The past several days have been ones absolutely filled with cinematic inputs ranging from amazing to merely mediocre. The new Tron sequel was not among the amazing, but it did have some interesting points to make. I attribute these more probably to chance than intent (it is a Disney production, after all) but none the less, they merit some discussion. On the surface, yes, the movie was visually intriguing, standard cinematic pabulum. The story was formulaic: boy met girl, megalomaniac met his end after coming oh-so-close to ultimate rule and victory, father sacrificed for son, human endeavor comes back to threaten the world and we all got to smirk as the movie quietly poked fun at Microsoft and the characters used Unix commands. Despite its obvious warts, the new Tron has a fair amount to say about computing and how the average person views it (or at least the ability to make one think about such things outside the movie’s actual intent)
The over-anthropomorphism of the “programs” in Tron reflect the belief held by many of the uninitiated that software is a lot smarter than it really is. This effect was much more pronounced in the 80s when the original movie was released but there are still those among us who think that software should somehow intuit our desires and respond appropriately. People really do attribute human characteristics to software and in many cases they’re right. Software does have a personality of sorts, a part of the person who wrote it. The scene in which Kevin creates Clu resonates with me as a programmer. When one sits down to create a program for a specific task, in many ways that program is a reflection of its creator. If we’re sloppy and disorganized, so will be the program. If we’re attentive to every detail and nuance of the task, then so is our result. Personally, I tend to think in a very linear manner. Tell me A, then tell me B, then tell me C, then the result is D. This is reflected strongly in my designs, for better or worse. This is the case with all development, and more largely in all human endeavor. We cannot create anything which is not some reflection or some part of ourselves. Computers cannot change that, but merely act as another medium in which to work. Because of this relationship though, the creator often understands or has power over his creation that seems impossible or miraculous to others. In the movie Kevin simply “wills” things to happen in The Grid. Since The Grid is a reflection of his own psyche, his own way of thinking, he can intuitively do things with it that nobody else can. This is the creator/created relationship that exists with all the things we create as humans. The sculptor knows every crack, scratch and polished surface of his work. That relationship, that intimacy, can appear almost Godlike to others.
More subtly and probably unintentionally, the movie reminds us that human behavior itself is programmatic. If you know enough about a person and their environmental conditions, you can predict with 100% accuracy their reactions to any given stimulus. My religious cohorts will nod and perhaps grin at this since it is one of the classic arguments used to demonstrate how the omniscience of God and free will can co-exist, but ultimately it’s true. Humans are simply “programs” of a highly sophisticated nature with manifold more inputs and more detailed programming. The movie revolves around this concept as it takes an entire human psyche and pushes it into a computational realm with no apparent loss of resolution. I will fail to complain about the obvious technical issues around this concept, but suffice to say that we have more in common with the software than we tend to realize or would like to admit. We often confuse complexity with divinity.
Lastly, and perhaps most mundanely, the movie is one of dozens of examples of the Frankenstein parable. Man creates something, with the best of intents, and that something goes on to destroy him. As with its predecessors, our protagonist is destroyed because of his own lack of wisdom. Clu, like any bit of software, simply does what he’s told with utter exactitude and duty, he is the personification of blind human intent. What was intended initially was atrociously ill defined: “Make a perfect world” and thus the GIGO [garbage in, garbage out] axiom rules the day. The only true perfection to be found would be that of the null resolution. Ultimately though it’s OK because the boy gets the girl, the villain is thwarted and the hero sacrifices himself so he won’t have to do any more sequels. All is right in the world. End of Line.