Monday, May 30, 2011

The Digital Revolution: Why 2011 is Like 1984.

On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh.
And you'll see why 1984 won't be like "1984".

But what would it be like after 1984?

After watching and analysing the science fiction films TRON (1982) and its sequel TRON: Legacy (2010) closely for a film report, I really wanted to share my insights with others as it became clear that the films provide interesting social commentary not only of the 1980s but also of recent times. I have decided to focus on the digital revolution for my presentation as it is part of history which attaches itself to the 80s but has not been given a great deal of attention, most likely due to it being a significant aspect of American culture which has continued to evolve since its birth at the beginning of the decade; digital technology to society has become comparable to our daily intake of food and water, and close analysis of it has inevitably slipped away.

To ground my presentation, the debut of Apple's Macintosh computer via a television commercial aired in 1984 really defines what pioneers of the digital revolution set out to do in the 80s. Darting through a dystopian world in which individuality is suppressed (similar to that of George Orwell's 1948 novel 1984), an athletic heroine (a symbolism of superiority, similar to how Apple identifies itself in its more contemporary "I'm a Mac / I'm a PC" advertising campaign) abruptly stops and hurls a sledgehammer at a TV image of Big Brother. This can be perceived as an implied representation of Apple's dominant competitor IBM as this feeds into the capitalist competition of computing during the 80s where a "chip war" was emerging between companies, fighting to create the most powerful technology. The commercial ends with the message "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984."; it is clear that Apple was setting itself up as the voice of the individual in a world of dominant corporations, as this commercial associates the Macintosh with an ideology of empowerment and thus the Mac supplied a vision of the future for combatting conformity and asserting individual - and intellectual - freedom.

Notably, home computers were familiar and desirable during the 80s but were not the most affordable things. They still saw an unpredictable boom from the office to home however with the help of advertising, let alone the entrepreneurism which outsmarted big corporations tapping into this idea of individuality from creator to consumer. The potential power of cyberspace was recognised early on, reinforced by the race towards the best technology in the way of a "chip war" as microprocessor performance was steadily increasing. Interestingly, this potential power was seen to have more negative implications than positive, as anxieties of a future "cyber war" began to emerge. Films about fears over technology, fascism and corporate control over society such as Blade Runner (1982), TRON and WarGames (1983) were released revealing contemporary anxieties about cyberculture while also conveying a sense of corporation hatred. Analysing this fear today - in a time where digital technology is close to peaking - there is a sense that these anxieties were misguided as the perception of computers exceeded their actual potential. For example, in TRON, Dr. Walter Gibbs claims that "computers and programs will start thinking and the people will stop"; this may be incomprehendable today, but it is still an idea ingrained in our consciousness as technology continues to advance. Although the bar for technology was raised very high in the digital era's early years, pioneers are still striving to achieve such artificial intelligence thrity years on.

TRON is a suitable film to analyse in regards to the digital era as it is representative of many concerns associated with it. Being a Disney production and one of the very first films to feature CGI, it may come across as flashy on face value but closer inspection of the film reveals some much deeper meanings. The idea of entering a new digital world in itself carries cultural and political undertones of an advancing society and the tagline of the film reflects this: 'A world inside the computer where man has never been. Never before now.' This echoes the mentality of many when man first walked on the moon; it is as if after going into outer space, attempting to break into the the "inner space" realm of the digital world was the next thing ingrained in the pioneering American consciousness of the 80s. The binary themes of man vs. machine and individual vs. corporation are also explored throughout the plot; the Master Control System - TRON's virtual villain of artificial intelligence - forces computer programmer Flynn to fight in a series of gladiatorial games, representing an oppressive, dystopian virtual system.

Set 20 years in the future, TRON's sequel TRON: Legacy (2010) expands on its predecessor by providing a linear plotline following Flynn's son Sam who hacks his way into the system in an attempt to find his father who is trapped in his own videogame 'Tron' which continues to evolve within the virtual world. CLU - Flynn's clone from the original film - was created in order to help Flynn create a utopian digital world but he turns into a controlling fascist, creating an army to control society. The character TRON is corrupted by CLU but claims "I fight for the users!" towards the end of the film showing that the battle of individual vs. corporation still exists almost thirty years after TRON was released in cinemas. This raises the question of why a sequel has been made now as it is clearly another cautionary vision of the digital world; computer users today are arguably not as free as entrepreneurs of the 80s had intended them to be as the fading promise of a digital revolution from today's big corporations such as Google and YouTube is prevalent. Flynn's final speech is very insightful about the film's meaning as he claims that perfection "is unknowable, it is impossible but it is also right in front of us all the time" suggesting that people should appreciate the simple things in life and not the constant bombardment of technological gadgets; by the end of the film, they become essentially meaningless.

So why is this relevant to the 80s? Considering all of this, placing Apple's Macintosh commercial of 1984 in a modern context is very telling of the digital era both past and present. Ironically, the dystopian world presented before us in the commercial resembles today's reality as the brainwashed people lined up accepting the fascist regime of 1984 resembles the endless queues of conformity outside Apple stores. The message of TRON: Legacy then is this: entrepreneurs of the 80s sold out on the consumers and did not achieve asserting their original values of individuality and intellectual freedom in the long run.