Capturing the Organic, Processing into the Digital, and Creating New Meaning

There and Back Again

In the movie TRON, a scientist, Dr. Lora Baines played by Cindy Morgan takes an orange fruit, places it on a table, and beams some sort of futuristic laser at it which scans it and makes it disappear. (We know from watching the rest of the movie where it goes.) It is 'digitized,' and after pressing a few buttons later, it is 're-integrated' back into the 'real world,' the orange has been zapped, transferred to the digital, and then back again.

This may seem like an ordinary means to introduce the science fiction concept we all know and love as the 'world inside the computer,' or the Grid, but it is indeed more than that.

At large, we didn't know a thing about the internet when this movie came out, nor did we have a lot of personal computers floating around. This scene was so astoundingly 'out there,' and 'impossible,' yet in its 'impossibility' we believed it, and after all, this was just a simple set up, to introduce characters and a setting in which the movie would take place, a setting that would make some kind of sense to us.

This had to have been an attempt by the filmmakers to 'explain' to the audience in some way what or 'where' this bizarre glowing 'electronic' fairyland was, that when Jeff Bridges gets zapped minutes later, this is what happened to him. It offers a science fiction technical illustration, but there's something deeper going on here than one might first realize, even after all these years...

Kevin Flynn travels into this other world, and this other world is one which is 'new' and exciting and different, this isn't Outer Space, this isn't the "Fantastic Voyage," this is some other new concept called 'cyberspace,' and yet at the same time seems innocently hybridized with the actual micro-workings and physical miniature scale of the computer itself, with circuit boards and transister-like objects as if on some nanoscale level of reality. These two ideas are blended together to create the 'Tron World,' there is an ambiguity there which may either exist because the filmmakers decided this is how the audience will understand the 'inside of the computer,' or it was an artistic choice, or it was a subconcious decision during the flow of art design development.  We may never know the actual motivations, but it is there, and no matter which one of these is true, it presents ideas that take us somewhere that are more important than what might first seem like a simple rehash of "Fantastic Voyage" or the idea of being 'shrunk down' and transported to a microscale reality for the sake of offering a unique and interesting sci-fi background setting.

The transportation to another world is its core concept, but not another planet, not beneath the ocean, not the moon, nor simply another place and time on the planet earth, this is about an 'experience,' and one which somehow it was assumed that the audience would find interesting and possibly relate to, and so they did. Inside this 'other world,' one finds all kinds of references to the mystical, the belief of 'little people' in godlike "Users," and in powers beyond their world, and motifs which appear 'religious' such as the I/O Tower where Dumont allows TRON access to his User in the 'outside world.'

Some have described this as the perfect illustration of 'schizophrenia.'  Others see it as an illustration of the inner-journey to find one's own personal worth and power and ability. Others see it as a prophetic vision of what we would come to know as the "Digital Revolution." Some see it as an allegory of religious persecution by a scientific tyranny, or the oppression of the spiritual by rationalist materialism of the contemporary age. Others see it merely as mindless entertainment with no context whatsoever, and others see it as a simple gimmick, of "what it would be like to be trapped inside a video game."

What is clear is that it has a deeper intent than these things, it wraps all of them up in its own unique way, but there are some things there that require special consideration today that likely have been missed, even with countless viewings.

Intelligences Inside

The transport into 'another world' is clearly the means for characters to go from one 'ordinary everyday' setting into a more cinematic and interesting world setting, but it also illustrates something very very ancient, and possibly not immediately obvious. In this 'high tech science fiction thrill ride' the audience is actually revisiting a very old concept which has been allegedly dissolved by modern science and rationalism--the Fairy Tale. It goes even deeper into the magic and origin of 'the Fairy Tale,' it is the 'Fairy Tale' of the most ancient kind, not simply an Edwardian or Victorian children's fable, this is the stuff of ancient folklore, this is the stuff of mysticism, but it has something very 'new' to say about it all.

TRON is most obviously speaking of technology, and anticipating something of a culture inevitability, and it is doing it in a very creative and almost literal way by telling us this story, "it's about a guy who gets sucked into a computer--literally." This is 'ridiculous,' because it requires having us believe that a magic laser is capable of even doing this, and yet this simplistic idea which told through a kind of 'pseudoscientific' technobabble is what acts to suspend our disbelief, it is something far more familiar, and far more ancient.  He could have walked through a magic door (like Stargate), he could have climbed into a pod-like device, he could have put on an exotic helmet or headset, he could have plugged wires literally into his brain, but in TRON, he is 'scanned with a laser and disintegrated, then re-integrated into the computer world.' This is not an insignificant detail.

The original TRON could be remade and re-imagined as a simple fairy tale, and if one were to do that it would begin to make more sense on levels one may have never considered.  Flynn is transported to 'Faery Land' by a magical device, there he meets various elves who are enslaved by the Herle King, or 'Lord of the Elves.' All the mythical archetypes are there to examine in all their correct order--but with a totally new and 'contemporary' spin on them.  These 'elves' are 'other selves' or literal 'programs' of their creators. They exist in a 'Faery Land,' where they perform programmed functions created by 'the Users.' They are like elemental spirits, keeping the 'system' of the computer functioning, and something has happened, there is trouble in paradise, there is conflict inside the computer. A demonic intelligence has erupted, emerged, the 'Master Control Program' has evolved into a kind of sentient self-directed intelligence with an agenda of its own. The Herleking demands obedience and has made provisions for a new directive, they shall perform their 'elemental' functions to his own ends, apart from 'the Users.'

The MCP desires to reach out into 'the real world,' to engage the real world from his Faery Land domain, to manipulate and cause mayhem and mischief in the real world. Flynn has been taken, as all Faeryland abductees are taken, and he experiences all the wonders that Faeryland has to offer, but there is trouble to be found, this isn't Kansas anymore, there is strife and conflict here. This is a mirror reflection of the movie's anticipation of how technology is about to affect culture in 1982. Could all this lead to an Orwellian tyranny where citizens are controlled, forced into gladiatorial games for the entertainment of the empire, with thought police, where people become like programmed zombies devoid of their humanity?  The reflection is illuminating such things with an allegorical Faery Land with odd resonances and near-total understanding of the 'cyberspace' to come in the form of the Internet, and the dichotomous alternate 'selves' of avatars and on-line personas. It anticipates the dual digital reality creating a recursive analysis of this new technology, our world and us--our minds.

(To be continued in Part 2)