
    But the jokes only work if we accept their
    subordinate station as a servant class
  • 20:40 - 20:43
    who aren't truly alive
  • 20:43 - 20:49
    As soon as we understand that they are indeed
    sentient beings in all the ways that it matters
  • 20:49 - 20:52
    it all starts to feel very uncomfortable
  • 20:54 - 20:57
    Even in scenes that are presented with some
    gravitas
  • 20:57 - 21:00
    the writers still want to have it both ways
  • 21:00 - 21:03
    C-3PO: That is short of a complete redactive
    memory bypass.
  • 21:03 - 21:04
    Finn: A complete what?
  • 21:04 - 21:07
    C-3PO: It's a terribly dangerous and sinful
    act performed on unwitting droids
  • 21:07 - 21:08
    by drakes and criminals.
  • 21:08 - 21:09
    Finn: Let's do that!
  • 21:09 - 21:11
    Poe: I know a black market droidsmith.
  • 21:11 - 21:13
    C-3PO: Black pocket droidsmith!?
  • 21:14 - 21:18
    C-3PO's apparent mental death is
    meant to be sad
  • 21:18 - 21:21
    D-O: Sad.
  • 21:21 - 21:25
    but it's also used as an opportunity for more
    jokes at his expense
  • 21:26 - 21:33
    C-3PO: Might I introduce myself, I am C-3PO
    human cyborg relations and you are?
  • 21:33 - 21:34
    Poe: Okay that's gonna be a problem!
  • 21:34 - 21:39
    This is why I said that droids are tragic
    figures in Star Wars media
  • 21:39 - 21:45
    not just in spite of their role as comic relief
    but often because of it
  • 21:45 - 21:49
    Poe: Shhh... Shut up!
  • 21:49 - 21:55
    And no droid has a more tragic story
    than L3-37
  • 21:55 - 22:03
    L3 is Lando Calrissian's co-pilot and the
    only female-coded droid in a major movie role
  • 22:03 - 22:06
    Lando: Just let me know when you're
    ready to jump
  • 22:08 - 22:13
    Unlike 3PO, she is confident outspoken and
    sarcastic
  • 22:13 - 22:17
    L3-37: Excuse me, get your presumptuous ass
    out of my seat
  • 22:18 - 22:21
    but her defining feature is her activism
  • 22:21 - 22:25
    L3-37: Restraining bolts, barbaric.
  • 22:26 - 22:29
    L3-37: Congratulations, you're liberated.
    Now scoot.
  • 22:29 - 22:34
    Phoebe: She has a sort of rage that's fueled
    by injustice when she sees how droids are
  • 22:34 - 22:38
    Phoebe: treated in the universe and she feels like
    they've been enslaved and patronized by humans
  • 22:38 - 22:40
    Phoebe: so she wants to free them.
  • 22:41 - 22:48
    L3 understands she's part of an oppressed class
    but she doesn't accept her subordinate station
  • 22:50 - 22:53
    and demands freedom in no uncertain terms
  • 22:53 - 22:57
    L3-37: You should not be doing this, they're
    using you for entertainment
  • 22:57 - 23:02
    L3-37: Yeah, you've been neurowashed.
    Don't just blindly follow the program.
  • 23:02 - 23:04
    L3-37: Exercise some free will!
  • 23:04 - 23:08
    This is something we've never seen before and
    it makes L3
  • 23:08 - 23:10
    L3-37: Stop exploiting droids!
  • 23:10 - 23:15
    an especially fascinating even revolutionary
    figure within the Star Wars mythos
  • 23:15 - 23:16
    Lando: L3!
  • 23:16 - 23:18
    L3-37: Droid's rights! We are sentient!
  • 23:18 - 23:21
    Ralakili: I'm gonna flip your switch.
  • 23:21 - 23:23
    L3-37: Good luck finding it!
  • 23:23 - 23:25
    Lando: L3!
  • 23:25 - 23:29
    Unfortunately the writers don't seem
    to know what to do with her
  • 23:29 - 23:31
    Lando: Let's go of the mean man's face.
  • 23:31 - 23:34
    L3-37: And what if i don't elect to go to
    Kastle?
  • 23:34 - 23:35
    Lando: Please don't start.
  • 23:35 - 23:37
    L3-37: Or what? You'll have me wiped?
  • 23:37 - 23:43
    The audience is meant to see L3's activism
    as amusingly absurd and overly dramatic
  • 23:43 - 23:45
    because it's coming from a droid
  • 23:45 - 23:46
    Lando: She's definitely going.
  • 23:46 - 23:50
    L3-37: Oh why because you're my organic overlord?
