TRON Legacy and Web Construction: The City as God

NN Conference – Summer 2012

Please keep in mind that this was given as an oral presentation and is therefore still a bit rough. This chapter is expanded in Interfacing with the Internet in Popular Cinema (due out in 2014) and includes expansion on both the design theories of Donald A. Norman as well as application of Deleuze and Guattari’s Body without Organs.


In TRON: Legacy (2010), a grizzled Kevin Flynn, played by Jeff Bridges, explains the virtual world he’s been trapped in for 20 years as “The Grid. A digital frontier. I tried to picture clusters of information as they moved through the computer. What did they look like? Ships? motorcycles? Were the circuits like freeways?”  Flynn undertakes a vital thought experiment: what do our virtual spaces actually look like? What imagery should users, in 2012, be using to describe his/her virtual spaces?

Early cyberpunk author William Gibson, in 1984’s Neuromancer1, details cyberspace as “a consensual hallucination…a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Lines of light…Like city lights, receding…”. The world, while similar to Flynn’s in its description as city, is ultimately a hallucination that the user is distanced from. Similarly, Neal Stephenson, in Snow Crash (1993)2, describes the Metaverse as a persistent and large urban space, intercut by a long highway. While both novels touch on the density and city structure of this virtual space (not some limitless, structure-less limbo) both describe their characters as deliberately interacting with virtual reality equipment (goggles, gloves etc) as a way of entering into these worlds; the body remains in the “real” world; the avatar is projected into the virtual space. The avatar is purely digital and deliberately separate ; the body purely organic and in control.

Focusing on the web browser, this understanding of virtual spaces directly reflected the separation between physical and virtual self in early web programming and design. However, as hardware capabilities increased dramatically alongside the population of internet users, the immersiveness   of these spaces increased exponentially; basic web page programming and design, in particular the web browser, has undergone a complete and complex, very rapid, change. As such we’ve seen a deliberate shift in how these virtual spaces are depicted in film and novels and, more interestingly, how the bodies that populate these virtual spaces are valued. By tracking the description and interactions with virtual spaces from early 90s films through to recent movies like Avatar and TRON Legacy, we can see McLuhan’s “global village” 3, no longer describes contemporary users’ online, technologized experience. Instead of the individual body being the structuring element of these virtual spaces, as it was in the early days of the Internet, the vocabulary and understanding has changed to a dense, urban one, a structure that its users fully inhabit, absent of a physical body, as avatars with complete agency, living in a construction much, much closer to expansive and organic cities than villages.

Early Web Design

The Internet was originally designed as a way for the American government to stay in communication after a nuclear strike, a decentralized system that allowed for messages to flow without a central hub. Manuel De Landa explains that public access was relatively limited until the late 80s, when the home computer began to become reasonably affordable and the speed (and proliferation of basic infrastructure) increased to a tolerable level. Early on, the internet was completely text-based and consisted of very basic information transfers, no browsers and complex interfaces, mostly bulletin boards and File Transfer Protocol (FTP) programs. Basic navigation was done by typing into command lines (you might remember your black DOS screens). Similar to basic FTP programs today, users simply uploaded and downloaded info; there was no navigating to pages and exploring – a user would access another user’s files, downloaded them and read them using your own reading program.

When Mosiac was released in 1990 and the World Wide Web (www) became the public standard for browsers, it was its evolutionary form released in 1993, Netscape, that really shaped how contemporary users browse the internet. The interface of the browser allowed for the display of text (and eventually pictures with the <img> tag) directly and immediately on the screen. This interface shifted the basic user of the internet from one that required a great deal of technical skill to a more basic, general one. But, more importantly, that user could interact with some sense of spatiality – she/he could scroll up and down, drag a mouse around the screen.

