Wherein I propose that the Tron films can be read as a metaphor for dog culture and a criticism of the kennel club system.
If there was one day of the year that parents would not have to take the kids to the movies to entertain them, you’d think it’d be Christmas day where weeks of planning and big budgets would keep the rugrats busy playing with their haul of new toys. But apparently parents suck at picking gifts or the toys the kids want never live up to the hype and a movie is the perfect way to shut them up from all the complaining.
So if you didn’t want to watch Patton, Valkyrie, or Inglourious Basterds on cable (what’s with the Nazi theme on Christmas?), you might have seen Tron: Legacy this holiday.
Although you might miss it if you don’t have dogs on the brain, I can’t help but see the plot as a critique on the same issue that is plaguing the culture of canine kennel clubs: the pursuit of perfection via genetic purity.
In the original film, Kevin Flynn is a laid off programmer trying to prove that his intellectual property is the code behind ENCOM corporation’s business success and revolutionary new virtual world. The evil CEO of the company has not only kicked Flynn out but has installed an oppressive new “Master Control Program” which has so far prevented Flynn from accessing his original files and proving his authorship.
So instead of filing a lawsuit, Flynn attempts to hack the ENCOM computers with successive generations of a program he has written and which he tries to improve to a level that will finally overcome the MCP. He names this program Clu, and it’s an expression of Flynn’s talent and ego in digital form, and “hacking” is represented by various gaming simulations that are reminiscent of Pong and Battle Tanks.
When Clu fails, Flynn retools the program and sends him into the ring again.
Besides fending off attempts to reveal the charade, the MCP also seeks to improve itself and the virtual world by determining which programs are optimal and which are deficient. Deficient programs are discarded in a form of blood sport where they are pitted against each other in gladiatorial combat.
All programs in the world have their vital information stored in a data disc which they wear on their backs. This is both a weapon and a shield from attacks. When a program loses their data disc, they don’t die but they are prevented from meaningful interaction with the world.
When Clu proves ineffective in vanquishing the MCP, Flynn himself is accidentally digitized and sucked into the virtual world, taking over for Clu in the fight against the MCP. Flynn succeeds and the movie ends with him in control of ENCOM.
ENCOM’s MCP is the kennel club. It is large, oppressive, and seeks to gain control of all the individual types of programs that it can. It thinks that the more programs it appropriates, the smarter and more powerful it is. It also believes that it is smarter due to this monopoly than the individual programs are: it inexplicably knows more about actuarial science than the actuarial program does. Rebels are cast out and good ideas are appropriated and promptly botched in execution.
The Master Control Program’s goal is the collection of breed standards. It dictates the Platonic ideal of what a program should be. The competitive methods used to test programs against the ideal don’t really make sense at all, but since the MCP is already large and growing it bull dozes over any who would rebel against it.
The gladiatorial games are the breed ring. This is where the actuarial program fights the tax software in a game of digital Jai Alai or Frisbee Tag to prove which one is worthy of further existence. Never mind that one could easily test the actuarial program against real data or test the tax software against the real work it’s supposed to do… Dodge Ball is deemed a perfectly good test to measure which programs get to propogate their code and which are stripped of their data discs.
The data discs are the pedigrees: the record of past success, current ability, and the ticket into the game. No pedigree, no entry. In many cases, the disc is more valuable than the program itself. Some programs use their disc to knock the ground out from under other programs, not defeating the programs themselves but slanting the environment in their favor.
The programs are the dogs. They are the genetic code rewritten over generations from previous iterations by the “user” sent out to compete for the user’s benefit. Real functional programs don’t have to bother with the games, they actually get work done, but the programs that once worked but no longer do get to play games in the ring and pretend that it’s a good measure of their worth. We never actually see the programs that win in the games go back and do real work. In fact, we don’t see much work being done at all and the going religion is that the “users” who ask the programs to work, are actually a myth.
The victory of the Jeff Bridge’s character in the game and out signals that it’s really all about the “users” anyway, the programs are just a side show.
Although dogs certainly weren’t featured in the original Tron, I think the analogy is pretty solid.
In the sequel, this extended metaphor becomes even more blatant and critical of dog culture. Not only do we have the addition of a literal rescue dog to the story, we also have dialog which links the dog to one of the main characters in a relevant manner.
After wrestling control of the virtual world from the MCP, Kevin Flynn resurrects his Clu program and promises it that together they shall build a “perfect” virtual utopia. This is our hero’s tragic fault: the quest for perfection. In his desire to perfect Clu (his breeding program) and perfect the virtual world (the kennel club), Flynn fails to appreciate that perfection is unattainable and subjective but computer programs are deterministic and objective. Minor flaws in human understanding can become critical flaws in the code (genetic or otherwise). In the original film Flynn beats the MCP by having it try to solve an unsolvable problem. This confuses and slows the machine and gives Flynn the crucial advantage.
What’s novel about the sequel is that it also deals with new genetic variations. Whereas all the original programs are the products of human “users” and later programs arise from this first generation of programs, and at some point new code manifests itself in the virtual world ab nihilo in the form of “isomorphic algorithms.”
Isomorphism has a specific meaning in science: literally “same form” in Greek, the term is applied to objects that have the same fundamental properties. The two sides of an equation are isomorphic, as you can apply rule to both sides to change their appearance but the relationship is maintained. Isomorphisms also connect symbols with their real world counterparts, and as such they represent the meaning we find between reality and abstraction.
