This post was originally written for a college assignment. Students were to watch Tron and The Matrix, then write a blog post about both movies’ commentary on our digital culture. A 750 word limit was enforced.
Tron and The Matrix both came from pivotal times where technology was rapidly changing for the everyday person. Tron was released in 1982, a year after IBM introduced its ‘Personal Computer’ and the same year that Time Magazine’s annual “Man of the Year” was instead the “Machine of the Year”. It was the beginning of personal computing as they became more accessible and useful for the average person. The Matrix was released in 1999, nearly two decades after Tron, during which people had time to adjust to having personal computers enough so that personal devices and consumer electronics were much more present on the market (iMacs, Furbys, Grand Theft Auto, even the first GPU). Heck, I even had computer games on CD-ROMs that kept me entertained along with a GameBoy Color. During these times of rapid change, it’s not uncommon to fear the change taking place. People today in 2016 are worried about artificial intelligence and the possibility that one day, just maybe, machines will overtake humans. Interestingly, the movies Tron and Matrix both deal with that same fear even though they were made 2 and 1 decades ago respectively.
In Tron, the personification of the programs was presented to make an abstract concept (how programs worked) more relatable to a non-technical audience, especially in a time when people were less technically literate. In this early time of computing, the programs in movie had more specialized elements that the movie makers attempted to explain to the viewers. A program would directly refer to its own programming and functions, and comparisons to what a program did and what happened in the real world were very literal. (Such as the arcade game Tron using color lines and the ‘game grid’ in the virtual world using light bikes that produced color lines.) In contrast, The Matrix’s programs didn’t refer to their own code or programs, but blended in seamlessly with the rest of the human presenting world of the Matrix. This mirrors the more user friendly electronics of the era, two decades later.
Both film antagonists (Master Control Program in Torn and the Agents in The Matrix) were shown with lack of emotion, enough awareness to carry out an agenda, and actions that seemed to either operate purely on logic or with aggression. Tron even alluded to this when a program asked ‘What’s he computing!?’ instead of ‘What’s he thinking!?’ in the beginning. None of the antagonists in either movie showed compassion, while the human characters clearly showed a wide range of positive and negative emotions, thereby making them more ‘human’. The thought that computers are more technical and lacking emotion connects to early computing in which code was less evolved (closer to machine language instead of high-level languages we have today) and programs were less user-friendly. Due to programming itself being less accessible and more specialized than it is now, programmers didn’t have time to focus on user experience as much as they do today. Since more frameworks and libraries for languages are available now, all one needs to do is be able to research and implement pre-existing code in order to make a common function work instead of reinventing the wheel. The time saved by this research allows for more code optimization, and more time to implement human-friendly design and conveniences to the point that nowadays, it’s not surprising a movie (such as Ex Machina or Her) might focus on AI and the Turing Test and feel plausible.
The way Tron and The Matrix alleviated the anxieties of the audiences was showing that in the end, the humans ultimately had the most power over the machines. In Tron, the User trapped in the virtual world was able to convert and control a machine vehicle and gain a heavy advantage against the programs. In the Matrix, Neo was able to use his knowledge that the Matrix existed to gain what could be considered superhuman abilities, and ultimately was able to see the code making up the Matrix and manipulate it at will at the end of the movie (resulting in him winning against the Agents). In today’s world, when the world champion of the game Go was beat 4-1 by an AI, do we still have that feeling of empowerment? A hope that we ultimately control the machines and technology we create? No doubt, the movies of today reflect that struggle, but with movies like Tron and The Matrix, we have a time capsule into thoughts of technologies decades past.
Edit 6/18/2016: The post preface was edited.