Yet, how these pages were designed for early browsers was very simple. Each page that a user navigated to was a static chunk of code written by a human designer, the early standard being the HTML language; the browser would then take that code and translate it into a page that the user could then traverse. Early how-to books on HTML coding describe the pages as “static” and largely 2 dimensional, a document that “someone had to create…by hand or with tools and upload to a site where web browsers can visit”4

What is interesting about this back-end design was that it was still rooted, very specifically, in the human body. Pages in early web design were single houses intended to be occupied by a single body at one time. The early guide on designing both web and operating system interfaces titled “Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines” (1992) 5, as an example, constantly uses language that points directly to a specific individual user, often addressing the user as “you” and spelling out, in a section titled “Metaphors” that the space must be analogous to “a people’s knowledge of the world around them…involving concrete familiar ideas” (4). What is more familiar then than the body that’s present at all times? Later, in a section titled “Involving Users in the Design Process” the text encourages the designer to think about a specific, individual user’s needs and experiences (41) – it is that singular focus that drove early web programming and design.

The hyperlink (such a wonderful invention) allowed for jumping between pages but I would liken them to doors that allowed a user from one room (or house i.e. whole other web page) to another; each static page of code would be a basic room – the user could wander some but ultimately that space was very small and relatively limited. All together, the early Internet was analogous to a village, a small neighborhood a user could wander through.

The vocabulary of design and programming reflects this: designers, as a nod as well towards print literacy and documents,  worked within the “header” (top space of the page) and “footer” (bottom space); the major information was posted in the “body” portion of the page. You might also remember the default mouse in these early programs was a disembodied hand that floated around the screen.

It is important to note that the body was always present in this sense of design, perhaps a function of the trepidation of early online spaces and the necessary release of the physical body. Yet, that body was fragmented; the “real” body was the one, complete and whole, that controlled the computer from the outside. Early depictions of the internet in film show this: The delightful Hackers (Dir. Iain Softley, 1995)always highlighted the young protagonists outside the computer, using it, and gazing at the barrier of the screen. Similarly, the terrible, yet charmingly alarmist, Sandra Bullock movie The Net (Dir. Irwin Winkler, 1995) shows user interacting with these spaces through the screen only. The physical “real” body is the focus here, the one in control and where the action is; the virtual space is uninhabitable and when a user does enter into it, even in the translation of the Gibson short story (and Keanu Reeves gem) Johnny Mnemonic (Dir. Robert Longo, 1995) or even the pretty terrible Lawnmower Man series of films (Dir. Brett Leonard, 1992; Dir. Farhad Mann, 1996), only fragments of the body (in Mnemonic’s case, just hands) are present in the virtual space.

Fragmented to Complex (late ‘90s – mid 2000s)

Driven by the drastic increase in home computers and internet users, as well as, again, explosive changes in the capabilities of basic hardware (CPU, hard drives, ROM), the late 90s’ version of web design, and the virtual spaces it created, began to increase in complexity. Still, the page was tied to the designer and programmer as architect and God – the pages displayed only the code that was written by the designer and the pages were, largely, still limited to static wholes that could be jumped to by hyperlink. The pages were still designed with the basic “body” vocab. The internet was still a series of houses (and rooms), with just slightly more houses that were larger and more complex6.

But, more dynamic scripts like Flash and PHP created objects/elements and spaces on the web pages that were far more (potentially) interactive than a basic HTML script allowed. As well, centralized style sheets (CSS) allowed a designer to control the aesthetics of a whole site from one centralized file; previously, the style of each page had to be manually written into each page; now a designer could have one file to control all pages. As Davis and Phillips note 7, CSS combined with these dynamic scripts allowed the user much more interaction, in real time, with other users (such as in chat rooms) and manipulate the content and information on the page. The user was required/allowed to immerse his/herself more completely and fully into these virtual rooms and houses, projecting a more complete version of the self into these realms. This, interestingly, requires far more mental immersion; the users must inject themselves and their personalities/identities into these spaces in order to make the most use of them.

The Matrix (Dir. Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski), released in 1999, showcases this middle era of the internet nicely. In it, the avatars of Neo, Trinity, Morpheus etc are just that: digital representations of the users. But, in contrast to early to mid-90s versions of cyberspace, the avatars are full and complete bodies. In fact, as Morpheus explains “Your appearance now is what we call residual self image. It is the mental projection of your digital self” – oddly these self images approach a strange perfection, an ideal version of how the characters view themselves. The body is beautiful, the actions and capabilities of that body are super-heroic. But more, the body is full and complete and the virtual world mirrors the physical – the avatars interact in a full and complete city with many, many other users.

