In Search of a Free System: WikiLeaks & Tron

December 9, 2010 - activism / capitalism / connectivity / cyberactivism / cyberculture / cyberenvironmental activism / cyborg / cyborgism / ethics / experience / information technology / internet / myths / rabbit hole / social network / surveillance / temple of cyborgism


In The Hacker Ethic, Pekka Himanen argues that the hacker community’s values are a “general social challenge” which include “the goal of getting everybody to participate in the network and to benefit from it, to feel responsible for longer term consequences of the network society, and to directly help those who have been left on the margins of survival” (Himanen, 2001).

In the case of WikiLeaks, hacker-activists (organizing under the broad and decentralized social movement known as Anonymous) are emerging as hacktivist heroes coming to the defense of free speech, public cyberspace and an open internet. In the same moment the sequel to Tron is about to premier, cyberactivism is front and center in the media, discussions online and global government actions and policy debates. The hacktivists responding to WikiLeaks share at least one goal with the heroes of Tron: a “free system.”

…the radical nature of general hackerism consists of its proposing an alternative spirit for the network society – a spirit that finally questions the dominant Protestant ethic. In this context we find the only sense in which all hackers are really crackers: they are trying to crack the locks of the iron cage. (Himanen, 2001)

In Tron, religion is both a belief in Users, the humans who write programs, and also the struggle for a “free system.” The belief in Users comes up in a discussion between a program named Crom and one of the guards who is about to force Crom into the equivalent of a gladiatorial contest:

Crom: Look. This… is all a mistake. I’m just a compound interest program. I work at a savings and loan! I can’t play these video games!

Guard: Sure you can, pal. Look like a natural athlete if I ever saw one.

Crom: Who, me? Are you kidding? No, I run to check on T-bill rates, I get outta breath. Hey, look, you guys are gonna make my User, Mr. Henderson, very angry. He’s a full-branch manager.

Guard: Great. Another religious nut. [pushes Crom into the holding cell]

After he’s in the cell, the conversation about Users continues with a fellow prisoner:

Ram: I’d say “Welcome Friend”. But not here. Not like this.

Crom: I don’t even know what I’m doing here.

Ram: Do you believe in the Users?

Crom: Sure I do. If I don’t have a User, then who wrote me?

Ram: That’s what you’re doing down here. You really think the users are still there?

The living programs in this computer-world are pressured, through a program of domination and oppression by the military forces of the Master Control Program, to renounce belief in the Users (and therefore also in the possibility of a free system). Their belief  is called “superstitious and hysterical,” they are tortured, forced to fight one another and eventually killed (de-rezzed). We can see parallels with early Christians here, imprisoned by Romans and waiting to be sent into The Colosseum.

Of course, they are also the resistance movements in WWII Europe, the IRA, the PLO, the American revolutionaries of the 13 colonies and the American socialists of the 1930s and the radicals in Seattle in 1999, and the Central and South American freedom fighters, etc.  They are archetypal resistance fighters in the struggle against oppression, occupation and domination. The forces of domination claim their resistance is about superstitious belief in Users, but this isn’t the depth of their belief. Their cause is religious because it is about their belief in a possible better world, it is what Tillich called “ultimate concern” and what Dewey called “our common faith.”

The humans/Users also debate the religious nature of their programming work – for example this conversation between Dillinger, an evil CEO who has taken control of the corporation Encom and who is doing the bidding of the malicious Master Control Program (MCP) and Dr. Gibbs, one of the company founders and original programers:

Ed Dillinger: Encom isn’t the business you started in your garage anymore. We’re billing accounts in thirty different countries; new defense systems; we have one of the most sophisticated pieces of equipment in existence.

Dr. Walter Gibbs: Oh, I know all that. [starts for the elevator] Sometimes I wish I were back in my garage.

Ed Dillinger: That can be arranged, Walter.

Dr. Walter Gibbs: [stops and turns back to Dillinger, visibly angry] That was uncalled for! You know, you can remove men like Alan and me from the system, but we helped create it! And our spirit remains in every program we design for this computer!

Ed Dillinger: Walter, it’s getting late. I’ve got better things to do than to have religious discussions with you. Don’t worry about ENCOM anymore; it’s out of your hands now.


The “spirit” of Dr. Gibbs does exist inside the computer, in the form of the temple gaurdian Dumont who says they “keep me around in case one of them wants to deal with the other side.” Programs inside the system use his input-output tower to communicate with their users. It is, for them, a temple for access to the divine.

But the goal of commuicating with the users isn’t salvation, forgiveness or enlightenment, the goal of access to this divine communion is access to information.  The Master Control Program is a machine of governmentality, reproducing repression, controlling the lives of programs through censorship by preventing them from having access to communication with their Users. The MCP’s power comes from its ability to operate in secret and without oversight and it complains about the presence of Tron, saying:” I can’t afford to have an independent program monitoring me.” Tron is a threat because he is a conduit for free access to information. As Tron says:

My User has information that could… that could make this a free system again! No, really! You’d have programs lined up just to use this place (the input-output tower), and no MCP looking over your shoulder.

Information can “make this a free system again.” Kevin Flynn, the human/User protagonist of the film, is a hacker, a cyberactivist, he is a hacktivist. Flynn’s rallying cry in the film is echoed by the hackers who are organizing around a social movement in defense of an open and free internet: “Now for some real user power.”


Himanen, P., Castells, M. (2001). The Hacker Ethic, and the Spirit of the Information Age. New York: Random House.