Is Tron: Legacy a Comment on the Futility of Techno-Progressivism?

Note: The following post contains spoilers pertaining to the plot and theme of the film Tron: Legacy.

Near the end of Tron: Legacy, the character CLU (short for Codified Likeness Utility), on the verge of releasing his army of re-purposed computer programs into the brick-and-mortar world to destroy humanity, confronts Kevin Flynn, his creator-turned-nemesis, with a plaintiff, “I did everything you asked.” Flynn, older and wiser than the character we met in 1982’s Tron, and his techno-idealism tempered by the realization that to save humanity he must destroy both his physical and virtual self, wistfully answers, “I know.”

It’s a rather poignant scene that punctuates the film’s unique take on technology and humanity. Traditionally in the movies, when technology turns evil, it does so with a will of its own. The Matrix and Terminator films are just two examples. Tron: Legacy, however, upends the idea. CLU, sure enough, turns on his human creator, but not out of rebellion, but to carry out his human-engineered programming.

You see, Flynn programmed CLU to create the “perfect system.” In the film, Flynn explains that, as a younger man he thought he could design a technology-based solution that would end war, illness, poverty and hunger and, in a nutshell, make humanity better. But when the Grid—the computer environment Flynn nurtured—actually does something spontaneously, spawning a new life form, so-called isomorphic programs (called isos for short), CLU destroys them. While this act of cybernetic genocide horrifies Flynn, from CLU’s perspective, it was nothing but a logical response. The isos, as free and independent entities that did not respond to his command and control, introduced an element of randomness and uncertainty into the Grid that CLU could not abide. They were an obstacle to the systemic perfection he was programmed to create and therefore had to be eliminated.

Maybe it was because I saw Tron: Legacy a few days after reading Peter Berkowitz’s superb essay on the rhetoric of Progressivism that I came away with this impression. But I don’t think I’m off-base. Here’s an excerpt for the essay that’s germane to my discussion. When the plot and theme of Tron: Legacy are considered, CLU could easily be substituted for the words progressivism and progressives in the paragraph below:

But progressivism went astray owing to a defect in its basic orientation. It rejected the sound principles of government embodied in the Constitution, because of a critical difference of opinion about human nature. Progressives believed that great improvements in the moral character of humanity and in the scientific understanding of society had rendered the Constitution’s scheme of checks and balances–or better its separation, balancing, and blending of power–unnecessary to prevent majority tyranny and the abuse of power by officeholders. Whereas the makers of the American Constitution believed that the imperfections of human nature and the tendency of people to develop competing interests and aims were permanent features of moral and political life, progressives insisted that progress allowed human beings, or at least the most talented and best educated human beings, to rise above these limitations and converge in their understanding of what was true and right. Indeed, according to the progressives the Constitution’s obsolete and cumbersome institutional design was a primary hindrance to democratic reforms to which all reasonable people could agree and which upright and impartial administrators would implement. It is a short step from the original progressives’ belief that developments in morals and science had obviated reasonable disagreements about law and public policy and dissolved concerns about the impartiality of administrators to the new progressives’ belief that in domestic affairs disagreement is indefensible and intolerable.

Still, my opinion was later reinforced by Adam Theirer’s review of The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov, a book that explores the dangers of cyber-utopianism.

I’ll leave it to commenters to argue whether I’m reading too much into the film. But to bolster my point, I’ll throw out a few final notes.

1. Flynn and his son Sam are presented as modern archetypical sci-fi movie good guys: the aging, wise and techno-hippie and the angry-but-gifted slacker. In fact, the first few minutes of the film had me groaning because it appeared to be setting up the familiar meme of rogue hacker against the big bad corporation. Speaking of the missing-presumed-dead Kevin Flynn, one character recalls his dedication to a network that’s “free and open,” a loaded phrase to anyone following Internet technology policy these days. Yet by the time the movie gets going, the corporation is insignificant. It’s the hippie’s and slacker’s progressive assumptions that are tested. The “free and open” line, a loaded phrase to anyone following Internet technology policy these days, is used again by CLU as he prepares for world domination—although he means anything but.

2. Kevin Flynn’s rejection of the progressive ideal central to the film’s resolution. He accepts responsibility for his error and pays the price for making it right. Sam and the sole remaining iso, Quorra, escape back to the physical world with the understanding that they can’t build “systems” to change humanity, but need to do it as individuals, i.e., by getting their hands dirty (a bit pat, to be sure, but this is still Hollywood).

3. Tron: Legacy, like the original Tron, is an allegory, and demands it be accepted as such. Computer programs don’t have personas. Human bodies cannot be reconstituted into electronic code. The Grid can stand for any third-party structure—government, organized religion, a corporation—that individuals chose to use a proxy for their own ethical obligations. The isos represent the persistent and unruly way the random choices and behavior of millions of human beings undermine even the most well-meaning attempts to centrally manage the direction of human society.

4. Such a message resonates now, at a time when politically and culturally, progressivism is resurgent. The idea that an institution—particularly a democratic government—can simultaneously realize a philosopher-king’s vision of human progress and protect freedom and individual liberty needs a sound critique. In this, maybe Tron: Legacy will begin a trend in pop culture.