The Cult of Tron


I don't know if you ever saw the movie Tron, but if you did you'll remember it, because once seen Tron cannot be forgotten. Disney, the corporation responsible for producing it, haven't forgotten it either: it cost them $20 million to make (which was an awful lot of money back in 1982), the critics slated it, declaring the video game better than the movie (they may have been right), and it was a box office flop. But when I first saw that film in the cinema at the age of fourteen it blew me away.

Up until that point I hadn't had much experience of computers. I had a digital watch, which I thought was really cool, mainly because I'd been told (correctly, as it turns out) that it had more processing power than the ENIAC. A friend of mine had an Atari console. Another friend had a ZX81, which I coveted for no good reason (I had no idea what I'd do with one - but then, neither did he). And my Dad once bought an Olivetti portable home for the weekend on trial, wondering if he should buy it to help him with his work. Wisely, he chose not to.

What was really weird about computers back then was how they could simultaneously be so utterly amazing and yet so totally shit. It wasn't that we didn't know they were shit - obviously they were, and obviously they weren't going to measure up to the standard Hollywood image of computers as super intelligent (and dangerously psychotic) mainframes, whose personalities were closely modelled on those of the top-down AI theorists supposedly responsible for building them. We all knew that apart from the line graphics most of the special effects in Tron were hand-painted, that computers weren't even powerful enough to generate their own FX. Yet at the same time there was something tremendously exciting about these machines, something fascinating.

Tron was the first film to capture that excitement. Not only does it have an appalling soundtrack by the ground-breaking electronic musician Wendy Carlos (responsible in her more creative moments for classics such as Switched-On Bach, The Plastic Cow Goes Moooog and the soundtrack to The Shining) but it encapsulated in its plot the saga of the next ten years of events in the American computer industry - Tron told the future. Just check out the characters. Jeff Bridges is Steve Jobs, the long-haired whizz kid video games player who coulda been a contenda, while his companion in RL and, ultimately, in the cyberspace battle against the Master Programme (aka IBM) is the mild-mannered supernerd with oversize glasses and the steady but dull relationship. Yes, it's Bill Gates, played by Bruce Boxleitner. Together they struggle in pre-Gibsonian cyberspace to overcome the Master Programme's hegemony, and by the end of the film they succeed. And guess what happens once they've won? That's right, they take over the company. Or at least the Bridges/Jobs machine does; Boxleitner/Gates lurks, Microsoft-like, in the background, awaiting his turn. He gets the girl, but that's not what he's after. He'll let Apple trash the mainframe with its personal computer, then when the whole scene has been blown wide open he'll move in with his dodgy software packages and clean up. It's not really a story of stealing from the (undeserving) rich to give to the (deserving) poor, although it's dressed up to look that way. No, it's really the simple and timeless tale of the succession of the rich. In Europe we call it History.

It just goes to show that we didn't need Neuromancer and Bladerunner to tell us that cyberspace was all fucked up, that it was all about Euclidean/Cartesian power games and Capital gone mad: Disney already did it for us (some would say they did for us, too). For Tron is about the transition between two computer cultures, about the switch from centralised, time-sharing mainframes to minicomputers and PCs. Contemporary industry boosters like Kevin Kelly like to see this transition, this vector, as moving positively along the axis of anarchy - of an anarchy positively valorised. If the state is centralised control (of information, in this case), they say, and centralised control is bad, then distributing the means of power (the information processing machines) amongst the "people" is, it follows, good.

But even if we accept this moral spin we still have to ask ourselves: is it really that simple? Shouldn't we try to examine the nature of this distribution a little more closely? Shouldn't we try to find out if that's really what it seems? To take the booster's line is to swallow the idea that these transitions are Kuhnian or Kellyian phase changes, steps the machine is taking up some evolutionary ladder. But evolution isn't about ladders. Evolution isn't one single process (or even two interacting ones: no dialectics, please) overcoming problems and getting better and better and ever more honed and efficient in the process. No, evolution is a turgid yeast of micro processes, churning away across ever mutating fitness landscapes, constantly spawning in every direction. Evolution is a crew of drunken, promiscuous and yet tenacious sailors clinging to the rotting deck of a ship that's being hurled to and fro in some nightmare storm off the Cape.

So that's one thing. The second thing is that distribution is quite easily co-opted by the State; always has been, always will be, and is in fact more easily co-opted by the State when it is given a certain amount of autonomy - contrast food distribution in the USA with food distribution in the USSR during the '50s and '60s if you have any doubts about that one. One of the ways in which the Holy Roman Church maintained its power base throughout mediaeval Europe, for example, was through the distribution of religious relics. There was an enormous trade in these relics. From Christ's fingerbones and the mythical Grail Cup to weeping statues and all manner of articles supposedly belonging to one saint or another, holy items migrated their way across the continent. A church had to have a relic in order that it qualify to be considered a holy place and receive the pope's blessing.

Control over the relics therefore meant control over the setting up of churches, and control of the setting up of churches meant control over the routes that migrating pilgrims would take. And control over pilgrims' routes was no laughing matter - during this period [the 11th to 15th centuries], which roughly coincides with the great period of cathedral building (which as an architecture of light can be thought of as a kind of cyberspace, but more of that later) - pilgrimages were responsible for quite enormous currents of people travelling around Europe. And as the individual churches themselves were not only the religious but also the economic focus of the communities which built them, any movement between them involved not just piety but trade. Control of the pilgrim roads meant control of the trade roads and, as the saying went, "All roads lead to Rome". If ever you get the chance to visit the Vatican, on your way to gawp at the Sistine Chapel check out the vast map room, an immense gilded gallery in which the maps of the time are painted onto the walls. At the centre of every map is Rome. The Catholic Church was quite aware that distributed relics could and did mean central informational control. In comparison with the popes, it seems, Bill Gates is a saint.

