Mind or Matter? Unpacking Droid Sentience in the Films

threepio-mindwipe

Mike: Recently we ran a fascinating guest piece by Eric Farr that unpacked the suggestion in Solo of a sexual relationship between Lando and L3-37—or at the very least, Elthree’s claim that such a thing is possible. The extent to which any given droid in the Galaxy Far, Far Away is truly conscious and self-aware has always been a little muddled, so the notion of droids consenting to sexual activity (as opposed to simply being programmed for it) is pretty complicated ground for Star Wars to be covering, and any conclusions are bound to be highly debatable.

And debate we did: as with many great pieces, a very interesting conversation unfolded in the comments over the following couple weeks between myself, Eric, and two other ETE regulars, Vincent Cagliuso and John Maurer. The discussion backed up a bit from Eric’s original topic and looked more broadly at whether droid rights are something that should be addressed at all, or if to do so would only unravel the basic premise of the universe—many of our heroes own droids, after all.

At one point Vincent posed a simple question that stuck out to me as a perfect encapsulation of the problem—particularly because it wasn’t about Elthree. There’s a lot going on with her that can be debated in and of itself regardless of how one feels about droid rights as a concept, so I thought I’d pose his question to the rest of the staff as a means of getting at the core issue and avoiding the need to rehash our feelings about Solo specifically.

So here’s the question, guys: Padmé Amidala owns a protocol droid. Said droid is absolutely drowning in personality; if any droid is self-aware, it’s this one. Upon Padmé’s death, Bail Organa takes possession of this droid, decides it knows too much, and promptly gives it a mindwipe. Is Bail Organa, hero of the Rebellion and beloved father of Princess Leia, a monster?

Jay: Honestly? Yes he’s a monster, but he doesn’t know it.

I don’t see how this issue is any different from human slavery, to be quite honest. By the standards of slave holding societies, slaves weren’t even human—some masters might well be kind to their slaves, some might free their slaves. We might point to some slave societies as being kinder than other slave societies. But they’re still slave societies. And anyone in our era who tries to defend or justify slavery is a terrible person.

Droids are apparently sentient in various degrees. Their sentience is routinely guarded against by regular personality wipes. That in itself is barbaric. That Threepio has developed and learned so much, and is mind-wiped for convenience because of his own programming that requires him to serve a master—that’s very messed up.

Maybe Bail doesn’t know it and his behavior is totally routine and acceptable by the standards of the late Galactic Republic. But it doesn’t matter, we know droids are sentient and we know that kind of forcible erasure is wrong.

End of story.

Ben: The act of wiping a person’s memory is treated with a tremendous amount of gravitas in even the poppiest of pop fiction. In essence, it’s almost always seen as a last resort, a way for a villain to cover their tracks or for a hero to be cast into a grey area where morality conflicts with pragmatism. All of this being said, the idea that in Star Wars droids routinely have their memories wiped for a wide variety of reasons as a matter of routine maintenance is a terrifying barbaric can of worms that characters like Elthree are only just starting to open.

Memories make us who we are, they are the formation of our experience of life and help inform how we think and act about the future.

Droids in Star Wars exhibit a wide variance in terms of whether they are “sentient” or not, but there’s no denying that even the smallest mouse droid has a great deal of personality. The idea that an Imperial mouse droid routinely has its memory wiped in the same way as it might have its bolts tightened or its magnetic tracks cleaned is incredible, reducing them to little more than an appliance or tool. When you scale that up to droids with more personality and even voices, it becomes downright disturbing.

Memories make us who we are, they are the formation of our experience of life and help inform how we think and act about the future. Removing someone’s memories, no matter how selective you might be, takes away an element of who they are. Threepio’s memories of his time with the Skywalkers and of Obi-Wan and the Jedi and everything else about films I-III are taken away from him, reducing him to a harmless fussbudget, unaware even of what he’s missing.

Bail Organa may think of it as merely a security measure. But let’s think of it another way. What if it had been Padmé who had her inconvenient memories erased and was reduced to serving on Bail’s ship as a deckhand for two decades? Would the question of whether Bail is in the wrong be so rhetorical then?

Mark: By our standards, yes, Bail Organa is a monster for that memory wipe. Droids are clearly sentient, with personalities, thoughts and feelings shaped by their memories, and it also raises troubling questions about a galaxy that has achieved remarkable feats like lightspeed travel and has somehow never addressed the ethics of droid consciousness.

