Star Lords

by James Douglas


Several weeks ago, when the Walt Disney Company released the first full trailer for The Force Awakens, the advertisement received a hundred and twenty-eight million global views within the first twenty-four hours. That’s not quite record breaking, but it’s a strong indication of the grip that the almost forty-year-old Star Wars franchise still exerts on contemporary audiences. Of those millions of viewers, one was Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who, in the trailer’s comment thread on the official Star Wars Facebook page, wrote, “This looks amazing. I love Star Wars.” (Over eleven thousand people liked his comment.) Two minutes later, whichever Disney social media employee was staffing the page at that time replied: “We know.”

This convergence of Zuckerberg and Star Wars was inevitable, since the franchise seems to exert a special influence on Silicon Valley tech titans, and the culture they propagate. In theNew Yorker’s profile of Facebook board member and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, one of the few childhood details that writer Tad Friend is able to extract from his subject is the image of the young Andreessen swaddled in a puffy coat watching Star Wars in an unheated local theatre that doubled as a fertilizer depot. George Packer’s New Yorker profile of Peter Thiel (an early Facebook investor) reveals that the venture capitalist’s favorite film was Star Wars, that the current headquarters of his hedge fund Clarium Capital Management reside on the grounds of the San Francisco headquarters of Lucasfilm, and that “its first floor is decorated with statuary of Darth Vader and Yoda.”

Star Wars’ unique grip on the Silicon Valley tech industry can be seen most clearly in that industry’s adoption of narrative principles popularised by George Lucas as the framework by which its economic pursuits are conceptualised. In planning the narratives of the original Star Wars trilogy in the late seventies and early eighties, Lucas was influenced by the theories of comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, who, in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, drew on studies in world mythology (as well as the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Jung) to posit an archetypal mythic structure that springs from a universal psychological source and so inheres in stories across the globe.

The correspondence between Campbell’s “monomyth” and the plot details of the original Star Wars trilogy are now well known: “A hero [Luke Skywalker] ventures forth from the world of common day [humdrum desert planet Tatooine] into a region of supernatural wonder [a galaxy far, far away]: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power [the Force] to bestow boons on his fellow man.” The “boon,” in Campbell’s analysis, typically involves some sort of radical renewal in the social order. This “Hero’s Journey” narrative, post Star Wars, is, increasingly, the means by which tech titan biographies are received and structured.

The high water mark of this tendency is the sanctification of Steve Jobs in the wake of his death in 2011, when the Apple CEO was memorialized in grandly heroic terms by no less than George Lucas himself, who explicitly reconstituted the details of Jobs’ biography into the monomyth in a sidebar in a Wired magazine remembrance of Jobs’ life, “The Hero’s Journey.” The crucial stages are the expulsion from Apple in the eighties, and the subsequent failure of the NeXT computer (“a sort of purgatory”), before Jobs’ triumphant return: “That’s when his story really became the hero’s journey,” Lucas wrote. Ed Catmull, current president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios (and former employee of both Jobs and Lucas) has a similar view of Jobs’ life, in which his exile from Apple also constitutes a trial in “the wilderness.”

This heroic-CEO narrative is not simply a descriptive move — a fantasy told by and to capitalists in order to bolster their self-image or reputation — it’s also a prescriptive formula: something expected of new generations of tech aspirants. In his Andreessen profile, Tad Friend expends considerable effort outlining a16z’s vision of the heroic expectations (and biographical load) an entrepreneur must shoulder in order to be eligible for funding:

A great V.C. keeps his ears pricked for a disturbing story with the elements of a fairy tale. This tale begins in another age (which happens to be the future), and features a lowborn hero who knows a secret from his hardscrabble experience. The hero encounters royalty (the V.C.s) who test him, and he harnesses magic (technology) to prevail. The tale ends in heaping treasure chests for all, borne home on the unicorn’s back.

The Jobsian return-from-exile move is now a recurring feature in industry news, with Steve Huffman resuming leadership at Reddit, Mark Pincus returning to Zynga, and Jack Dorsey riding in from the wilderness to rein in Twitter. No one is louder in proclaiming the heroic identity of tech founders and entrepreneurs than Lucasfilm neighbour Peter Thiel, who, in a quite bizarre 2012 lecture at Stanford University, mounted an extended comparison between founder-types (who are apparently gifted with “extreme” qualities and biographical trajectories) and divine sacrificial figures out of mythology. Dorsey, in Thiel’s analysis, seems to have been long destined for greatness, thanks to his “nose ring,” “unkempt hair,” and “nerdy tattoo.”

