I just recently watched the film Tron (1982) for the first time since 1982. When I watched it the first time I did so at the old SFA theater in Nacogdoches, Texas and was dropped off by my mom or perhaps she came with us. I was 10 at the time.
I remember the experience. The SFA theater was a relic of thirty years earlier. It had one of those popcorn machines that popped the corn right in front of you and dumped it out into a large glass container. Watching it pop was part of the entertainment. The sign out front was neon, from the classic cinema days of the 50′s. The ticket was probably only one dollar, two at most.
Last week when I watched it for the second time I did so on my iPhone, rented off of iTunes for $2.99. In 1982 I watched a cutting edge film, made with cutting edge technology in a forum that was an ode to the past. The second time the forum was cutting edge and the film itself had become a relic. In 1982 I don’t think I was even yet aware of the coming home video format and any suggestion that I would one day watch this film on a phone, that was not even plugged into the wall would have sounded like the plot to the next big scifi hit that I might go to the cinema to watch.
At that point I had only once seen a modem that worked with a phone. You dialed a number and when it made funny noises you put the handset on a cradle and let it scream at the modem until you connected to something. It was for my uncle’s business and I really did not find it interesting at all. I thought it was boring. I discounted it entirely.
Fast forward and my phone connects to a site that lets me download and watch a film. That would have gotten my attention. And I find myself watching this film that was so cutting edge, so tomorrow, so exciting. It was about computers. In 1982 I had never even operated a computer. I had seen them but at that time they were not for kids. They were mostly for businesses. Fast forward to 2011 (just the mention of a year like that would have sounded scifi back then) and I see the film and it’s message as old, about simplistic outdated technology, nostalgic, and naive.
Not to imply I did not enjoy it, I loved it. It helped me remember a younger me and a bygone era. Doing so helps me understand who I am and the value of that can not be understated.
I was struck that the central theme of the film reflected a fear of computer technology and a disconnect between how we related to this new technology and how we previously lived our lives. We had to learn to replace people with technology. A personification of programs reflects our difficulty in digesting the idea that programs do work and yet are not people. The idea of ordering something to do work and destroying it or rewriting it if it did not work right was a disconnect from the times when all work was done by people who had to be treated with respect and who were not disposable.
This naïveté is adorable in it’s cluelessness but admirable. We could learn from this attitude today. Now rather than relating to computers as if they were people, we all too often relate to people as if they are machines. We shout at people for not being perfect, people are fired without a second thought. People are treated as disposable.
I find a comparison to Tron Legacy (2010) instructive. The plot of Tron is far more sophisticated. The fear expressed in Tron Legacy is far less naive, it is the fear of the self. And a healthy dose of that is something we should all have. Computers were never something that could hurt us, only we can.
Yes, as I detailed above, the computer age has brought negative changes in how we treat each other. But computers did not do this, we did. We feel more powerful when we treat people as disposable. Computers gave us a taste of that power and without realizing it we transferred that to our relationships with others.
WE did that. And we can reverse that. In Tron Legacy, Clu, who was part of Flynn divided out when Flynn was too young to understand the value of imperfection, terrorized the Grid, treating the most beautiful, organic programs as a threat to his desired perfection. A perfection that Flynn himself had ordered before he knew of the future arrival of organic, imperfect programs.
In the real world there is a Clu in all of us. A desire to be perfect and ‘normal’, but as we grow up we realize the elegance of imperfection and begin to celebrate it. As a society we should go back to the way we understood the world pre computer age.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t advocate the loss of technology, rather an understanding that it’s perfect, black and white binary way of understanding the world works only for a computer, not for how we relate to each other. Ones and zeros make computer thoughts nearly perfect but binary code lacks the beauty of imperfection that lives in the human mind.
We should celebrate the imperfection of those around us, not punish it with harsh words, road rage, and over medication, and rejection.
I think the most powerful part of Tron Legacy was Flynn’s quiet assessment that Clu was not an enemy in need of destruction, rather a part of himself in need of acceptance. We have to recognize and accept our imperfection before we can accept it in others.
In 1982 I was wrong about modem technology. By 1993 I had my first one and by 2010 I owned the ultimate blend of computer and phone technology, the very device upon which I watched Tron for the second time in 2011. But in 1982 we had one thing right, we feared the perfection of the computer rather than the Devine imperfection of the human being. Perhaps the message in Tron is not so outdated after all.