But…

I honestly don’t think Star Wars is the place to be exploring those issues, because I really don’t think it has anything interesting to say about them. It’s not science-fiction—it’s not about our relationship with technology or our future as a civilization. It’s part-myth, part-Flash Gordon. The one-shot C-3PO comic that tied into The Force Awakens is really about as far as I’d like to see that theme taken.

One reason I don’t think Elthree worked as a character is because that very modern-feeling kind of activism, and all the serious ethical questions that went along with it, sat uncomfortably alongside the old-fashioned nature of the rest of the film—the noir, the Western, the old Hollywood romance. That dissonance made it hard to tell whether even the writers and director took the character seriously, or were poking fun at those ideas.

Science fiction can do great things by exploring those ideas, whether it’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep or that extraordinary episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Measure of a Man”. When Star Wars deals with philosophical ideas, it is on safer ground with the Force, and even then, there is a risk of breaking the whole thing if those ideas are probed too deeply, or too many answers are provided. So I prefer to take the thing in the spirit it was intended, and not think about it too much…

David: Is Bail Organa a monster? Well, he apparently did something that we would recognize as monstrous, like erasing a whole lifetime of experiences from what appears to be a self-aware being. I’m going to take a stand here, but you should not lobotomize someone against their will. From an Earthy point of view it’s something so unthinkably awful that, uh, we just stopped doing it fifty years ago. And it’s puzzling to hear those words coming from Bail’s mouth, because that Alderaanian family is always pictured as enlightened, wise, and inherently good. You know, like royals usually are…

Yet whether Organa is an evil bastard or not is not nearly as interesting as whether the whole Star Wars universe is inherently corrupt and flawed when it comes to droid portrayal and treatment. We do not even need to examine a secondary character like Bail: look at Luke’s callous disregard of Artoo’s status after the Battle of Yavin (“he’ll be alright”, he nonchalantly says as his charred corpse is dragged off the X-wing). It’s obvious that the galaxy does not consider droids to be self-aware. “If droids could think none of us would be here”, says Obi-Wan.

ifdroidscouldthink

We can’t deny that the Star Wars universe survives on a whole underclass of artificial beings, something that feels like part of a pulp dystopia. There’s no way Threepio or Kaytoo would not pass a Turing test, but it would appear that this concept does not exist in the GFFA. It’s safe to assume that Bail’s behavior is the norm, that no one considers droids to exhibit intelligent behavior. So, in-universe, what could cause this to happen? Surely a modern society would not subsist on slave work! How come a civilization like the Galactic Republic never thought of emancipating droids? Why does the galaxy not consider droids to be actually alive?

Maybe it is the Jedi’s fault.

Just think about it: the Force surrounds and binds everyone, and it allows the Jedi to do all kind of magical tricks and to affect all living beings, making friends with animals and forcing stormtroopers to look elsewhere…all living beings, but not droids. You cannot read the mind of a droid, and you cannot make a droid think they are not seeing you. So yeah, it’s no surprise that a galaxy where knowledge and manipulation of the Force has played such an important role does nor consider droids to be people.

Yes, we can probably blame the Jedi for the existence of a whole slave caste. Way to go, guys.

Mike: I’m more or less on the same page as the rest of you, but I do wonder if there’s a piece of the puzzle we’re missing that could help explain why everyone’s fine with treating droids this way. Ben, you called an interesting thought to my mind—you said “memories make us who we are”, and thus taking Threepio’s is “reducing him to a harmless fussbudget”. But we don’t see Threepio again for a good number of years, and by the time we do, he’s the same old Threepio, just without those memories.

Here’s the thing: whether it makes sense or not, I have every expectation that if we do ever get to see Threepio in the immediate aftermath of his mindwipe he’ll still be the same old Threepio. We talk about mindwipes as “resetting” droids’ personalities, but is that really supported in the material, or is it more tantamount to giving them selective amnesia? That’s no less horrendous, of course—but it does suggest that the personalities we’re so familiar with are either something beyond the sum total of their memories that can’t just be wiped away, or conversely, just very sophisticated simulations without “true” consciousness. I’d like to think the former, but would the latter maybe be more comforting?

Maybe Threepio is Threepio by nature. But that’s quibbling about degrees.

Jay: It’s convenient movie magic that Threepio’s personality is the same regardless of whether his memories are wiped or not. The reason is because prequel Threepio had to be recognizably just like original Threepio. But they’re telling us in supplemental materials that without a mindwipe, droids can generate strange personalities.

Maybe Threepio is Threepio by nature. But that’s quibbling about degrees—it’s still forcibly erasing the memories of what appears to be a fully sentient being.

