Movie: Tron

The helpful clerk at Family Video didn’t understand why I was having trouble finding the movie Tron. After all, he had pointed right at the T section of the New Releases wall. Whereas I was looking among the nearby Family and Children sections. But when he had walked over and showed me the numerous copies of Tron: Legacy on display, I explained that we were looking for the original Tron movie.

That took him longer to find. It wasn’t under Favorites, or the regular T section (or Family or Children). He finally located it under Prequels and Sequels – where I would have guessed I’d find it myself, if they hadn’t just reorganized the entire store and moved that section from the front to the back.

Our older son had seen Tron: Legacy, and Jon wanted him to see the original. I had seen Tron a long time ago, so many long that I couldn’t remember anything about it except that a live human being ended up inside a computer game. I don’t remember what I thought about it at the time, other than it wasn’t quite what I expected (video games were supposed to be about fun, not life and death).

It’s very interesting to see the original now, in light of technological developments of the past thirty years. I read reviews that said that, when Tron was released, a lot of people knew so little about computers that many disliked it as too confusing. I certainly knew virtually nothing about computers back then, though I think by the time I saw the movie I had been a computer operator for a few years.

I found myself trying to determine how accurately the movie represented the internal workings of computers. The I/O (input/output) tower was good, and a master control program could certainly put other programs in some kind of holding area where they could not operate. But how in the world could you torture a program to get information out of it? How could an actuarial program possibly be used in a video game?

Of course, it’s just a movie. It’s using the setting of a computer to give an unusual perspective on reality, not to explain how computers work. It’s about people and how they use technology – and how they sometimes try to use each other. It’s about freedom vs tyranny. It’s about working together to achieve an important goal.

The computer setting also allows the film to touch on the idea of religious faith, though only obliquely. Some of the programs have stopped believing in the users who created them, presumably from lack of evidence that the users really exist. After all, from the perspective of the program (assuming it could be self-aware), all that exists is the computer, itself, and other programs. The users, if they exist, belong to another dimension entirely.

The programs should be able to communicate with their users via the I/O tower, but the Master Control Program has blocked access to this tower. Things are looking pretty hopeless – until a new “program” appears in the computer. Some people see this as a metaphor for Christ, as user Kevin Flynn is “incarnated” (actually, it’s more like the opposite, as he now exists in digital form instead of in a body) as a program and can now communicate directly with other programs.

It’s an interesting idea, but I’m glad the movie doesn’t try to press the metaphor further. I found one review that considers Tron “clearly an allegory on the Christian gospel.” It identifies the waterfall and stream as the Holy Spirit, and the disk as the Bible, which it can be used both as a weapon and a means of receiving the water/Spirit. It goes so far as to compare Sark being brought back to life by the MCP to the Beast of Revelation.

It’s true that the programs appear – literally – in the image of the users who created them. But the comparisons break down there – this would suggest a polytheistic universe, with each program made in the image of a different “god.” And Flynn does not willingly enter the computer as a program – that is the work of the Master Control Program. The Christian Gospel certainly does not have created beings pulling God into our world. The Incarnation is all God’s work, not ours.

The film maker a better vehicle for discussing the idea of freedom, however. Today being July 4, the idea of freedom is at the forefront of people’s minds and a variety of cultural expressions. But the word freedom clearly means different things to different people.

This essay on the Meaning of Freedom defines it as self-governance, and stresses that it must include economic freedom along with political and religious freedom. Under this view, “the government will not interfere in education, agriculture, health-care, public services, industries and other productive activities,” or control the money supply, enforce quotas, or provide subsidies.

This essay, on the other hand, includes freedom from want along with freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and freedom from physical aggression. This means that basic rights include jobs and health care, and it is up to the government to see that people get them.

In terms of computers and programs, does freedom mean that anyone can run any sort of program on a computer system? Or that people on a shared system are free from being attacked by rogue programs such as viruses and trojans? When Tron was made, the internet was just being created (by merging some other networks and establishing the TCP/IP protocol), and the first large-scale computer virus outbreak had just occurred – largely due to nearly total ignorance of such a possibility.

The program Tron wants to make the system free again, free from the tyranny of the Master Control Program. But even Tron was written as a security program. “It monitors all contacts between our system and other systems. It finds anything going on that’s not scheduled, it shuts it down.” For a computer system to be useful, a legitimate user needs to be able to run the programs he wants to, without interference from programs he has not chosen to use.

On a multi-user system (as just about all systems were back when Tron was made), that can get more complicated. My primary job in the computer department has to do with making sure that only properly authorized and documented software can be installed. Another, much smaller part of my job deals with user requests to access web pages that are currently blocked by our security filters. I have to decide whether the request calls for making an exception to the rules, altering the rules (because the block on weapons sites really isn’t intended to block access to sites selling staple guns, for instance), or denying the request because there is not a valid business reason for it (wanting to listen to music while you work doesn’t justify using up bandwidth for audio streaming).

If I didn’t do my job, programmers would be free to make changes much faster to our business systems. Users would get changes they asked for more quickly. But because of human error, improperly tested changes would also get through and users would not be free to get their work done properly, because the program would abort or would produce bad data. (That’s without even mentioning the possibility that a programmer would intentionally insert unauthorized code into a program, as part of a scheme to misstate the financial statements and benefit a few dishonest employees.) If we allowed everyone free access any internet site they wished, the network would probably bog down – between video streaming and viruses propagating through the network – and no one would be free to get much use out of the system.

Freedom requires everyone agreeing to follow certain rules. (A computer program has to follow very strict rules to get it to work right, by the way. Just try leaving out one END statement, or forget to initialize a variable, and you’ll have all sorts of problems.) Tyranny is when only one person (or a very small group) makes all the rules. But even when everyone (or all those who choose to get involved) gets together to make the rules, maintaining freedom means living by those rules.

Lots to think about. Not bad for a three-decades-old sci-fi movie.

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