“I kept dreaming of a world I thought I’d never see. And then, one day…I got in.” — Kevin Flynn, from Tron: Legacy
For many people, Tron is a 1980s science fiction flop that tried to cash in on the current video game craze, while utilizing ground-breaking computer animation. But for those of us who have long appreciated this film and its sequels/spinoffs, Tron is something much more. It is nostalgia for coin-fed arcade glory; it is the naïve optimism much of us growing up in the 80s had regarding technology; it is a neon-lit mirror realm where sentient programs question (calculate?) the meaning of their existence. It is the ultimate modern fantasy, where a world created for entertainment evolves into a reality of its own.
Tron is a positive look at the future — particularly one filled with artificial intelligence.
Steven Lisberger, the writer/director of the 1982 film, stated that he was interested in the potential of the coming digital age, and he hoped artists would get a foothold there first, rather than corporations. That such a freedom of information, expression, and diversity would grant us a better future. This philosophy is the core of the movie, illustrated in Flynn’s struggle against the Master Control Program, or MCP.
As we know, the 21st century delivered the exact opposite. Corporations gradually, then fully, leapt into the digital frontier — filling it with ads, paywalls, subscriptions, the nightmare of Digital Rights Management, the selling of our data, invasion of privacy, disinformation, censorship — and the list continues to grow. Likewise, the list of devices, services, content, communities, and distractions that are dependent on this frontier are too many to count. The internet, Wi-Fi, cellular networks…they are as ubiquitous, and as necessary to modern life, as electricity and plumbing.
It is the greatest utility yet created by our species.
Yet what drives this utility? The users, yes — who, in Tron, are like deities to their programs. The equipment and the economy also drive it, but the greatest factor now is the addition of artificial intelligence. The very thing Tron focused on the most. In the film, the AI (presented as anthropomorphic…