In the battle between Light and Dark, engineers shape humanity’s fate
[Spoiler warning: Some plot assumptions and an important character’s story are discussed in detail]
In a story where engineers are more central than Jedi or Sith, Rogue One breaks new ground for the franchise both in its characters but also in the ethical territory it covers. Not to diminish the character arcs of Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor, but the core ethical arc of the film is one man’s decision to engineer the Death Star in such a way as to prevent its use for galactic domination. One could fairly retitle the movie to ‘Rogue One: an Engineering Ethics Story.’
Our scifipolicy.com review essay will address Rogue One as the engineering ethics case study it is. Properly understanding the ethical power of the engineers in Rogue One enriches our understanding of good and evil in the Star Wars universe and furthers our understanding of what engineering ethically truly means.
Only part of the story: blowing the whistle on the Death Star
The movie begins with the Death Star program director, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) finding and returning his escaped top scientist, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Despite all the resources of the Empire and its access to the dark side, the Death Star takes 15 more years to build, requiring incredible effort and the capabilities of a top designer and scientist of Galen’s caliber. The challenge of engineering was apparent to all, as Grand Moff Tarkin notes years of challenges and delays. It is important to note that while the movie calls Galen a scientist, he was leading a design effort and a team of engineers. To us, he clearly is an engineer.
The film also makes its engineering ethics explicit. Before the opening scene, Galen Erso had escaped the Death Star project because of his moral objections, likely against the Empire as well as the concept of making such a terrifying weapon at all. After Krennic captures him, Galen later tells his daughter Jyn that he had a choice: he could have continued abstaining, and let someone else build the Death Star, or he could dive deep into the project, become indispensable to it, and find a way to stop it. He chooses to dive deep, and succeeds in building a subtle flaw in the Death Star design. Then 15 years later, he sends a messenger to the Rebellion informing them of the weapon’s existence, power and most importantly, its fatal flaw.
Galen’s reflection on engineering could have come straight out of real-life engineering discussions of the 1970s. As the historian Matthew Wisnioski captures in his book “Engineers for Change”, many engineers were criticized during the Vietnam War for their role in developing major weapons systems. In the real world, Galen could have become a conscientious objector and left the project, but oftentimes engineers can choose to stay engaged and try to influence the project. In our world, some engineers did change fields and while some engineering societies sponsored large public debates about the role of technology in society. Engineering schools added ethics to their curriculum, but Wisnioski suggests that the changes were ultimately too narrow.
Unfortunately, much of engineering ethics education has focused excessively on whistleblowing, and perhaps a limited view of Galen Erso’s actions would call what he did “whistle blowing,” as he alerted the rebels to the looming threat. We tend to agree with the engineer philosopher Samuel Florman who once wrote that “Whistle-blowing - to use a word that appears early and often in many discussions of engineering ethics - is a rare and extreme circumstance, worthy of consideration, to be sure, but not deserving of the central role it has been given in studies of the field.” What Galen Erso does is not simply watch a system be built and then whistleblow; he actively shaped the design from its earliest stages considering its ultimate societal impacts. These early design decisions are proactive rather than reactive, which is part of the broader engineering ethics lesson of Rogue One.
Shaping designs in pursuit of a more just world
Galen Erso, as more than a conscientious whistleblower, highlights what a broader approach to engineering ethics can look like. Critically, Galen modified the Death Star design creating a critical flaw that could be used to destroy the Death Star. This weakness, a path for a missile charge to travel from the Death Star surface through an exhaust port to hit the center reactor, was then exploited by the Rebels and, in particularly, Luke Skywalker in Episode IV. Erso demonstrates that if one is imaginative enough, there can be ways to change or modify a design so that it has a different impact on society, so that people can interact with the design in a positive way, or so that it can best contribute to a more just world.
While Galen’s change to the Death Star is an extreme case, akin to modifying a nuclear weapon design, engineers make many decisions that affect our everyday lives. Engineering and technology can critically define how people live and who has power. Philosopher of technology Langdon Winner’s article “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” argues that technology changes the world around them, creating policies and politics that result from the inherent (at times destructive) characteristics of the technology. Yet, it is not only the technology of advanced weapons that can shape our world. Social media and increased computer devices are affecting how humans think and how we act in a democratic society. An engineer must consider not only the function of a new system, but how it will be used and the possible unintended consequences, just as Galen Orso did when designing the Death Star.
A complementary point to Winner is to think through how we have to labor to maintain existing systems. Historians Andy Russell and Lee Vinsel have started a social movement called The Maintainers, which tries to call attention to the neglected role of maintenance in society. While the Star Wars universe has a lot of ships and cities that look like they’re in a state of dystopic disrepair, there are also many who scavenge (such as Rey) and make the most out of existing systems.. A robust discussion of engineering ethics should consider how we treat the people and technological systems that maintain the broader society.
The Force is not enough?
The above issues are all substantial parts of engineering ethics, but there is one more highly speculative thought about engineering ethics in Star Wars that I want to explore. Rogue One surprised me in how much it highlighted how the dark side seems to rely on technology. In my reading of the original films, it always seemed to me that the Force was the most powerful source of change in the Galaxy, and that the Empire relied on technology only incidentally. As Vader said in Episode IV, the Death Star’s power is “insignificant next to the power of the Force.” The ultimate threat was the Emperor, and the two Death Stars and the Star Killer were secondary, almost easily summoned into being just in time for the next movie plot.
