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

by on January 10, 2011 · 6 comments

CLU seeks systemic perfection in Tron: Legacy

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’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 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 is 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.

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  • Haza11

    Interesting article, though I would fundamentally disagree with its main thesis. To think of progressives as dreamy utopians wishing for a time when they could enact a perfect system that will end all wars and illness is off base at best, ridiculous at worst. Social democrats are more left-wing than progressives, and I imagine you would dismiss their ideas as even more unrealistic than progressives, and that their policies are an infringement upon individual liberties (read- the ability of private businesses to trade with each other untouched in any way by external pressures, i.e. unions, regulatory agencies, and thus to push wages down, increase capital accumulation (profit), and allow them the ‘freedom’ to be more exploitative than they already are). However, this fails to acknowledge the fact that a country like Norway, currently governed by a coalition of the Labour Party, Socialist Left Party, and Centre Party, is currently listed ranked highest in human development, and of being the most democratic country in the world, according to the Democratic Index. Subsequently, contrary to arguments from free market fundamentalists about a small Scandinavian country like Norway and its economic policies, the country is the 14th most competitive country in the world, and is very much a capitalist country- but unlike the United States, it is committed to social welfare, and not the stratsopheric levels of corporate welfare that exists in the US. If a socialist party ever looked like it could actually take office in the US, the Reason Foundation would be warning of a nightmare socialist terror state around the corner. Of course, as with all of us, your perspective informs your analysis, and the great task of all of us engaged in the exchange of ideas is to remain open to other perspectives, and decide, on the basis of logical argument and reasoning, which ideas have more merit. However, ideological constraints can distort an honest discourse, and as the Reason foundation is wedded to a free-market, neoliberal ideology that died a little death in the recent financial crisis, and it simply cannot imagine anyone on the Left as being as concerned about individual liberties as they, as right-wing libertarians, are- despite the fact that their eqivalents on the left are libertarian socialists. It should be noted that business elites who acted according to the laws of capitalism that led to the recent economic crisis, who clothed themselves in ‘free’ market rhetoric, are not neccesarily greedy, but merely pursuing the rational, calculated and inherently systemic goal of capitalism: Accumulation. Historically, as Donald Sasson elucidates in ‘One Hundred Years of Socialism: The West European Left in the Twentieth Century’, ‘Socialists too were inspired by the principles of individual rights that originated with the Enlightenment…Universal sufferage, which they advocated with passion, assumes that all individuals have exactly the same worth when voting: each, literally, counts as one. In the domain of politics, socialists, far from being class conscious, were staunch individualists. Those who, at the turn of the century, upheld a class conception of democracy were the liberals and conservatives who defended an electoral system that allocated votes in terms of the wealth possessed or earned by each individual and who oppossed the enfrancisement of women.’ So much for all socialists being mad collectivist utopians, intent in both theory and practice to destroy all individual rights and the respect and dignity of all human beings.

  • Rick Ehrhart

    I enjoyed Steven’s take on “Tron Legacy”, and as CLU stated: “I did everything you ask.” is what programs do, whether right or wrong, they do exactly what they’re instructed to do. This theme was also taken up in “Colossus, the Forbin Project”. As with any creation, there are unexpected consequences.

    I think the other metaphor was about perfection. Again, you see CLU attempting to grasp perfection right in front of him, but couldn’t grasp it. Perfection is always there in our mind, but just out of our grasp.

    • Rick -
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