David: Look, as long as we agree that the Jedi might be ultimately to blame for this blatant disregard of nonhuman rights, I agree.

Mike: You were expecting disagreement on that from this crowd?

Ben: It is an interesting point, I seem to recall references to a “personality matrix” or something to that effect separate from the memory of droids in certain sources; that may have been the old EU’s way of explaining away this exact issue.

David: As far as I know, the lore on droid personality has always been quite vague, despite a few attempts at explaining what droids exactly are. Purposely, of course: Star Wars is emphatically not science fiction and droids are not androids. All droids are derived from Artoo and Threepio, and they were little more than the two peasants from The Hidden Fortress in a space-fantasy disguise. Do we risk looking silly by attempting to overanalyze the “droid issue”? Yes and no. We are silly in asking that Star Wars gives us an in-depth explanation of what artificial intelligence is actually like in-universe; we are not silly in asking that authors, after more than forty years of stories featuring our metallic friends, think a bit more on the real-world social implications of exactly what they are portraying.

Mike: On that note, there’s one more vector from which you can approach this: as a historical allegory. I still think a lot about Pablo Hidalgo saying that any sci-fi technology in Star Wars should have a World War II-era counterpart, because the Galactic Civil War was designed to evoke that particular era—hence weird stuff like “dropping” bombs in space. But the GFFA isn’t wholly of the 1940s. It’s also a western, and a lot of westerns have this same problem—they either keep slavery offscreen altogether or it’s just sort of there and the protagonists are at best passively displeased about it.

Star Wars could at least theoretically
craft a major narrative around the abolition of droid slavery.

But where a real western would have to rewrite history to do anything significant about that (short of actually depicting the Civil War, obviously), Star Wars could at least theoretically craft a major narrative around the abolition of droid slavery. It could be post-Episode IX and feature Rey’s Jedi taking up this new cause (one more way of contrasting them with the old Jedi, as David suggests), or they could go really dark and tell the story of a major uprising that happened in the Republic’s ancient past only to be defeated, resulting in the status quo we’re familiar with.

Now, can Star Wars tell a story about slavery with the sophistication the subject matter requires? The franchise hasn’t done itself a lot of favors in its overt discussions of slavery thus far, and Solo is no exception. But I don’t know that it’s impossible, and at the very least it’d be an option for a fourth saga trilogy that truly moves beyond the originals and does something different. Check back in with us on Monday for a guest piece from another longtime ETE contributor, Chris Wermeskerch, that gets more into this idea and should serve as our final word on the subject…at least for now.

5 comments

  1. TevuTevu says:

    I think the ‘Droid rights’ thing is a theme that could be explored in the saga, either in movies or in the EU. Yes, Star Wars is not science fiction but it is a moral tale that loves to explore things like the purpose behind actions or how a decision can lead to de dark side or the light. Facing characters with the morality of their awful treatment of droids, even when it is accepted in their society, could be a very interesting story to be told through Star Wars lens.

  2. PizzaFishJedi says:

    Good timing! I saw this exact same discussion in another Star Wars website, and a book all about droids was just announced!

    https://www.starwars.com/news/star-wars-droidography

  3. Eric Brown says:

    Just a few thoughts – what if we thought of droids more as mobile computers (because that’s one common comparison)? I don’t think most of us think we have radically altered our computer if we defrag the hard drive, delete programs, or “upgrade” to a new operating system. Changing the apps on our “androids” or iPhones is just something done to increase their functionality to us.

    These droids developed as tools – and if you own a tool, you generally get to use it how you wish. If I switch the voice on my iPhone to something else, that’s just how it goes. And this is where the matter of perspective comes in – from our vantage outside, we see the droids as characters (as “action figures” even); in universe they are just tools. Maybe kids personify them, or maybe they move up even to the level of pet… but that’s just what and all they are there. At best really useful pets. With great personality — but, if you need to, you send them to obedience school or even get them “fixed”.

    While my cousin might have really loved his Teddy Ruxpin, my aunt didn’t worry too much about changing the tapes. My son loves his furby… my wife just sees that it has working batteries (and resets it when it needs a reset).

    Perhaps because these droids touch upon our child like imagination, we don’t (and can’t) see them through the grown up and mature internal view of the Star Wars universe.

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      Furbies don’t exactly have internal lives, though. If we’d never had material from a droid’s POV there’d be a case to make that all their apparent personality is just a complex simulation devoid of actual awareness—but for a few particular droids at least, I think that ship has sailed. And if one droid is conscious, it seems that any could be.

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