DRM and the Legacy of Tron

This is not so much a review of Tron:Legacy as it is a way of reading the film as an exposition of our technological climate. There are three observations I would like to make, ways in which Tron:Legacy illustrates our era, as contrasted with the first film.

The original Tron was done in the heady technology boom hayday of the 1980s. People were confident that technology was going to change the world and this optimism bled over and took its share in the flighty imaginings of how technology could (and would) change our world and our future, potentially solving our problems. In hindsight it seems almost fortuitous that the sequel would come along after three decades of life under the new digital regime.

Consider the fact that the film takes place in the present. Jeff Bridges’ character has vanished (and along with him, the hope of free digital technology, “open source,” if you will). Encom, his company is now a software designer determined to create the perfect and most secure software in the world, locking out “users.” It is no empty metaphor, then, that their building runs with a tight security system itself. It is also no accident that when Bridges’ son enters the “Grid” he finds a digital totalitarian state. “Clue,” the digital version of Bridges’ character, was created to build the “perfect system” within the computer, and he does this by creating a nightmare state of control and order, where nothing is out of place.

There is no better metaphor for the visualization of DRM than this film, where normal programs are rounded up and turned into soldiers of the vary regime enforcing the “lock-down.” In short, where the original film represented the optimism of the 1980s, Tron: Legacy represents what our technology has become, something that has been turned against the “Users,” as they are called. Even Tron, the noble warrior fighting for the side of freedom in the first film is corrupted and turned against the Users he once served. Tron: Legacy, therefore, is concerned with the return and reassertion of the rights of the Users against those who wish to lock down their technology for profit.

Which brings me to the next, most salient point. The other major theme of the film is that we all live on the Grid now. The Grid is our world as it exists today, a point that moves from subtext to text in the (brilliant) opening of the film when hundreds of circuit pathways transition into an overhead shot of downtown city blocks. Clue has turned the Grid into a place where the Users can no longer exist. Hunted and killed, along with the Isos, Bridges has been banished to the Outlands in exile and shame; if he ever returns to the Grid-city he will be hunted down and the last free information, the information that could be used to permanently enslave all of the Grid – and the real world with it – taken and utilized for Clue’s totalitarian purposes. The point is clear enough and well-taken; the Users are being harmed and enslaved by the very thing we created. This is as true for the real world in Tron: Legacy as it was inside the Grid.

Third point. It is a matter of utter, extreme and eternal irony that Tron: Legacy was produced and distributed by Disney, one of the largest corporations in the world, and one of those who have been advocating most strongly and vocally against the very heart and core of this film, and this itself provides an illustration of the problem. The reason companies can allow, even produce works of art that dissent the system, they are doing so on the system’s terms. It’s hard to point fingers at a guy and claim he hates kids when he volunteers down at the orphanage every other Wednesday of the month. The very means of producing Tron: Legacy almost certainly guarantees that the Users will remain in exile in the Outlands. It’s fine to produce films that promote “open source” and free information – so long as nobody actually tries to utilize the film in an “open source” way. Share the film with others in a way that grates with the system, like uploading your favorite scene to YouTube. Then you’re liable up to 250,000 dollars in fines and up to five years in prison.

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