Tron: Legacy and the Hacker Ethic
Jennifer Lynn Miller

One of the major movie events this past December was the release of Tron: Legacy, the sequel to the 1982 Disney cult classic Tron. In the original movie, programmer Kevin Flynn enters the computer system at ENCOM’s corporate headquarters and prevents the Master Control Program from taking over the system and making computer users obsolete. In the sequel, Kevin Flynn has been missing for twenty years, and his son Sam has been left to grow up alone. After receiving an enigmatic message, seemingly from his father, Sam returns to his father’s abandoned arcade and finds himself sucked into a computer system, just like his father was. Once inside the computer system, Sam finds out that his father has been trapped in the system for the past twenty years, and he battles programs, rides light-cycles, and teams up with the human/program hybrid named Quorra to try to help his father escape back into the real world. (Note: This article contains spoilers.)

While the movie is a high-tech extravaganza, featuring 3-D effects and the electronic music of Daft Punk, it is also dedicated to looking backward to the original movie. This is clear even before entering the movie theater. The movie’s promotional posters show Sam Flynn reaching up with two arms into a beam of light, with Quorra bracing herself against him, an obvious recreation of the poster from the original film, which showed the computer program Tron reaching up into a stream of light with fellow program Yori bracing herself at his side. Certainly, this continuity in design is an intentional strategy on the part of Disney’s marketing team to court the fans of the original movie who have been anxiously awaiting this sequel for twenty-eight years. But there is something more at stake here. This continuity of imagery conveys a sense of nostalgia, a sense of longing for a bygone decade when computers were new, thrilling, and dangerous.

The feeling of nostalgia found in Tron: Legacy is not limited to the movie poster. The title itself, with the use of the word “legacy,” looks to established ideas of the past rather than pointing forward to new, exciting ideas. Jeff Bridges reprises his role as Kevin Flynn, but he also plays the “bad guy” of the movie, a computer program named Clu who overzealously seeks to create a perfect society. While Sam, Kevin’s son, is arguably the hero of the movie, the doubling of Kevin and the continued reliance on his expertise, rather than his son’s, makes the narrative itself backward-looking—as does Kevin’s final self-sacrifice to let Sam and Quorra escape to the real world. Even many of the film’s most exciting visual effects, such as lightcycle battles and the patrolling recognizers, are just reworked versions of effects from the original movie.

Several scenes throughout the movie add to this sense of nostalgia, most notably a scene near the beginning in which Sam returns to his father’s arcade. Because of the cryptic message he received, Sam does not know what to expect when he enters the building. As a result, both he and the viewer are on edge—both physically and emotionally—when he enters the arcade and turns on the power. Immediately, the lights and sounds of dozens of video games start up, creating the “powering-up” noise familiar to many of us who experienced the 1980s. The jukebox starts up as well, blasting first the music of Journey—“Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)”—and then Eurythmics—“Sweet Dreams (are Made of This).” In a soundtrack otherwise dominated by the music of Daft Punk, these two familiar songs evoke a nostalgic reaction in the viewer underscored by the emotional intensity of the scene, making it one of the most powerful moments in the movie.

This overwhelming feeling of nostalgia in a high-tech, computer movie would be noteworthy in and of itself, but it is particularly interesting when considered in conjunction with another main theme of the movie—the valorization of the hacker. In an opening scene, Sam rides his motorcycle to the headquarters of ENCOM, his father’s company, hacks into the security system to get into the building, and then sneaks up to a server room near the top of the building. At the same time, the ENCOM board of directors is meeting, preparing for the release of their latest computer operating system—which they themselves admit is just a repackaged version of the older system. Sam hacks into ENCOM’s network, disrupts the presentation in the board meeting, and releases the code for the operating system to the Internet at large. Pursued by a security guard, Sam then runs to the top of the building, climbs outside, and jumps off the building, using a parachute to glide to safety. The excitement, openness, and sense of play in Sam’s actions, and the corresponding uptight, greedy, and mean-spirited attitude of the ENCOM board, clearly position Sam’s actions as the right, moral choice.

