The Duck of Minerva

Information, Freedom and “Tron: Legacy”

1 January 2011

It hasn’t exactly been getting great reviews: the 1982 version had a plump, red thumbs-up rating of 69% on Rotten Tomatoes, whereas the sequel is at a festering, sickly 49%. Most of the bad reviews fall into the “meh” category: all glitz, no story. But there’s also push-back by those who see some ‘big ideas’ embedded in the film.

Let me use one articulation of Tron: Legacy’s big ideas in particular as my foil – the following is written by a blog commenter at MovieCityNews reacting to a post by David Poland. Murdocdv’s comment was then recycled by Poland on its own post which has attracted some discussion. According to Murdocdv, Tron: Legacy has at least two “big ideas” that should not be overlooked just because they’re packaged in a bunch of largely irrelevant eye candy:

Here are two big ideas in Tron Legacy. First, that intelligent life spontaneously springs into existence without a creator. Two, that information may want to be free, but that doesn’t mean it always should be.

In the movie, original Flynn tells his son of his huge discovery, the ISOs (isometric lifeforms). He has proof that life does not need a creator to exist, it can simply spring into existence. Flynn is the god to this universe, and something is alive he didn’t create. If in reality someone created artificial intelligence in our image which did as it was told, but in that same environment another kind of AI evolved out of nothingness, the discovery would be monumental. As Flynn in the movie says, it would change everything. Coincidentally, from descriptions I’ve read, physicist Stephen Hawking’s recent book The Grand Design argues essentially the same thing for our universe, it simply sprung into being, no creator needed.

The other big idea is that information wants to be free. Sam Flynn demonstrates this idea by hacking into Encom’s systems to upload the latest version of their flagship operating system to the Internet. He does this to carry out the ideals of his father as best he knows them. In The Grid, Programs are information, thus Programs want to be free. But old Flynn has acquired some wisdom through his solitude in The Grid, and now believes that not all programs, not all information, can be free without cost. The Grid is not just a computer simulation, it’s another universe. Old Flynn mentions at some point his work in quantum teleportation, which is how he gets into The Grid via the laser scanner. Clu has figured this out, that the portal isn’t just an exit point for a user representation, but the actual gateway that transforms an existence for representation between our world and The Grid. If people can “beam in”, why can’t programs beam out? Clu wants Flynn’s identity disc because it has all the information on how this process works, and perhaps the bits necessary to get a program into the real world. Which is I think one of the reasons why old Flynn gives Quorra his ID disc, he hopes she can make it out. So old Flynn knows now that not all information should be free, sometimes the costs can be too high.

Without claiming that these ‘big ideas’ redeem the movie (they don’t because all the other criticisms are valid and the big ideas were never properly developed) if you’re looking for political meaning in the film it is indeed the information freedom subtext that I find the most interesting. The film begins as a advocate of that view and ends with what appears to be a moral story about the blow-back effects of information being freed for the wrong purposes, even with good intentions.

I read it, as you might suspect, through the lens of current events. But I also think it’s an impoverished commentary on those events and ultimately took us nowhere. And that may be why murdocdv and the other commenters on that thread have missed another politically important idea portrayed in the film: the anthropomorphication of “information” implied in the notion that “information wants to be free.”

Information doesn’t want to be free, because information doesn’t have wants. People want to be free. Information freedom – at least as understood in human rights law – is not about the rights of bytes. It is about the rights of people to use information to promote their other rights as human beings. This ability implies both access by citizens to information on governments, and control by citizens over information about themselves. It is not about liberating all information per se – quite the opposite, which is why privacy rights activism and FOI activism are so closely related.

But in Tron: Legacy, all this is inverted: programs and ISOs (“information”) exist as individual beings with wants, feelings, fears, the capacity to feel pain, the desire to rebel and resist – attributes we associate with rights-bearers. Indeed, protecting the rights of such beings to be free of tyranny, genocide and oppression becomes the ultimate goal of the film (the harmony of interests between the ISOs and the human race just made it boring, that’s all). In that sense, murdocdv’s “big idea” about creation works counter to the preachiness about information freedom being contingent – it in fact proves and reconstitutes Flynn’s original argument: metaphorically “information” has a life and a mind of its own, and deserves self-determination. It is partly these kinds of unresolved contradictions that make Tron: Legacy incoherent and unsatisfying, despite the remarkable visuals.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]