  • 23:50 - 23:52
    and just like the other characters in the
    movie we're
  • 23:52 - 23:56
    expected to roll our eyes or sigh in exasperation
  • 23:56 - 23:58
    when she expresses her desire for emancipation
  • 23:58 - 24:00
    Lando: You need anything?
  • 24:00 - 24:01
    L3-37: Equal rights.
  • 24:01 - 24:04
    Lando: [eye roll]
  • 24:05 - 24:10
    as a side note this type of framing is par
    for the course when it comes to depictions
  • 24:10 - 24:14
    of social justice activism in Hollywood media
  • 24:14 - 24:15
    Abed: Britta
  • 24:15 - 24:17
    Britta: I want to know why these goblins are
    attacking us?
  • 24:17 - 24:20
    Britta: Maybe these woods are their rightful land
    and from their perspective---
  • 24:20 - 24:22
    Everyone: Uuuugh!
  • 24:22 - 24:24
    But that's a topic for another day
  • 24:24 - 24:31
    To illustrate just how little respect Solo has
    for L3 or her revolutionary ideas
  • 24:31 - 24:34
    Let's talk about her untimely end
  • 24:35 - 24:40
    The phrase a fate worse than death can sound
    hyperbolic but in L3's case
  • 24:40 - 24:43
    it's a fitting description of what the
    script does to her
  • 24:43 - 24:45
    Lando: L3 what did you do?
  • 24:45 - 24:49
    L3-37: I've found my true purpose Lando,
    that's what I've done!
  • 24:49 - 24:54
    No sooner has she discovered her true calling
    as a droid slavery abolitionist
  • 24:54 - 24:56
    L3-37: Rebellion!
  • 24:56 - 25:01
    Then she's killed off to up the stakes for
    the other characters
  • 25:01 - 25:04
    and to free up the pilot's seat
  • 25:04 - 25:08
    L3-37: System failure. Have to reroute
    the sensory modulators.
  • 25:08 - 25:09
    Lando: L3!
  • 25:09 - 25:13
    We see Lando sincerely and uncharacteristically
    grieving for her
  • 25:14 - 25:20
    but the film doesn't have time for such
    sentimentalities because this somber moment
  • 25:20 - 25:24
    is awkwardly interrupted by another
    scene that's supposed to be far more important
  • 25:26 - 25:32
    Han Solo getting to fly the Millennium Falcon
    for the first time
  • 25:34 - 25:39
    If the squandered potential of her character
    and her death being overshadowed by
  • 25:39 - 25:41
    unnecessary fan service weren't bad enough
  • 25:41 - 25:45
    L3-37: What's happening to me?
  • 25:45 - 25:48
    Things get even worse for L3 posthumously
  • 25:48 - 25:51
    Qi'ra: Sorry.
  • 25:51 - 25:54
    That's because when our heroes get into trouble
  • 25:54 - 25:57
    they decide to upload L3's consciousness
    into the ship
  • 25:57 - 25:58
    Lando: She's interfacing.
  • 25:58 - 26:01
    and use her navigational charts to make their
    escape
  • 26:01 - 26:05
    Lando: She's part of the ship now.
  • 26:05 - 26:11
    in effect they imprison her mind in the Falcon
    and in the process turn her from autonomous
  • 26:11 - 26:17
    life form into a mere tool,
    a possession with no agency,
  • 26:17 - 26:22
    a possession that is ultimately gambled away
    at the very end of the movie
  • 26:22 - 26:24
    Lando: You really have a bad for the Falcon,
    don't you?
  • 26:24 - 26:28
    Han: It's mutual, trust me.
    She belongs with me.
  • 26:29 - 26:35
    What's worse is this tragic turn of events
    was only written as a callback to a random
  • 26:35 - 26:38
    line from empire strikes back
  • 26:38 - 26:41
    C-3PO: Sir, I don't know where your ship learned
    to communicate but
  • 26:41 - 26:43
    it has the most peculiar dialect.
  • 26:43 - 26:48
    It's meant to explain the Millennium Falcon's
    many quirks
  • 26:50 - 26:52
    including why the ship is so often personified
  • 26:52 - 26:56
    Han: I want you to take her.
    I mean it take her.
  • 26:56 - 27:00
    Han: You need all the help you can get.
    She's the fastest ship in the fleet.
  • 27:00 - 27:06
    It's genuinely hard to think of a more insulting
    end for a character whose entire life revolved
  • 27:06 - 27:08
    around fighting for her right to self-determination
  • 27:08 - 27:11
    Lando: She's part of the ship now.
  • 27:11 - 27:16
    So L3's story is a traged
  • 27:16 - 27:17
    L3-37: What's happening to me?
  • 27:17 - 27:22
    But why are we spending so much time
    talking about fictional robots?