Yet what does it mean for this valorization of the hacker to be portrayed in the same movie that has such a strong sense of nostalgia? Here it is helpful to consider Gerardo Marti’s essay “Hacker Ethics and Higher Learning: The Moral Clash Determining the Future of Education” (p. 17 of the current issue). The author discusses two ideologies that are shaping American higher education, one of which, the “Hacker Ethic,” he describes as being characterized by openness, free exchange of ideas, a rejection of authority, playfulness, and solving problems by the seat of one’s pants—all of which are applicable to Sam Flynn’s hack of ENCOM. Marti contrasts this Hacker Ethic with the educational model provided by traditional institutions of higher learning, which he calls the ethic of “formative retreat.” He argues that the formative retreat model is characterized by a central authority that provides constraints for students, thus shaping them into moral beings. Marti argues that today’s students have embraced the Hacker Ethic, and so traditional colleges and universities need to think about how to incorporate this ethic into their teaching, rather than “romanticize” an outdated model of education that can no longer exist.

But, as Tron: Legacy demonstrates, the Hacker Ethic itself is defined by a sense of nostalgia and a romanticization of the past. Sam Flynn is not a hacker looking forward to the future, but a hacker looking backward to his father’s legacy. This same sense of nostalgia can be found on Internet message boards such as Reddit and Slashdot, with users reminiscing about the good old days of Usenet news feeds. Zach Whalen and Laurie Taylor’s essay collection Playing the Past (Vanderbilt, 2008) examines the key role that nostalgia plays in cutting-edge video games. Even Marti’s essay demonstrates how nostalgia is a key part of the Hacker Ethic. One of the key documents Marti uses to describe the Hacker Ethic was published over thirty years ago, demonstrating how the once radical has become the canonical. During the address on which his essay is based, Marti’s biggest reaction from the audience came when he showed pictures of old-school computers such as the Compaq 286. And while Marti’s roommate Kirby’s idea—“It’s not the computer, Gerardo. It’s the modem”—is remarkably prescient for 1986, Marti’s inclusion of it in his discussion of the Hacker Ethic adds force to the idea that the Hacker Ethic, like the model of formative retreat, is a model for education that often looks to the past for its key insights.

Yet as Linda Hutcheon perceptively notes in her influential essay, “Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern,” the past holds this power because of its inaccessibility. Not only is nostalgia a longing for an “irrecoverable” past, but it also “is the ideal that is not being lived now [that] is projected into the past.” As a result, explains Hutcheon, “nostalgia exiles us from the present” (January 1998, www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/criticism/hutchinp.html). The nostalgia of Tron: Legacy banishes Sam Flynn from his own life, forcing him instead to relive his father’s idealized adventures. As Marti’s warning against romanticizing the model of “formative retreat” suggests, this same dynamic could adversely affect a model of higher education based on hacker culture as well, with administrators and professors idealizing a playful, democratic past instead of focusing on the realities of the present.

Another look at Marti’s essay is helpful in avoiding this exile to the past, because his recent examples point to an important way in which the Hacker Ethic has evolved—namely, to be more commercialized and governed by the interests of large corporations. While Mark Zuckerberg might say that he wants to build a hacker culture, the fact remains that as a huge corporation that controls how people share information, Facebook itself is anti-hacker. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation may very well be funding educational reforms that increase reliance on interactive learning technology, but the impetus for these reforms is coming from the private fortune of a single entrepreneurial billionaire, rather than from a decentralized, democratic community. And while college students, with their iPhones, iPads, and iPods might like to think of themselves as plugged directly into the information superhighway, the means through which they access this information are designed and controlled by a select few companies and individuals.

Certainly, as this year’s events in Egypt demonstrate, people can use Facebook and other social media in amazingly powerful ways, but those same people can also have their Internet access cut off completely.  Similarly, Sam Flynn seems to be the ultimate hacker in Tron: Legacy, but his escape from the virtual world is ultimately dependent on a portal over which he has no control. Our own flow of information is increasingly controlled by the whim of government and big business, and as educators at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we would do well to think about the implications of this, rather than, like Sam Flynn, look to the past for our answers.


Jennifer Lynn Miller is a Lilly Fellow in the Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso University.

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