The point is that in Tron II, possibly the greatest film never made, the Bridges/Jobs machine gets superceded by the Boxleitner/Gates machine, aka the Microsoft machine, which has by this time become a war machine. And when a religion sets itself up as war machine (and Microsoft, Sun, IBM and so on are in many ways religious instutions - it's not for nothing that these companies title their proselytisers "evangelists") it is not itself subverted by that cute nomadology that we're all so fond of (and which I earlier introduced by the backdoor in the guise of "anarchy"). On the contrary, it establishes itself as a war machine by deploying the power of the nomad, the power of "absolute deterrorialisation" as Deleuze would say, to further its own ends.

But wait a minute. This is a dangerous stuff. How does a centralised, paranoid Statist structure deploy the absolute deterritorialisation of the nomad without getting torn apart by it? Doesn't this contradict the great lesson that the Mongel hordes taught the Christians, that the Vietcong taught the Americans? That rigid structures, the State-form, will get torn apart on contact with virulant nomadology? Well, yes and no. The unfortunate fact is that there isn't a simple opposition here. The State is quite capable of internalising the power of the nomad and subverting it; it achieves this by doubling this power, matching it with its own version. And its own version is called migration. The key thing about the migrant is that s/he is a state member and yet at the same time always a potential nomad: in this way migrants form the fluid boundary of the State, a boundary which is porous enough to interact with the nomads outside of the State, and which can therefore expand outwards whilst leaving in its wake a swathe of Statist settlement where previously there was unruly steppe.

The character of Tron, the ultimate games player, is a nomad trapped in the State space of the Master Programme. The space of the Master Programme is characterised by straight lines and infinite perspectives; Tron's space on the other hand is characterised by fluidity, by the heuristics of the discus, his weapon of choice. But somewhere in between these two tendencies we find the space of the Bridges/Jobs machine and the Boxleitner/Gates machine. Theirs is the space of overturning; theirs is the space of the migrant. We can illustrate this by comparing these experiences of cyberspace to experiences of the desert. For the nomad, the desert is a haptic space, that is to say it is ruled by tactile qualities, rather than by lines of sight: "The same terms are used to describe ice deserts as sand deserts: there is no line separating earth and sky; there is no intermediate distance, no perspective or contour; visibility is limited; and yet there is an extra-ordinarily fine topology that relies not on points or objects but rather on haecceities, on sets of relations (winds, undulations of snow or sand, the song of the sand or the creaking of the ice, the tactile qualities of both)." [A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, p. 382] Everything about nomad space is localised and not delimited. The nomad is situated in what Deleuze calls a local absolute, in which everything is manifested locally and engendered in a series of local operations of varying orientations.

By contrast, the space of the Master Programme and the desert of religion is extremely visual. The State cannot negotiate the desert: it can only divide it up, log it, record it, distribute it, embue it with a fixed and encompassing horizon. This what Baudrillard realises in his book America, when he draws a comparison between the American desert and cyberspace. Gibson gets it too; it's why he calls the most dense, most paranoid structures in cyberspace "ice" (look at the game-play grids in Tron). That's what religion does: it makes the absolute appear in a particular place. The absolute for religion is no longer a series of local, tactile operations but a global attribute that is subject to manifestation. This is exactly the job that the relics did in the network set up by the church of Rome - they were local manifestations of the global truth embodied at the centre of the network and indeed by the network itself, the waystations of which were cathedrals: vast buildings of light the design of which was meant to capture and repeat - make manifest - the kingdom of light itself, Heaven (today we might call them "servers").

So what does all of this amount to? Just that we have to be wary. The Master Programme is, more often than not, a straw man. Religions are not embodied in their figureheads, but in the nature of their networks, of their power structures, of their conceptual spaces. Even as they help Tron against the Master Programme, the Bridges/Jobs and Boxleitner/Gates machines are acting as agents for the Master Programme's religion. They are migrants, interacting with the nomad machine but ultimately leaving a striated space in their wake. This structure, of the outsider who nevertheless internalises the State, often without knowing it, is common to countless American movies (think of the Western, and the figure of the revenging lone rider, exemplified in the characters played by Clint Eastwood). But it is more than a cultural artefact: it is an economic strategy, a technique for annexing the borderlands and interzones that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. In the computer industry and, by extension, on the Internet - less and less a collection of relatively discreet networks and bulletin boards and increasingly a "world wide web" of "superhighways" populated with various types of "spider" which continually battle for control of the information centre, a whole range of distrbuted and semi-nomad techniques of appropriation at their disposal - it has proved particularly successful (as it did in the "Wild West"). Although the PC came out of the electronics industry - and therefore out of the world of videogames, digital watches and pocket calculators - rather than out of the computer industry per se, it has become as much a religious artefact as the Mainframe ever was, maybe more so - at least every mainframe was customised for a particular task. What we need to work out now is what we can do about that. 

- Backspace Lectures: Religion & the Net, February 1997