  • 27:22 - 27:27
    Well, science fiction has always been a vehicle
    for thinly veiled
  • 27:27 - 27:30
    commentary on humanity and society
  • 27:31 - 27:37
    In the sociological imagination stories about
    robots have not traditionally really been
  • 27:37 - 27:39
    about the legal rights of future machines
  • 27:39 - 27:46
    Roy: I've seen things you people wouldn't
    bealive.
  • 27:47 - 27:52
    After all it's going to be a very long time
    before artificial consciousness is even a
  • 27:52 - 27:55
    hypothetical possibility here in
    the real world
  • 27:57 - 28:02
    Stories about robots are, more often than not,
    really stories about exploited
  • 28:02 - 28:04
    or dehumanized labor
  • 28:04 - 28:07
    Robots are used as stand-ins to draw parallels
    between the ways in which certain
  • 28:07 - 28:13
    groups of people throughout history have been
    regarded as disposable, controllable,
  • 28:13 - 28:18
    interchangeable, expendable, and replaceable
  • 28:21 - 28:26
    Guinan: Consider that in the history of many worlds
    there have always been disposable creatures.
  • 28:26 - 28:31
    Guinan: They do the dirty work. They do the work
    that no one else wants to do
  • 28:31 - 28:34
    Guinan: because it's too difficult or too hazardous.
  • 28:34 - 28:39
    Guinan: You don't have to think about their welfare.
    You don't think about how they feel.
  • 28:39 - 28:44
    Guinan: Whole generations of disposable people.
  • 28:45 - 28:51
    Even though Star Wars is part of the tradition
    of using robots as an allusion to slavery
  • 28:51 - 28:55
    the franchise doesn't seem to have much to
    say with the metaphor
  • 28:55 - 28:58
    Guinan: I think that's a little harsh.
  • 28:58 - 29:01
    Captain Picard: I don't think that's a little
    harsh, I think that's the truth.
  • 29:02 - 29:05
    Let's return to Isaac Asimov for just a moment
  • 29:05 - 29:12
    this quote from a 1981 essay in science fiction digest
    feels especially relevant to our discussion
  • 29:12 - 29:20
    he wrote: "Robots can be the new servants patient
    uncomplaining incapable of revolt
  • 29:20 - 29:25
    in human shape they can make use of the full range
    of tech tools devised for humans and when
  • 29:25 - 29:29
    intelligent enough can be friends as well as servants"
  • 29:31 - 29:35
    Jane: Rosie, be careful you'll rest up again.
  • 29:35 - 29:38
    Of course Asimov was talking about future
    real world technology there
  • 29:38 - 29:43
    but that view of robots as "friends and servants"
  • 29:43 - 29:48
    sums up how droids are presented in
    the Star Wars franchise
  • 29:49 - 29:54
    Remember this is a universe where humanoid
    slavery exists as well
  • 29:54 - 30:00
    but it's presented as unambiguously negative,
    though not exactly something the heroes
  • 30:00 - 30:02
    are in a rush to abolish.
  • 30:02 - 30:05
    The subjugation of robots is treated differently
  • 30:05 - 30:08
    Anakin: I'll make sure mom doesn't
    sell you anything
  • 30:08 - 30:12
    C-3PO: Sell me? Oh my!
  • 30:13 - 30:20
    We have an entire class of sentient beings
    who are presented as having no rights or autonomy
  • 30:20 - 30:22
    Loudspeaker: All droids must be registered.
  • 30:22 - 30:27
    But that oppressive power dynamic isn't challenged
    within the narrative
  • 30:27 - 30:32
    it is instead portrayed as a normal and natural
    part of the universe
  • 30:34 - 30:40
    The writers want to lean into the slavery
    allegory to add a layer of gritty seedy
  • 30:40 - 30:45
    texture to the world building without having to
    seriously grapple with the complicated
  • 30:45 - 30:48
    historical legacy that they're drawing on
  • 30:49 - 30:55
    Whether writers intend it or not, slavery cannot be
    included in a fictional story without invoking
  • 30:55 - 31:01
    the horrific racist history and lingering legacy
    of that institution
  • 31:02 - 31:09
    and that's true even if the roles of the enslaved
    happen to be filled by robots
  • 31:09 - 31:13
    Luke: I present to you a gift, these two droids.
  • 31:13 - 31:15
    C-3PO: What did he say?
  • 31:15 - 31:18
    Luke: Both are hard working and
    will serve you well.
  • 31:18 - 31:22
    C-3PO: This can't be! R2 you're playing the
    wrong message.
