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Tech Industry

Silicon Valley's misplaced Star Wars lust

Star Wars is back, and once again evil is going to get the short end of the publicity stick.

Star Wars is back, and once again evil is going to get the short end of the publicity stick.

The Space Age saga created by director George Lucas stands as perhaps one of the greatest influences, if not the greatest force, on the development of the high-technology industry. Released in 1977, the original Star Wars inspired thousands with the belief that a better life lay beyond the junior high school cafeteria. The trickle down effect can be seen all over Silicon Valley.

The thrill will continue in the upcoming installment as the swashbuckling rebels battle the Evil Empire. But how evil is evil? The great flaw in the Star Wars trilogy--and by extension, the high-tech business world--remains the glaring omission of downtime. The entire trilogy moves at breakneck pace from one dramatic catharsis to the next. The Empire is portrayed as inherently evil because it is organized and hierarchical.

Most of us, however, live our lives mired in organization and hierarchy. In fact, order can be comforting, even liberating. Things get done. The little guy can find a niche. Bureaucracy has a way of muting even the most diabolic urges.

But back to 1977 and the Luke Skywalker influence. Computer science and engineering programs at universities expanded. 3D graphics, sound production, and special effects became independent industries nearly overnight. History here feeds on itself. The special effects in the original saga largely consisted of guys in plastic suits. But this latest version, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, contains thousands of characters, three planetary environments, and nearly every frame in the movie drips with digital technology.

News reports about people camping in line to get tickets for the May 19 release of the flick confirm the geek factor--nearly every article contains a quote from a programmer or graphics specialist camping out on the street for a first-day ticket. Recently, I visited a home of a successful engineer in Scotts Valley, California. On the walls of the garage: stylized paintings depicting the planets where various parts of the trilogy took place.

Just as important, the movie inspired a way of life that became infused into the bedrock of high-tech management. Nearly every start-up company positions itself as a loose confederation of idiosyncratic rebels (with the bowl haircut favored in the valley), pitched against an infinitely powerful and oppressively conformist evil empire played, at various times, by IBM, Microsoft , or any number of broadcasting and/or publishing entities.

No other metaphor comes close in the Valley. There's not a lot of companies out wooing investors with, "We're like the guy George Kennedy played in Earthquake."

But the issues of organization and hierarchy get lost. David Thurston, for instance, a consultant with KPMG, points out that in The Return of the Jedi, the third film of the trilogy, the Empire is trying to build a new Death Star. As a result, the planet-sized space station is likely crawling with roofers, plumbers, framers, and all sorts of other tradesmen. "There should be a scene where Darth Vader sits in a conference room and signs check after check," he said.

In the end, of course, they--and their juicy government contracts--all get blown up by the rebel federation. If given a chance, the workers would probably stick with the Empire.

(Side note: Thurston, from England, points out that while James Earl Jones portrays the voice of Darth Vader, the man actually walking around in the black plastic suit was David Prowse, famous in England for having a country-bumpkin accent and for being the "Green Cross Man"--a green-lycra-suit-clad TV character who warned kids on commercials to only cross roads on the green light. "Very convincing," Thurston added.)

By contrast, the romantic rebel alliance never has to tackle the inconvenient details of administration. Teaching Ewok languages in schools. The national disgrace that erupts when Luke Skywalker signs a deal to serve as a Casino greeter. Mandatory multicultural pot luck get-togethers. All on the cutting room floor.

Unfortunately, the same sort of management-by-glamour-shoot seems to infect all but a few start-ups. Start an auction site? Why not? We make monitor cases, after all. Manufacture chipsets? No, we'll lay the innovative groundwork for e-commerce instead. Few companies want to admit to performing the mundane blocking and tackling of everyday life. But that's the galaxy where most of us live.

Michael Kanellos is a section editor at News.com.