James Flint on Fri, 14 Mar 97 13:11 MET

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nettime: The cult of Tron

This paper was written for a forum on "Religion and the Net", organised by
Heath Bunting at the Bakspace project space in Clink St. London on 26th
February. The paper got a good response, and some one suggested I post it
to Net-Time, so here it is. Hope you enjoy it. 


I dunno if you remember the movie Tron. I suppose that's a pointless
question, because once seen, Tron can't be forgotten. Okay, so it was made
by Disney, personally my most despised entertainment company. It cost $20
million to make - which back in 1982 was an awful lot of money - and was a
box office flop. The critics slated it, declaring the video game better
than the movie (they may have been right). But when I first saw that film
in the cinema at the age of 14 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 it
if I got it - 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 totally shit and yet so utterly amazing. 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 a
computer as some super intelligent mainframe. We all knew that apart from
the line graphics most of the special effects in Tron were hand-painted;
that was part of its charm. But 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; his companion in RL and,
ultimately, in the cyberspace battle against the Master Programme (aka IBM)
is a mild-mannered supernerd with the 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 its 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

It just goes to show that we didn't need Gibson and Bladerunner to come
along and tell us that Cyberspace was all fucked up, that it was all about
Euclidean/Cartesian power games and Capital gone mad. Disney did it for us.
Tron is about the transition between two computer cultures, about the
switch from centralised, time-sharing mainframes to minicomputers and PCs.
Industry boosters (I wrote here as an aside "you know who you are", but
John Perry Barlow didn't show up for tonight's session) 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 it's
really what it seems? To take the industry 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)
overcoming problems and getting better and better and ever more honed and
efficient in the process. No, evolution is a turgid yeast of
microprocesses, churning away across ever mutating fitness landscapes,
constantly spawning in every direction. Evolution is a crew of drunken and
promicuous 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 this one. In
mediaeval Europe, one of the ways in which the Holy Roman Church maintained
its power base was by the distribution of religious relics. There was an
enormous trade in these relics. From Christ's fingerbones and the Grail Cup
to weeping statues and all manner of articles supposedly belonging to one
saint or another, these items migrated their way across the continent. A
church had to have a relic in order that it be considered a holy place and
receive the pope's blessing. Control over the relics meant control over the
setting up of churches, and control of the setting up of churches meant
control over the routes that pilgrims would take. And control over
pilgrims' routes was no laughing matter - during this period [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 a
massive movement of people. With the churches as the chief focus of every
community - economically, as well as religiously - 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 you ever 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, Bill Gates is a saint!

The point is that in Tron II, possibly the greatest film never made, the
Bridges/Jobs machine is superceded by the Boxleitner/Gates machine, aka the
Microsoft machine, and the Microsoft machine is by now a war machine. But
when a religion sets itself up as war machine (and the point I want to make
is that Microsoft et al are in many ways religious instutions - it's not
for nothing that these companies call their proselytisers "evangelists" -
yes, it's true, it's even printed on their business cards) it is not itself
subverted by that cute nomadology that we're all so fond of (and which I
introduced by the backdoor earlier under the guise of "anarchy"), but
rather it deploys the power of the nomad, the power of "absolute
deterrorialisation" as Deleuze would say. 

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? Isn't this the 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 does that by
doubling it - and matching it - with its own version: MIGRATION. The
migrant is always a potential nomad; it is the fluid boundary of the state,
one which is porous enough to interact with the nomad and at the same time
leave in its wake a swathe of settlement.

The character Tron, the ultimate games player, is a nomad trapped in the
fluid 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 inbetween these two tendencies
we find the space of the Bridges/Jobs machine and of the Boxleitner/Gates
machine. It is the space of overturning; it 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, where 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 theabsolute 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
(today we might call them "servers") were cathedrals: vast buildings of
light whose design was meant to capture and repeat - make manifest - the
kingdom of light itself, Heaven. 

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. But it is more than a cultural artefact: it is
an economic strategy, a technique for 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 with various spiders battling for control of the centre, a
whole range of distrbuted and semi-nomad techniques of appropriation at
their disposal - it has proved particularly successful. 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 is what we can do about that. 

 James Flint
26th February 1997

James Flint

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