As might be expected, Thiel’s own ambitions as a venture capitalist have a decidedly heroic bent. In a 2009 essay for the libertarian publication Cato Unbound, he claimed that purveyors of technology have a mythic responsibility to guard against political encroachments on freedom (constituted largely as the free market). “The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism,” he wrote, in an unmistakably Campbellian narrative sketch. His investment projects have included a now-defunct “seasteading” enterprise, which planned to develop a manmade island nation where inventors and entrepreneurs could pursue their god-like whims without the handicap of government regulation. Other Valley figures, like former Andreessen Horowitz partner Balaji Srinivasan, have likewise advocated for an “exit” from centralised governance into tech-run territory.

When pondering the inspirations and intellectual sources of this particular strain of techno-libertarianism, it’s helpful to remember that Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy is ultimately about a bunch of scrappy individualists who fight against heavy-handed, centralized governance. The history of the tech industry can, in a way, be traced by its inspiration taken from — and the adoption of — the idealist nostrums of traditional science fiction, like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and extended lifespans. The Verge recently published a feature by Awl pal Elmo Keep on transhumanism — of which Thiel, naturally, is an associate — that pays particular attention to the genealogy of the movement’s precepts from ancient mythology through early twentieth-century science fiction. Keep’s piece focuses on Zoltan Istvan, a forty-two-year-old San Franciscan mounting a campaign for President on a transhumanist platform. If the allure of science fiction (or simply mythological) narratives can exert this kind of inspirational influence on modern technological development, then it seems inevitable that its political dimensions would be carried along with it.

The notion that Star Wars is an intellectual and emotional lodestar to Valley types might simply be an airy claim, but Star Wars’ parent company Lucasfilm Ltd is, in many notable respects, a Bay Area tech enterprise in itself, rooted deep within Valley industry and culture. Although it was founded in San Rafael as a simple film production entity in 1971 — shortly after the release of Lucas’ first film THX 1138 — the business expanded into hardware and software research and development, and eventually came to produce and market innovative film production technologies, including an early non-linear editing system (called EditDroid, and later sold to Avid), as well as pioneering video games, like the proto-virtual reality online role-playing game Habitat. In Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution, Michael Rubin, a former employee of Lucasfilm subsidiary The Droid Works, claims that Lucas “holds a central role in the invention and dissemination of digital media.” Much of that influence is thanks to his Computer Division, an ambitious research outfit that included the graphic imaging team that was bought by Steve Jobs and became Pixar. Rubin writes, “Before he assembled the team that would become the Lucasfilm Computer Division, there had been only disparate research about computers in their application to entertainment.”

Today, Lucasfilm’s most prominent properties are the Skywalker Ranch, in the North Bay Area’s Marin County, and the Letterman Digital and New Media Arts Centre, in the Presidio, San Francisco (where Thiel’s offices are also located). Its employees occasionally trade in their roles for positions within more traditional Bay Area businesses: Steve Arnold, a former general manager of LucasArts and developer of Habitat, went on to co-found the venture capital firm Polaris Partners (which also has offices in the Presidio). In April, three former Lucasfilm workers, including a one-time CTO, were hired to run a content development wing of the virtual reality company Jaunt Studios. Lucasfilm’s personal and geographic enmeshment with the Bay Area tech industry at a local level undoubtedly gives a boost to that industry’s wholesale adoption of the Campbellian lessons of Star Wars. If the quintessential tech figure, like Peter Thiel and his ilk, grew up dreaming of beingLuke Skywalker, then Silicon Valley offers an arena in which to ratify this ambition, one uniquely charged by the presence of the company that popularised and prospered from this fantasy.

