When Star Wars Episode III came out a few years ago, Neal Stephenson remarked that very little of it made any sense, taken as a freestanding narrative — but that didn’t seem to matter at all to millions of people who were happy to veg out:
To geek out on something means to immerse yourself in its details to an extent that is distinctly abnormal — and to have a good time doing it. To veg out, by contrast, means to enter a passive state and allow sounds and images to wash over you without troubling yourself too much about what it all means.
In corporate-speak, there is a related term used when someone has committed the faux pas of geeking out during a meeting. “Let’s take this offline,” someone will suggest, when the PowerPoint slides grow dark with words. Literally, it means, “I look forward to geeking out on this topic — later.” But really it’s a polite synonym for “shut up already!”
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.
Now geeks get the geeky elements through tie-in novels, comics, and animated shows, while everyone else enjoys the two-hour cinema spectacle for its visceral thrills alone.
But Stephenson isn’t examining just the shift in media:
“Concentrate on the moment. Feel, don’t think. Trust your instincts,” says a Jedi to the young Anakin in Episode I, immediately before a pod race in which Anakin is likely to get killed. It is distinctly odd counsel coming from a member of the Jedi order, the geekiest people in the universe: they have beards and ponytails, they dress in army blankets, they are expert fighter pilots, they build their own laser swords from scratch.
And (as is made clear in the “Clone Wars” novels) the masses and the elites both claim to admire them, but actually fear and loathe them because they hate being dependent upon their powers.
Anakin wins that race by repairing his crippled racer in an ecstasy of switch-flipping that looks about as intuitive as starting up a nuclear submarine. Clearly the boy is destined to be adopted into the Jedi order, where he will develop his geek talents — not by studying calculus but by meditating a lot and learning to trust his feelings. I lap this stuff up along with millions, maybe billions, of others. Why? Because every single one of us is as dependent on science and technology — and, by extension, on the geeks who make it work — as a patient in intensive care. Yet we much prefer to think otherwise.
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.