Old School Computers in Star Wars



I'm old enough to remember quite well life before the internet - at least the internet as we know it today, When I was in college in the late 1980s and early 1990s going online was a process - the modem on my PC would connect to a BBS or to UConn's dial-up line to allow access to mainframe and Unix systems. Being poor college students. we'd often shamelessly copy installation disks to share games.

I was reflecting on this with the whole Death Star plans plot of the Star War films Rogue One and A New Hope. There's some really minor spoilers for Rogue One here so if you've not seen the film you might want to stay clear - though in all honesty, it's nothing major.

In Rogue One, to obtain the Death Star plans on Scarif, the team has to reach a massive vault and retrieve the plans from that vault. They get transmitted to a Rebel starship whose crew copies them onto a data tape or disk of some sort - the same plans that Princess Leia passes on to R2-D2. At no point does anyone upload the plans to some sort of a data network. Admittedly Scarif is a military installation so if there were a civilian data network it would likely be difficult to access there. And the Empire would almost certainly have massive control over such a network.

That said, a viewing of all the Star Wars films makes the existence of a data network, at least in the sense of one like we have in the 21st century, seem very unlikely. This is not surprising given it was conceived of in the 1970s. At that time, Usenet (an online discussion system that could be distributed across the internet) did not even exist, being conceived in 1979 and launched in 1980 - but with a very limited user base. While we see a lot of evidence of real-time communication being possible in the Star Wars universe, it seems rather limited - essentially limited to audio/video transmissions. It's a little unclear how it works in the setting. For example, in Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan tries to contact Anakin on Naboo initially and then widens his search, discovering his tracking signal on Tatooine. The message he sends isn't even automatically recorded, though R2-D2 does record it for Anakin. The Holonet, referred to in many supplemental materials, seems like it could perhaps best be compared with the phone networks and over-the-air communications/transmissions of the 1970s and 1980s.

Regardless of how it works, computers in Star Wars are clearly not a part of some enormous cloud. Your computer on Tatooine is not able to easily communicate with a computer on Coruscant. Moreover, I can't think of occasions where characters use any portable data entry device - computers are always things that are approached, not put in your pocket. If you want something portable, you use a droid. And if a droid needs to talk with a computer, it plugs into it directly.

What does this mean in a Star Wars RPG? I think it both limits and enables characters. For example, if some data needs to be stolen from the Empire, it is not a hacking job, it is a matter of breaking into the place that has the data. However, this is also something characters can take advantage of. If a list of Rebel agents has been obtained from a Rebel base, it is possible for the characters to retrieve that list before it is delivered to Imperial security.

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