In contrast to that, Rogue One shows that the engineering development of the Death Star took decades to complete and was a much more complex and vexing development than we knew. While its plans were briefly shown in the prequels, the amount of work needed to make the Death Star a real engineering artifact required the focused attention over decades of Krennic, Tarkin and Vader. In this film, the Emperor’s long term survival and goals for the dark side rely on the challenging, detailed, and sometimes banal work of engineering and technology development. Despite the Emperor and Darth Vader’s great power in the force, they needed technical superiority to establish permanent galactic control .
One way of describing this is to say that the dark side is seeking a technological fix . A technological fix, as described by Daniel Sarewitz & Richard Nelson, is a technological solution found to address a complex, social problem. On paper, a technological fix sounds great, due to its assumed replicability and reliability. However, problems in the real world can simply be too complex, defying any easy technological solution. We never really know how effective the Empire’s technological fixes are, though, as the Rebels continue to destroy these mega-weapons before they are widely used.
But, if the Death Stars are a technological ‘fix’, then what is the problem that it’s trying to solve? Clearly they want to eliminate continued resistance to the Empire, as well as the possibility of battle with future Jedi or other light Side users. All technological factors being equal, perhaps the battle between the light and dark side will always come to a partial détente, as Yoda’s battle with Palpatine showed. Without a technological edge, there are individual victories that change the tide, but never fully wins the war. The Death Star is the engineering artifact intended by the Emperor to tip the balance between the light and the dark.
Interestingly, the dark side users abide by the ‘Rule of Two’, where there is only supposed to be a Sith master and a Sith apprentice, of which the latter is expected to take over from the master. This Rule of Two exists because multiple dark side users cannot be trusted: each will betray the others until they are in succession to eventually lead. Given the Rule of Two, there can never be an army of multiple Sith that fight, which means they need accessories to help promote their goals. Perhaps in this way, the real problem that the the Death Star hopes to fix is one of trust: it lets the Sith maintain power over others without needing to involve and ultimately trust another Sith.
As mentioned, this discussion also changes the interpretation of Luke Skywalker’s victory against the Death Star in Episode IV. It’s not simply a case of using the Force to beat a technologically superior foe. While the light side of the Force (and an assist from Han Solo) was needed, so too was the ethical engineer who built in a design flaw into the Death Star. The entire fight scene can now be scene as a battle of light and dark with engineers shaping the terms of engagement.
Rogue One’s core story arc is about an engineer influencing a technological system that will transform the political order of the galaxy. Ultimately, Galen Erso engineers the system from the bottom up to have a critical flaw to ensure that this weapon of destruction could also, itself, be destroyed. This character reminds us all that engineers can and must insert ethics into the heart of their work. Galen Erso’s ethical objections amount not just to whistle-blowing, which is a standard, but limited part of engineering ethics. The movie demonstrates the broad range of engineering ethics which combines whistle-blowing, ethical design, and a fundamental consideration of the role of engineering in society.
When considering ethical engineering in Star Wars, a new range of questions emerge which, as #scifipolicy aficionados, we look forward to continuing to debate. Was Luke Skywalker’s initial success only possible due to an ethical engineer? What is the balance of moral responsibility between the engineers and the force users? Does the final outcome of the battle between the light and dark sides depend upon engineering? This is one role for science fiction in policy: to inspire questions, and perhaps provide some answers, that further illuminate the technological challenges we face in society right now. Reflecting on the ethical engineering in Star Wars can serve as amusing but fruitful practice for ethical engineering in the real world.
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 This is part of Hollywood’s habit of labeling as ‘science’ the most exciting parts of engineering. As Mark Watney said in The Martian while talking about many repair activities that were clearly engineering in nature: “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this!” Do
such fictional representations affect the career choices of students, when all the cool aspects of engineering are made to seem like science activities? For more details on how engineering is different from science, see Henry Petroski’s The Essential Engineer.
Also, a more substantive spoiler that provides a hint into what engineering is in Star Wars: to punish Galen for being a whistleblowing traitor, Krennic kills seemingly all of the six or so engineers who worked for Galen. Apparently the engineers are all disposable whereas the ‘scientist’ in charge is not! That the engineers were both few in number and all very old, white men seems deliberate.
 (12/21/16 Edit: this footnote was accidentally left out, thanks to RT for noting error in comments.) The Jedi and the Rebellion’s use of technology is different from the Sith’s. They use technology, having their own fighter and cruisers that can fight with Star Destroyers, but they never attempt to make a singular weapon. In the prequels, there are also many different Jedi, as they don’t need to constrain their number due to a lack of trust. There are hints of a sort of craft knowledge amongst the rebellion: Han Solo’s relationship with the Millenium Falcon is one of craft and informal learning – one might suspect he’d enjoy the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?
 The clone wars are an interesting contrast here: did the creation of the clone army (and eventual stormtroopers) reflect a type of technological fix as well? In some ways, surely yes, but it’s of a very different nature than the Death Star. That was an example of a very distributed military, which could exert a person-to-person style of military control across the galaxy. The use of cloning technology is not necessary, and perhaps Episode VII’s use of non-clone but brainwashed stormtroopers is a return to that. The Death Star, in contrast, was a very singular and monolithic device that could destroy planets. Why did the Emperor decide to build the Death Star instead of building endless numbers of clones such that he would simply overrun all resistance?