But Lucasfilm’s effects on narrative conceptualisation are not limited to the Valley. In the wake of its box office success, the original Star Wars came to be seen as a perspicuous example of the commercial potential of Campbell’s theories, thanks in part to screenwriting gurus like Disney story consultant Christopher Vogler, who, in the mid-eighties, circulated a seven-page memo titled “A Practical Guide to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” which summarized key stages in Campbell’s monomyth structure by reference to narrative incidents from Star Wars. Vogler’s bosses at Disney — and in his own account, executives across Hollywood — were especially receptive. (In a 2013 essay for Slate, film critic Peter Sudermanasked whether Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat — a screenwriting guide that breaks down a Campbellian three-act structure into a programmatic list of fifteen story beats — might be promoting a formula that is “killing movies,” outlining the structural repetition among recent blockbusters like Battleship, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Pixar’s Monsters University.) Pixar, after breaking from Lucasfilm and venturing into film production by partnering with Disney, established a firm commercial record with a narrative method clearly indebted to Campbellian strictures, while its key creative personnel, including Ed Catmull, and filmmaker John Lasseter have ascended to high positions within Disney Animation Studios (where John Lasseter is chief creative officer). With its 2012 sale, for a hair over $4 billion, Lucasfilm joined its former research division employees under the Walt Disney Company roof, along with Marvel Entertainment. This corporate consolidation of several major heroic entertainment properties (and the industrial mimicry their successes engender) cannot be reassuring to any person who believes, as Joseph Campbell did, that mythic narratives have a social function, and social effects.

Campbell’s Faces, first published in 1949, concludes with the observation that the technological advances of modernity have been accompanied by a corresponding personal alienation not present in pre-technological civilisations, meaning that modern mythology must now fulfill a different social need.“The hero deed to be wrought is not today what it was in the century of Galileo,” he writes:

Where then there was darkness, now there is light; but also, where light was, there now is darkness. The modern hero-deed must be that of questing to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the coordinated soul. Obviously, this work cannot be wrought by turning back, or away, from what has been accomplished by the modern revolution; for the problem is nothing if not that of rendering the modern world spiritually significant — or rather, nothing if not that of making it possible for men and women to come to full human maturity through the conditions of contemporary life.

It’s tempting to wonder what Campbell would make of the mytho-techno-libertarianism currently suffusing the atmosphere around Silicon Valley, given that “the conditions of contemporary life” seems to be just what its proponents would very much like to disrupt — and “turning back,” on a political and social level, is what some Valley thinkers like to do best. Elon Musk, a co-founder of PayPal with Thiel (and, apparently, an inspiration for Marvel Studio’s filmic conceptualisation of their superhero Iron Man/Tony Stark, to whom he is routinely compared), is known for advocating a colonisation of Mars, while blithely suggesting that the cost in human life will be comparable to the colonisation of the New World. Thiel’s views have been linked with the so-called neo-reactionists, some of whom diagnose the cause of American and western political problems as “chronic kinglessness.” Consistent with the oppositional affect of this “Dark Enlightenment” movement, its followers sometimes label valued thinkers “Sith Lords.” The movement’s image seems to vacillate between Empire and Rebellion, which might suggest something about the political confusion the emotional allure of Star Wars has wrought.

A social program, of sorts, seems to be incrementally emerging out of Silicon Valley, one that looks back to a medieval past when heroes could arise to roam the earth, and miracles were still possible (but never regulated). Thiel, for one, believes that startups are basically monarchies already. It’s not difficult to extrapolate from this view a clue as to why companies like Uber place an inordinate emphasis on the individual laborer (or “entrepreneur”) over collective organization — that the sharing economy model reifies a kind of modern serfdom is, by this line of thought, natural and right. After all, what is a king without a peasant? Or, what use is a hero if there’s no one who needs to be saved?

The ambitious venture capitalist — raised on a diet of Luke Skywalker, Buzz, Woody, and Iron Man — can’t make do with the ersatz-Tatooine of Burning Man as their yearly taste of freedom. A broader social canvas is waiting, and though the era of the feudal kingdom may seem a long time ago, and far, far away, modern capital has long been adept in its collapsing of time and distance. Rodger Hodge’s recent feature on online shoe store Zappos in the New Republic suggests there’s already plenty of reason to believe that contemporary digital companies are reorganizing themselves into insular communities, with founder-CEOs taking lordly positions at their head.

A recent Wired article on the revitalization of Star Wars heralded by the release of The Force Awakens noted that Disney’s plans for the franchise include a new film “every year for as long as people will buy tickets.” The title of the piece was “You Won’t Live To See the Final Star Wars Movie,” but your children’s children might, if the preferences of their generation’s god-king CEOs are anything like ours. Aspiring heroes, clutching their science fiction fantasies to their hearts, are proliferating out of the tech industry, each with a boon to offer. In their hands, a social renewal is just as likely to be a regression.