But, the fear of complete immersion into the virtual space still lingers – the avatar still requires a physical body to “jack into” the Matrix; in a more intriguing shift, it is the mind (and not the virtual reality goggles or gloves) that controls these avatars, suggesting, again, a deeper immersion into the world – as Springer notes in her essay “Virtual Repression: Hollywood’s Cyberspace and Models of the Mind” Gibson’s influence on the Matrix is present in that he viewed “the computer as a creative metaphor for the human mind” (63)8. While the importance had shifted, in a matter of years of interacting with a cyberspace, from the body to the mind, the change was still rooted in the mind being housed in the body. The body still reigns supreme: In the third Matrix, it is still the inevitable sacrifice of Neo’s physical body that gives closure to the films. Moreover, the villain (Agent Smith) is the one that lacks a physical body of his own and exists only in cyberspace. As represented by the web design of the zeitgeist surrounding the Matrix films, the body still reigns supreme as a physical entity, a puppet master controlling the avatar and those without are demonized.

Web 2.0: Modern Web Design (2005 – )

The web pages users interact with now, born of the web design of the last 7 years or so, are greatly different than early web design. Contemporary web pages, instead of being controlled by the manual script the designer/programmer  writes and the browser executes, rely instead of a Content Management System (CMS). Whereas, in the past, the browser simply translated and displayed what the designer wrote, today’s web pages rely on a series of interlocking, complex scripts to generate each page as it is visited. Instead of each web page being a full and complete static document that is made before the user visits the site, each page is created as the user enters by the scripts working together to generate, through a series of choices part user-part designer oriented.

This can best be exemplified by the proliferation of WYSIWYG boxes on blogger and wordpress sites (for example) – the writer types the text into these boxes, highlights and changes the words to bolding or underlining and the CMS translates that into a displayable web page. The designer now doesn’t have to know how to (or create) a script – the core or CMS does the really heavy lifting for the user. With Web 2.0, the users generate more of the content than the designers but it is the machinic/digital infrastructures that actually completes the form.

I’m most familiar with drupal, the open source CMS that runs a good number of sites including the White House’s, and can speak, using it as an example, to the altering of vocabulary of webpage design. Instead of static pages (header, footer, body) being connected by hyperlinks, each page is grouped into blocks or views . Pieces of content are referred to as nodes. Pages are no longer restricted to boxy chunks of a screen but can include large shifting slide shows, weaving menus, pop-up lightbox features for photos etc. The virtual space is far more complex than it was even 10 years ago. Suddenly, a page can have multiple blocks, nodes and views on it – the page is far more multifaceted and, as such, the user inhabiting the space is allowed to be as well. Each page becomes denser, each CMS block like a city block, a 3-D view like the gaze from a tall building. This is not a simple village anymore but rather a collection of cities, over populated by avatars. Suddenly the user has a complex space to not just visit and wander around in, but live a full (second) life completely inside of.

TRON: Legacy

TRON: Legacy best exemplifies this shift as it portrays its virtual realms as complete urban spaces. Kevin Flynn has been missing for 20 plus years. The main protagonist of the film is his son, Sam, who eventually gets a text to visit the old arcade from the original film and, by some vaguely magical transfer, is allowed to enter into the game of TRON.

The first thing the viewer sees then is a stunning, rising city that is inhabited by various programs that manifest as complete bodies with emotions (fear and surprise mostly). The city has traffic and streets, night clubs, and most of all fully embodied programs. More than this, the programs, and eventually Sam, move freely through this intricate digital space.  This reflects contemporary notions of cyberspace and digital identity. Chris Hables Gray in Cyborg Citizen9 points to modern virtual realms as valuing “mobility over space” – it is the ability to move within (and I think ultimately create) that is valued by a contemporary user of the Internet. “Geography of the Eye” author Ken Hillis explains that the “ultimate interface” is one that involves a 3 dimensional immersion. TRON: Legacy’s world is a crystallized exaggeration of this.  Like modern CMSs, the virtual space of TRON demands multi-directionality and expansiveness , driven first and foremost by individual users and back-end scripts.

