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original title: TRON
duration: 1h 36min
tags: Step inside the computer world. TRON!
keywords: computer, arcade, computerhacker, cyberspace, supercomputer, computerprogram, computeranimation, insideacomputer, megacorporation, computercracker, artificialintelligence, humanversuscomputer, securit
Steven Lisberger directed "Tron" in 1982, a film which made heavy use of early computer animation and a special back-light effect. That same year, "The Wrath of Khan" made the first use of fractal generated CGI landscapes. Prior to 1982, CGI largely took the form of simple wire frame graphics, as seen in the trench-run briefing sequence in "Star Wars" and the computer monitors in "Alien".
Despite its technological breakthroughs, "Tron's" actual plot and aesthetic were second hand, too closely resembling 1977's "Star Wars", both in narrative structure (breaking into the Death Star and escaping) and look (Lisberger's conceptual designers were Syd Mead and Moebius, but their work resembles Ralph Maquarie's on "Star Wars"). The film got two things right, though. Its tale of giant computer firms bullying rivals and stealing software echoes a war fought even today between monopolising corporations and burgeoning studios (and between freeware and commercial material), and its narrative, which finds our hero trapped in a computer and forced to battle bad guys in CGI mini-video games, is itself the aesthetic and raison d'etre of most films, storytelling reduced to Pavlovian, video game reward systems. This is a "dopamine trigger" aesthetic (dopamine plays a role in how the brain handles reward), the precursor to our own internet-age (kids are done with films; the net and interactive video games offer more of a rush). Dopamine is itself involved in the addictiveness of drugs (ironic; one of the world's first CGI films, Peter Foldes' "Hunger", was about addiction), and withdrawals from it leads to fractured thinking, cravings and a lack of focus (giving rewards, be it dopamine, food or money, actually decreases intrinsic motivation). And while many believe the "information age" leads to better multitasking and more productivity, research shows otherwise, heavy multitaskers having more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information. Indeed, today there's a rise in under-functioning pre-frontal cortices, which is itself linked with types of behaviour marked by total absorption in the "here" and "now" (prompted and accompanied by dopamine "rewards" in computer play, this creates a euphoric ego boost), and an inability to consider past and future implications (dearth in dreams/imagination/context etc). Meanwhile, we continue to believe that technology has some emancipatory power.
Recently, researchers at Yale and The University of Texas used a computer model called DISCERN to simulate the excessive release of dopamine in the brain. DISCERN was built to absorb/process information, but the rate at which it did this was increased by the researchers. It relentlessly consumed and, akin to flooding its system with dopamine, was not allowed to ignore or forget the "joy" of qualia. This, bizarrely, resulted in the model becoming delusional, concocting fantastical stories out of the information it consumed (at one point the computer believed it was a terrorist, for example). In other words, DISCERN's constant dopamine rushes led to it becoming schizophrenic.
In humans, dopamine (and other neurotransmitters) marks "salience", and essentially rewards you for "detecting" information which the brain thinks is important for playing the "game" of life. Of course it can't tell the difference between substantive information and junk. It simply marks a detection, and you crave more. Schizophrenia is itself, some now hypothesise, the brain's suffering from a form of "hyperlearning", the schizoid brain unable to ignore what "ordinary" brains normally would filter out. Inundated with noise, such a brain loses the ability to extract what's meaningful out of the immensity of stimuli the brain encounters; it gets high off stimulus and drowns in a sea of noise, losing the ability to stitch together any kind of coherent story or sense. Postmodern theorists dub our current world's aesthetic, in which technology, computers and techno-capitalism frenetically co-mingle, as one of schizophrenia, everyone self-excited circuits getting high off broken morsels of noise (the driving force behind all addictions is itself dislocation, the general condition of Western society). Meanwhile, from a cognitive point of view, capitalism, which thrives on a constant Now, or immediacy, is itself dopamine monetised, its neurologically sounding economic "depressions" forever dependent on the anti-depressant like stimulants economists inject to prevent financial mood swings.
The first "Tron" captured a time in which the anti-authoritarianism of the Hippie counter-culture meshed with Yuppie Techno-Utopianism (what is known as "The Californian Ideology"). With computers moving into the hands of "oridinary people", it was believed that computer networks were the new revolution, would bring about "freedom", would save us from "tyranny". This "tyranny" generally took the form of "evil corporations", and a scepticism toward technology (the "Dictatorship of the machine!"). Computers were themselves viewed by some as being tyrannical. They were sealed boxes, their inner workings were hidden, they denied access to their depths, spoke their own language, were closed systems, reduced the user's range of choices and encouraged a kind of mysticism which in turn leads to a state of unquestioning acceptance of the supremacy of technology. This line of thinking began with the industrial revolution. But of course the real tyranny was more biochemical. You see this in "Tron", the film's cyber inhabitants professing to seek "freedom", when in reality they simply want a perfect simulacral world to chill out and jerk-off to sexy graphics and constant gaming. Me me me. Now now now. Play play play. Always.
With the benefit of hindsight, the new "Tron" film (a techno-phobic back-to-nature parable akin to "Avatar"), titled "Tron: Legacy" and directed by Joseph Kosinski, thus becomes about the tyranny of technology. For Kosinski, all technology is warped by the body, and primarily repackages its wants, neuroses and failings.