Analogizing the content of the movie to represent the real world kennel club is a proposed isomorphism. The more similarities we find between the symbols in the movie and the reality of dog culture, the more meaning the analogy has.
This concept is detailed in Gödel, Escher, Bach where Douglas Hofstadter discusses how isomorphisms bring meaning to systems composed of otherwise meaningless elements.
In Legacy, the isomorphic algorithms (ISOs) are viewed by Kevin Flynn as keys to expanding knowledge and finding truth, but Clu determines that they are imperfect and without merit. He’s jealous of the attention and value that Flynn places on these organic programs.
The ISOs are the dogs that exist outside of the kennel club system: purpose built dogs, dogs of unknown pedigree, land races, hybrids, mutts, and new mutations. As isomorphs, they have meaning not in seeking perfection but in existential value, rational value.
Clu sees Flynn’s appreciation of the ISOs as a flaw, an imperfection, and so humans are imperfect. Thus, humans and ISOs must be removed from the equation. Clu believes that perfection is real and attainable and he institutes policies to achieve it. Like humans who have tried to construct utopias, this results in a massive Draconian bureaucracy. Clu overthrows Flynn, who becomes trapped within the virtual world and left marginalized hiding “off the grid” while Clu institutionalizes “perfection” and plots to bring his vision out into the real human world as well.
He carries out a genocide of the ISOs and only one ISO survives in the form of the delicious Quorra who is protected and shepherded by Flynn in his secret home off the grid. Despite Clu’s repeated attempts to kill her, Quorra is superior to his perfect programs. Clu tries to capture and use Flynn’s biological son, Sam, to bridge the gap into the imperfect human world where he can not only attain absolute power over the virtual realm to destroy both Kevin Flynn and Quorra, he can also cleanse the human world of imperfect humans. The key to bridge the worlds is Kevin Flynn’s data disc (the perfect Platonic form). If Clu can capture that disc, he can literally know the mind of god and escape the virtual realm.
The resolution of the plot speaks harshly against the kennel club culture:
- The pursuit of perfection above all is the villain’s tragic flaw.
- The villain installs a Draconian bureaucracy to enforce this “perfection.”
- This heartless world is thus governed by a rigid and unthinking document instead of rational but imperfect human beings.
- The arbitrary games eventually destroy almost all those who enter the ring.
- The imperfect humans prove superior at every turn to the examples of programmed perfection. The programs only succeed because they have a situational advantage.
- Choosing to resolve problems in the artificial world instead of the real world is the flaw which launches the drama in the first film.
- Neglecting his own biological son in favor of his virtual clone Clu is the sin which launches the drama in the second film.
- The humans defeat the programs at their own game by choosing not to play the game at all.
- The downfall of both the MCP and Clu comes about when they outgrow their original purpose and seize too much power.
- Both villains suffer from logical absolutisms: MCP seeking absolute power through acquiring all programs of merit and Clu seeking absolute perfection through purging of the imperfect.
- The hero of the first film finds but a temporary victory from conquering the MCP from within; it’s only after the distorted philosophy is conquered and the virtual world itself is abandoned that the threat is abated. A corrupt philosophy even freed from the initial despotism inevitably lead to a new and destructive despotism.
- The happy ending of both films involves breaking free and living outside of the oppressive system. To live in the real world governed by nature’s laws not in the carefully constructed but artificial utopia.
- Flynn’s biological son, not his ideal clone-like program proves not only superior but the fitting legacy to his life and values.
- Interaction with the “perfect algorithms” damages Quorra’s body, making her lame. They repair her by fixing her corrupted digital DNA. The system can’t do this, only the user who is not bound by the system’s rules can.
- The biological son and Quorra find their happy ending not in the ideal utopia where they can play gods, but in the dirty and imperfect real world.
- Sam Flynn’s initial attack on the blind corporatism of ENCOM was represented by an image of his “rescue dog,” a virus that negated ENCOM’s monopoly on operating system software.
- Later, Quorra refers to herself as a “rescue” like Sam’s dog; saved from the genocide carried out against the imperfect ISOs by Kevin Flynn.
- The older, organic technics in the film prove superior to the newer models built for perfection and aesthetic appeal, especially when piloted by the biological son Sam and the “new blood” ISO Quorra. The LightCar in particular proves to be more adaptable and contain more reserve code that can be applied to varied terrain and challenges versus the new LightBikes which are only of value on-grid.
- It’s only Sam and Quorra who are valuable enough to save in the end. Kevin, for his sins, must pay the ultimate price and the MCP and Clu are destroyed.
Rewatch Tron: Legacy with dogs on the brain and you’ll appreciate how it’s a pretty strong indictment of not only the folly of seeking Platonic ideals but of the rejection of the organic, the imperfect, and the complex. No meaning, only suffering, is found in the pursuit of the ideal. Meaning comes only from connecting symbols with reality. It’s also not enough to change a regime from within if you maintain the bogus philosophy which constructed it in the first place. Even with the best intentions, corrupt thought leads to tragedy.
* * *
If this post made you think and you'd like to read more like it, consider a donation to my 4 Border Collies' Treat and Toy Fund. They'll be glad you did. You can subscribe to the feed or enter your e-mail in the field on the right to receive notice of new content. You can also like BorderWars on Facebook for more frequent musings and curiosities.
* * *