It is interesting then to note the subtitle of TRON: Legacy. “Legacy” is a computer science word used to describe how newer pieces of software/operating systems can integrate older versions of programs/files. How can (or should) a Photoshop 1 file run on Photoshop 4?  This movie builds into the title the idea of running old software and how that compares to the new versions. The original programmer from the 1980s, Jeff Flynn, has lost control of the world he has created; he lives on the outskirts of the city as the programs, namely his digital clone CLU, control the city. Like a modern CMS, it is not the original programmer/designer in control but rather the scripts, digital beings, that generate and ultimately construct and deconstruct the virtual space. The human, as puppet-master or main agent is all but wiped out.

More, the programs in the film, such as TRON, Quarra or CLU, have no physical doppelganger – rather they exist only (and with complete agency) in the virtual space. They require no physical body to control them; they are no puppets.

The humans then best embody Scott Bukatman’s notion of Terminal Identity which explains “the birth of a new subjectivity at the interface of body and…screen” insisting that “hyper individualism can merge with virtual technologies yet current notions of humanity can somehow be retained” (as quoted in “Geography” 85)10. Building then, the “real” people, like Sam and Kevin Flynn, exist either in the physical world OR the virtual world of TRON. Jeff Bridges character has been missing because his physical body now exists only in the virtual world: yet, when Sam meets him, he still retains the personality and identity he had 20 years ago.

Likewise Sam, when he enters the world, only exists in the world of TRON; there is no body to find in the “physical realm” of Earth. The avatars of these characters are now the only manifestations of these people; they exist in no other form. This is a Web 2.0 construction of self, driven by CMSs at the center of web programming and design. Really the characters of TRON:Legacy are exaggerated Facebook profiles. Similar to a Facebook account where a user’s persistent avatar does not go away once the user closes Facebook (other users can still view and interact with this avatar), the version of each character exist only in the virtual space. The modern internet user recognizes his/her own experience in the density/complexity of the world of TRON and the necessary immersion (and shedding of the physical body) that such tools require.



In closing, I think then that James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) corresponds well with TRON: Legacy. While the film vilifies the urban imagery that TRON:Legacy revels in, the main character, Jake Sully, chooses to shed his physical body at the end and live as his avatar, fully and completely; ultimately he identifies more with that body (and identity) than his actual physical self. Similarly, when Sam is able to escape TRON and return to the “real” world, he brings with him Quorra, the last of a race of programs called Isomorphic Algorithms (ISOs); in contrast to Sam and Kevin Flynn, she was “born in and only ever existed in the digital space and yet, at the end of the film she occupies a corporeal body the exact copy of her virtual one. Suddenly a program has a physically inhabitable body where one did not exist before, much like Avatar’s Jake Sully.

This encompasses the next step in understanding our virtual space. Admittedly, the web-browser, once the whole of the Internet, is a shrinking (perhaps dying) part. People instead use the Internet in more portable, denser and tactile ways – we carry our avatars around with us in our tablets and phones, working their touch screens; all the while, these avatars are acting and reacting in their own virtual spaces. Perhaps then we should look forward to running into our Facebook profiles on the street as it traverses the same city spaces we do.

Works Cited

1 Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books, 1984.

2 Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. New York: Spectra, 1992.

3 My understanding of McLuhan is paraphrased from a number of his key sources such as The Medium is the Massage (Random House 1967) and Understanding Media (Sphere Books, 1967). My clearest understanding of the concepts comes from an interview he did with Playboy in 1969 found in Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews. (Toronto : McClelland & Stewart, 2003)

4 Davis, Michele E. & Jan A. Phillips. Learning PHP & MySQL. Cambridge: O’Reilly, 2006.

5 Apple Computer, Inc. Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing
Company, 1992.

6 Hillis, Ken. “A Geography of the Eye”. Accessed 11-07-2013

7 Davis, Michele E. & Jan A. Phillips. Learning PHP & MySQL. Cambridge: O’Reilly, 2006.

8 Springer, Claudia. “Virtual Repression: Hollywood’s Cyberspace and Models of the Mind”. The Virtual Dimension. Ed. John Beckmann. New York: Princeton Architectual Press. 1998.
9 Gray, Chris Hables. Cyborg citizen : politics in the posthuman age. New York : Routledge, 2002.

10 Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. New York: Duke University Press Books. 1993.