For years, I only knew of George Lucas’ 1977 cinematic sci-fi breakthrough as “Star Wars.”  Then I found out that it was part of a trilogy.  But wait, Lucas had a plan all along.  Believe it or not, this tale of an oppressed rag-tag alliance looking to overturn an overly orderly, hierarchal monopolistic political system (aka “The Empire”) was always meant to be “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.”

Of course, in a multi-part saga, if the good guys get their way initially, the Empire is always going to have to Strike Back to make it a good story.  When I read Groundswell co-author Josh Bernoff’s The Splinternet means the end of the Web’s Golden Age, that’s what immediately came to mind.

For years, from Benkler to Shirky, we’ve been declaring an end to media monopolies thanks to networked communities that no longer require institutional intermediaries to share, collaborate or take collective action.  This ability (and motivation) to produce and use media for almost free threatened the very economic model that media moguls had taken the bank for over a century.  As I made my own transition from corporate media journalist to independent content creator, I took advantage of new, inexpensive tools that we saw as the great democratizer of production.

Apple was part of this rebellion, helping us to crash through the barriers to entry with the digital weaponry of firewire, USB, Final Cut Pro, iDVD — this filmmaker’s “secret plans to the Death Star” so-to-speak.  The Empire writhed in agony, from the New York Times to Conde Nast to NBC, desperately in search of new business models to keep the revenues flowing as analog dollars were devalued into “digital pennies.”  Now, with renewed focus on pay walls, walled gardens, and effortless usability through closed platforms (Zittrain’s apocalyptic future of the internet), Bernoff sees Apple’s new iPad as the turning point, as we leave the Web’s hopeful first age of universality:

…[M]ore and more of the interesting stuff on the Web is hidden behind a login and password. Take Facebook for example. Not only do its applications not work anywhere else, Google can’t see most of it. And News Corp. and the New York Times are talking about putting more and more content behind a login…Each new device has its own ad networks, format, and technology. Each new social site has its login and many hide content from search engines.

Was Steve Jobs more Anakin (good guy corrupted by power into Darth Vader) than Luke Skywalker all along?  The guy who gave us the signature 1984 Superbowl commercial of a single woman taking a sledgehammer to tyranny, now sitting on Disney’s board, a hawker of music, TV shows, movies, all wrapped up neatly (and Flash-free) behind iTunes?  Judging from the heated conversation surrounding the iPad, some feel betrayed, others say this is a natural next step in media technology that will set us free.

Without a camera, or a USB port (unless you buy Apple’s proprietary dongle accessory), the iPad is purely intended as a media consumption device.  There’s nothing wrong about that, and many media companies (from publishers to newspapers) see salvation in a portable device that serves as a safe, monetizable conduit to their content.

What has some folks in a tizzy is how Apple is luring consumers into this enjoyable, convenient, closed ecosystem, by sealing off the very nature of the open Web.  Witness what Cluetrain Manifesto guru Doc Searls has to say:

What depressed me, though I expected it, was the big pile of what are clearly verticalized Apple apps, which I am sure enjoy privileged positions in the iPad’s app portfolio, no matter how big that gets. It’s full of customer lock-in. I’m a photographer, and the only use for iPhoto I have is getting shots off the iPhone. Apple’s calendar on the iPhone and computer (iCal) is, while useful, still lame. Maybe it’ll be better on the iPad, but I doubt it. And the hugely sphinctered iTunes/Store system also remains irritating, though I understand why Apple does it.

The geek elite has focused primarily on how Apple has not enabled the iPad for Adobe’s near ubiquitous Flash multimedia platform.  For now, that means no YouTube or Hulu — competitors to iTunes.  Some say this isn’t such a bad thing, as Apple favors what it sees as the more open HTML5, and that Flash is on its way out anyway.  Web Dude Robert Scoble himself stirred the pot (read the great comments!) with Can Flash Be Saved?

I’m absolutely fascinated by this conversation — and we need to pay close attention to it.  If Bernoff is correct, we are starting a new chapter in the story of the Web, as we leave the exciting, creative chaos of what was a Big Bang to a Great Sorting Out with the emergence of new order that includes Apple, Facebook and Google.  This will have a direct impact on how we produce and consume media, along with how we pay for it and where we go to engage in those experiences.  As we continue to look for clarity, credibility and trust in what has become a confusing communication ecosystem, many of us will be deeply attracted to that new order.  Others might pine for the Return of the Jedi, ewoks and all!  But as us sci-fi buffs know all too well, that movie was as never as good, fresh or exciting as the original.  Even worse, the disappointing, effects-stuffed, soulless prequels had yet to emerge…