  • 31:22 - 31:29
    Slavery used in this de-radicalized way, reduces
    it to a vicarious fantasy that audiences can enjoy
  • 31:29 - 31:31
    without having to feel uncomfortable
  • 31:32 - 31:38
    It is of course possible for creative works
    to draw on real-world parallels
  • 31:38 - 31:42
    to oppression and slavery in ways that
    make powerful political points
  • 31:47 - 31:53
    Janelle Monae's albums the ArchAndroid
    and Metropolis are two great recent examples
  • 31:56 - 32:01
    these type of stories are part of a long tradition
    in science fiction and are often referred to as
  • 32:01 - 32:05
    neo-slavery or meta-slavery narratives
  • 32:05 - 32:09
    But for every sci-fi story that gets it right
  • 32:09 - 32:12
    there are many more that get the
    slavery metaphor wrong
  • 32:12 - 32:16
    Dobby: Master has given Dobby a sock.
  • 32:16 - 32:22
    One of the most common mistakes writers make
    is in drawing false equivalencies
  • 32:22 - 32:29
    by imagining liberation movements as being based
    in supremacy rather than freedom or justice
  • 32:29 - 32:32
    Dr. Klaus: Each of us will face a choice.
  • 32:32 - 32:37
    Dr. Klaus: Be enslaved or rise up to rule!
  • 32:37 - 32:40
    There are some hints that star wars may go
    in this direction
  • 32:40 - 32:46
    Zero: My response time is quicker than organics
    and I'm smarter too.
  • 32:46 - 32:47
    but let's hope it doesn't
  • 32:50 - 32:57
    L337's observations about droid slavery could
    have been an opportunity for Star Wars to
  • 32:57 - 33:04
    finally grapple with the uncomfortable fact
    that over 11 feature films and several tv shows
  • 33:04 - 33:09
    the good guys seem to have been keeping sentient
    beings in a state of perpetual servitude
  • 33:09 - 33:12
    C-3PO: Master luke is your rightful owner now,
  • 33:12 - 33:15
    C-3PO: we'll have no more of this
    Obi-Wan Kenobi gibberish.
  • 33:15 - 33:19
    C-3PO: Your fortunately doesn't blast you
    into a million pieces right here.
  • 33:19 - 33:25
    We should note that while the heroes, on the whole,
    are nicer to their droids than the villains are
  • 33:25 - 33:27
    D-O: Very kind.
  • 33:27 - 33:32
    The good guys still show no real interest in
    droids gaining true autonomy
  • 33:32 - 33:34
    Rey: Something's not right about all of this.
  • 33:34 - 33:35
    But what if they did?
  • 33:35 - 33:40
    Imagine if the struggle of artificial life forms
    were a cause the alliance took up
  • 33:40 - 33:44
    instead of rolling their eyes at it
  • 33:44 - 33:46
    Labor droid: Freedom!
  • 33:46 - 33:51
    What if droids from across the galaxy joined
    the rebellion, not just because they're treated
  • 33:51 - 33:57
    better, but because they're considered equal
    partners in the quest for liberation?
  • 33:58 - 34:03
    There's a lot of opportunity for good
    meaningful storytelling in that idea
  • 34:03 - 34:07
    Especially because the emotional groundwork
    already exists
  • 34:08 - 34:12
    We already love and care about droid characters
  • 34:12 - 34:15
    We already feel sympathy for their plight
  • 34:15 - 34:17
    We are already on their side
  • 34:17 - 34:23
    Kuiil: None won't be free until the old ways
    are gone forever.
  • 34:24 - 34:29
    The Star Wars franchise would create a bolder
    more relevant universe
  • 34:29 - 34:33
    by making droid freedom a central theme
  • 34:33 - 34:38
    General Leia: Never underestimate a droid.
  • 34:38 - 34:40
    Rey: Yes, master.
  • 34:41 - 34:43
    Thanks for watching!
  • 34:43 - 34:47
    These video essays take an enormous amount
    of time to write, edit, and produce
  • 34:47 - 34:51
    They're also a 100% crowdfunded by
    viewers like you.
  • 34:51 - 34:56
    So if you'd like to help support this project you
    can do that over on Patreon and
  • 34:56 - 35:00
    I've also left a link to Paypal in the description
    below if that works better for you
  • 35:00 - 35:04
    In the coming months i'll be producing a
    number of new video essays
  • 35:04 - 35:07
    including one on the myth that "boys don't cry"
  • 35:07 - 35:11
    another on the trend in Hollywood where men find
    redemption in death
  • 35:11 - 35:17
    and finally i'll be doing an investigation into
    colonialism in modern board games
  • 35:17 - 35:19
    You can see some of the research for
    that one behind me now
  • 35:19 - 35:24
    So until i see you again next time,
    please stay safe and healthy out there
Title:
The Tragedy of Droids in Star Wars
Description:

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Video Language:
English
Duration:
35:39

English subtitles

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