TRON revisited

Did Flynn get it wrong, was the MCP right? Mark looks back at TRON, and the themes within it that remain totally relevant to the present day...

TRON

A movie that inspired me long ago was TRON, not just because of its stunning visual design and breakthrough use of computers (in places), but because I just loved the notion of a parallel world where battles raged for the domination of cyberspace. Except at that time we didn’t know it was ‘cyberspace’, and the concepts of intelligent software navigating a vast information construct was a fanciful one rather than the reality it is today.

What it made me think more deeply about at the time was the nature of human/computer interaction. Specifically, that part of ourselves that’s caught in the machine whenever we interact with a computer, and the more interaction and the more complex that interaction is, the greater that transference.

You can look at it two ways: on one level, each time you surf the Internet you’re leaving footprints on the digital sands, some that are soon washed away and others that – while they might not stand the test of time – add to a general movement of the surface. On another, the term ‘PC’ stands for Personal Computer, and we apply our personality to the machines we use and the way we use them.

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Imagine, if you will, that in the future a vital clue to understand a historical character might be to have access to their PC. Not just to read their personal documents but to better understand how their mind organised things, and the priorities that were given.

Back to TRON. That proposed the notion that the personalities of those who create software tools are embodied in them, and that they then take those traits into the machine world where conflicts from the outside are replayed inside.

It’s useful to remember that while concepts like ‘virtual reality’ and immersive FPS games might have been discussed as possibilities, the reality of these things was well in the future in 1982. TRON predicted many of these ideas long before anyone actually experienced them, and even vaunted the concept of a globally interconnected system when this wasn’t anything the public had experienced.

But looking deeper into the well, TRON also makes some predictions about the nature of power in the computer world with the domination of the MCP. And for harmony to be achieved, Flynn and TRON must open the system and break the MCP’s control.

What’s interesting about this is that it has a modern parallel about which those behind this movie could have no inkling: the emergence of open source software versus the corporate attempts to control everything through proprietary technology. The MCP is the epitome of a control-freak mentality, where TRON and friends have a more, dare I suggest it, socialist vibe.

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In TRON the MCP tries to control everything so that it can acquire software applications and take their powers (a bit of a jump in logic, I know), and TRON (which stands for TRACE ON, if you never knew) was written to expose where the MCP is subverting the system to allow a patch to be created. Once this patch is applied, the power of the MCP is broken and the system is ‘free’. As good and simple a plan that might have been in the movie, it sounds like a recipe for total chaos to this computer buff.

In many respects the MCP (or Master Control Program) is the operating system of the TRON world. Without it, and some control, many of the most basic functions of the system just won’t happen. However, that’s thinking of the TRON world as a computer, but the Internet runs quite happily without an overall OS, although some might wonder if it would run much better and be less able to be subverted if it did have one app to rule them all.

If the TRON world is actually the Internet, then the MCP is just one of many attempts to control it that ultimately fail, because the software existing in that environment can sneak past their checkpoints or even disable their control systems. The other problem, as the MCP well demonstrates, is that if there is only one commander in chief. What happens if he goes bad or is himself corrupted?

Thinking about things logically, what would actually happen after Flynn and TRON destroyed the MCP? Well, for a nanosecond everything would be wonderful, and then some other nefarious application would appear and try to grab all the control that’s just been relinquished. On the Internet there is a subtle ebb and flow of control between various parties and mechanisms. There is no status quo or overall plan. It’s war out there and nobody is ever quite sure who is winning, or even what side they’re on.

What TRON didn’t address is the notion of ‘what happens next’, other than Flynn gets out of the computer and insists on saying “Greetings, program” to everyone he meets from that point onwards.

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In the final shot of the movie we’re given a less than subtle hint that the real world and the TRON existence aren’t actually that different, if at all. Time-lapse photography turns the LA skyline into a TRON-like world of colourful dark and light, repeating the already presented premise that we’re all software in a strangely similar system.

Looking afresh at TRON now it’s also fascinating those things that weren’t considered, possibly because they might have been difficult to explain in a Disney movie. Flynn only has the MCP to confront along with Sark and his minions, but surely for every big MCP a system would have there would be a trillion less powerful but equally aggressive applications floating about.

When the MCP is threatened, it gives many of its functions to Sark, who then grows big. Except, in computing logic, it would have made more sense but been less visually attractive to have it duplicate him many times over.

Bugs are mentioned and various other oddities, but the notion of a virus or Trojan wasn’t an idea they’d had. Is Flynn a virus? He’s certainly something that wasn’t meant to be in there, and he has the ability to mask his identity by taking the colour of an opponent.

The way that the MCP takes the ‘powers’ of software it captures is obtuse, although it does bare some resemblance to the corporate acquisition of software technology, like the way Adobe got control of Flash when it bought Macromedia.

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What’s also passed over somewhat is that the MCP is only doing the bidding of its user, Dillinger, initially, although it eventually grows so powerful it doesn’t need him any longer. Surely to those in the TRON world there would be no difference between the delete instructions coming from the users above and those from the MPC. Or is this where I have to accept the small religious overtones about the users being ‘merciful gods’, where the MCP is just a tin-pot deity? It’s the one part of TRONI really don’t care for, because the MCP is a Master Control Program and not a Master Belief System.

The software is asked to renounce their belief in users and join the MCP, like the two are mutually exclusive for some reason. Why does the MCP care what the software believes? Surely, as long as it does what it’s told then it doesn’t matter.

It could be argued that most totalitarian states try to do away with religion because it’s seen as supporting the concept of a higher power, and therefore dissent. But in TRON the MCP is virtually in complete control until, rather rashly, it sucks Flynn into the system, and that action ultimately brings about his downfall.

Flynn is a ‘god’ because he can write computer games, and amazingly play them too, hardly a platform for supreme being status these days. On that basis, is the overall message of the movie ‘shit happens’?

In retrospect, what TRON did was fuse the much older notion of a lost man in a strange, but also oddly familiar, world (Gulliver’s Travels, Buck Rogers, The Time Machine, etc.), and the then subliminal fear of the machines controlling our lives and the power of the computer to replace us.

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But, going back to my original thought in writing this, was Flynn wrong and should the MCP have maintained control? The simple answer is that we won’t really know the answer to that until Legacy appears, and we see what became of that world.

I suspect the answer is that removing the MCP entirely was a big mistake, as the power vacuum it left was filled with many less desirable and much more difficult to control elements. Being able to play, write or design computer games isn’t a godly enough powerset to control the global phenomena of the Internet, and the resources of corporations and governments lurking Great White-like out in the deep digital waters are immense.

If TRON had been made after the invasion of Iraq, Flynn might have asked TRON what his plan was for the cyberspace post-MCP? But this movie came from a simpler time, where winning involved turning blue into red (or vice versa) and chaos was preferred over organisation.

I hope Legacy is as remotely interesting as TRON now is in a modern context, and I wonder if it will reflect better our more shades of grey world than the primary colour divisions of its processor?