he science-fiction author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke proposed three adages, or “laws”, in his 1962 essay “Profiles of the Future.” The third of these laws holds that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Clarke wasn’t merely thinking of the potential for the existence of extraterrestrials or the supernatural; he was observing how humanity’s own technological progress moves so rapidly that our society and morals take a much longer time to catch up to it, until it’s almost too late.
That’s certainly the case when it comes to life in 2022. We live in a world saturated in and inseparable from what was once known as the Internet or cyberspace, a virtual space that’s become scattered amongst many apps and devices. It can be said that the overwhelming consumption of daily life by social media and various other online spaces snuck up on humanity, gradually chipping away at our focus, energy and time bit-by-bit until most of us began to rely on a regular fix. Just as it can be said that the real-world consequences it has caused was (and still are) a major blind spot for society, with online spaces being too ephemeral, convenient and supposedly anonymous for people to realize that a few taps and clicks here and there can foster enormous worldwide changes.
Thing is, there were numerous canaries in the coal mine when it came to the rise and reign of “cyberspace.” Two such warning bells arrived in the form of a pair of science-fiction movies released exactly a decade apart: 1982’s Tron and 1992’s The Lawnmower Man. While both films were conceived with an optimistic excitement at the oncoming technology boom, each adopted a fairy tale-like structure to their stories which knowingly hinted at the potential mis-uses of the internet, turning each film into cautionary tales that have now essentially come true.
Director Steven Lisberger, who began his filmmaking career in animation, started thinking about Tron when he came across the video game “Pong” in the 1970s and realized the world of video games would be a great excuse to utilize a “neon line” style of backlit animation, something that would have “that disco look.” Given his contacts in the world of animation, Lisberger had friends and colleagues who were not only on the cutting edge in terms of pushing computer generated images into existence, but were getting excited about the possibilities of computer technology in general. As Lisberger recalled in 2010, “this very idealistic idea came to us, which was that if we could all access the information in computers, if we could all communicate, wouldn’t the world be a much better place?”
Indeed, Tron follows that train of thought, depicting a fantasy realm of life inside computers where every human being has their own digital counterpart and the ability to communicate is seen as something sacred. It’s a depiction that predicts the way every human being is represented online through social media today. The movie’s narrative of a man, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), finding himself lost in the computer world blurs the line between human “Users” and digital “Programs,” pointing out how connected the two are. It’s a very Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland-style approach to visualizing cyberspace, and as such the world of Tron has its very own Wicked Witch/Red Queen in the form of the Master Control Program. As that name suggests, Lisberger and co-writer Bonnie MacBird waste no subtleties on the characterl the self-aware MCP threatens to take over the Pentagon during the film’s first act, showing how regular everyday programs are literally conscripted into either being slaves to the MCP or thrown into gladiator-type video games where most become “derezzed.”
Of course, the MCP is a product of the fictional megacorporation Encom, run by slimy CEO Ed Dillinger (David Warner), who got his position by stealing the work of the genius game creator Flynn. Warner not only plays Dillinger and the MCP’s right-hand program, Sark, he also voices the MCP itself, making it clear that unscrupulous and greedy corporate interests are Lisberger and MacBird’s idea of the forces that could corrupt and ruin what they hoped would be an otherwise utopian future of computer technology. It’s a very apt choice of villain for the 1980s, and while it arguably lets programmers themselves off the hook a bit too much, it still accurately predicts how the corporatization of this brave new world could have deadly, real-life consequences.
Programmers and scientists are certainly not let off the hook by The Lawnmower Man—while the film has its military industrial complex analogue, “The Shop,” front and center as the principal villains, Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) certainly bears some responsibility for the corruption of Jobe (Jeff Fahey), helping turn the mentally challenged man into a crazed, super-intelligent cyberspace deity. The movie began as an adaptation of Stephen King’s 1975 short story of the same name, which had nothing to do with computers, nor did it share the eventual film’s “Frankenstein” by way of “Flowers For Algernon” narrative. Those additions were the contribution of director/co-writer Brett Leonard and co-writer Gimel Everett, who saw their opportunity to make a movie about an emerging technology called virtual reality instead of making just another horror film.
Similar to Lisberger, Leonard was friends with people in the tech world, having lived in the northern California town of Santa Cruz during the ‘80s. As he recalled in 2016, Leonard befriended a man named Jaron Lanier who was developing “this thing called virtual reality,” something which so impressed Leonard and Everett that they wanted to include it in Lawnmower Man to “show where the technology is going.” (Lanier, as it happens, is a bestselling author who is still writing about VR and online spaces; one of his most recent books is entitled “Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.”) With virtual reality a still-developing idea at the time and CGI only just becoming an available tool for filmmakers, Lawnmower Man’s vision of VR was decidedly psychedelic and surrealistic, with computer generated amorphous shapes representing people in cyberspace (as opposed to Tron’s reliance on black & white photography of actors that was then rotoscoped in post-production).
With The Shop (an organization borrowed from other King novels like “Firestarter” and “The Tommyknockers”) deliberately injecting Jobe with rage-inducing chemicals and Dr. Angelo force-feeding him gigabytes of information, The Lawnmower Man essentially predicts the way the internet can easily and effectively radicalize a person, turning them into a high-functioning pseudo-intellectual with a seriously distorted morality and worldview. It also implies the potential for internet addiction: by the film’s finale, Jobe has literally become absorbed by the virtual world, his physical body a lifeless husk.
Both Tron and The Lawnmower Man have a distinctly religious view of the virtual world, deliberately making the communion between realms akin to a spiritual experience. Tron sees its Programs communicate with their Users via an I/O tower that looks and functions like a church, synagogue, or any similar house of worship. Lawnmower Man makes its Biblical allusions clear—Jobe’s place of residence is a Catholic church, as if his name wasn’t reference enough—even if they’re all mixed up, presenting Jobe as a blend of Lucifer and Jesus, a fallen angel who is also martyred for our sins and is resurrected within cyberspace.
Connecting this fanciful, futurist material to such lofty philosophical works of literature and cinema must’ve partially accounted for the way Tron and The Lawnmower Man were initially seen by general audiences as cheesy genre pictures, even though both films contain enough humor so as not to take themselves too seriously. In 1982, computers had only begun entering the household, and in 1992, the Internet was nowhere near commonplace, so these films seemed far more like fantasy than science-fiction at the time. Granted, both movies make big, dramatic leaps in their depictions of technology, erring on the side of what makes a more visual and interesting story than on a grounded examination of the tech.
Yet looking back on these two movies reveals just how fated humanity’s relationship with the online world was. Lisberger, Leonard, and their casts and crews were only doing the thing any futurist really can: extrapolate from humanity’s past. Despite these cautionary tales, the technology of cyberspace moved faster than anyone expected it to, in ways the world at large didn’t realize until it already happened. All of us became Kevin Flynn, finding ourselves trapped inside the computer world, our Dr. Angelo-like excitement at the shiny new landscape blinding us to the dangers in our midst. Perhaps Clarke’s Third Law should be amended to read that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic until it’s too late.” That wording would be far more applicable, and would hopefully allow us to realize that the ultimate responsibility for technology’s development and use will always lie with ourselves.