“Maybe it’s that we voted for [all of] this—not with our rigged elections, but with our things, our property, our money. We want to be sedated, because it’s painful not to pretend. Fuck society.”
“Fuck society” may well become the mantra of the decade – that is, if Mr. Robot continues it’s heady slash and burn assault. If you think a television series can’t be successful when the premise is based on hatred of corporate greed and the fact that technology both infringes on and controls our lives, think again. Mr. Robot has adroitly tapped into the encroaching zeitgeist of discontent and revolt.
Discontent sky rocketed during 2008 meltdown of major financial institutions – triggered by the subprime mortgage debacle. This coupled with “too big to fail” assertions guaranteed bailouts for banks – but what about families? What about individuals? Since then our collective conscious has come to terms with a resolute malaise; we can no longer place our faith the concepts of hearth and home, America the brave, or the idea that equality is attainable for all. Clearly, it is not. And this is the trigger that Mr. Robot so nimbly straddles – it acknowledges our rage at a system that has been expertly designed to carry out sustained acts of subjugation.
The dystopic thriller revolves around antisocial hacker genius, Elliot, (Rami Malek) who by day minions at a cyber security firm protecting the likes of an Enron-like über-scum entity. The real fun begins after dark when Elliot turns his attention to people who use computers to support highly questionable activities – like kiddie porn. In the pilot opening, Elliot hacks a coffee shop owner and revels his kiddie porn side-business to the police. Just when we think we are being set up to witness a series about a do-good vigilante hacker, we find out that Elliot is addicted to hacking his friends – or anyone’s – social media accounts. He does so under the guise of wanting to ensure his friend’s safety but it’s a slippery slope. Elliot also has a morphine habit and suffers from severe anti-social behavior. His thoughts – heard in voice over – lend the show its moral compass but more importantly, reveal just how conflicted Elliot is. His deeds cannot be simply categorized as “right” or “wrong” and it’s this ambiguity that is riveting and provides the show its gravitas.
Rami Malek, as Elliot, is superb as the disaffected, sensitive genius who can’t stand to be touched, needs morphine to function, and cringes in his apartment in states of utter desolation. Elliot is the perfect anti-hero and Malek invests him with the perfect balance of virtuosity and vulnerability. Along for the ride is a clandestine group of hackers, led by a disheveled Christian Slater. Their raison d’être is to hack conglomerate’s vast stores of wealth and redistribute it to the 99% – and potentially, wipe out consumer debt. To that end, Slater – whose name may be “Mr. Robot” since that’s the name sewn on his jacket – enlists Elliot to help him hack into the evil corporation he works for and redistribute currency to reflect more economic equality. Will Elliot comply? Time will tell.
Malek gives us a brilliant, tortured, everyman cynic and we root for him almost immediately. It isn’t hard to figure out why. Seizing on our growing disenchantment with the digital age, Mr. Robot declares what we’ve been thinking: Government has approached Orwellian capacity, owned and managed by invisible rich men who devise labyrinthine laws to conceal their greed and treachery. Tech guru and the father of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier, writes in his seminal You are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, “If we keep on doing things as we are, the answer is clear: The future will be narrowly owned by the people who run the biggest, best connected computers, which will usually be found in giant, remote cloud computing farms.” The future is now and cloud farms are ubiquitous. All personal information is subject to an advertiser’s demographic pie chart; we are fodder for databases poised to commodify our existence. We labor in pseudonymity, believing and hoping, our pageant of cat pictures are eliciting a significant virtual response from other, cat-obsessed “liked friends” who pine for human interaction. And while all this pining and preening and hoping and whining transpires, the cloud computer Gods are collecting information and repackaging it to sell us our next big iThing.
Banks own your money.
Social Media owns your relationships.
Corporations own your mind.
I saw these words on the side of a bus today – neatly lined up across the top in big graphic black and white – unmistakable advertising for Mr. Robot. Just think – if the uninitiated saw this and had no idea that the words were promotion for a television show, they might believe they’d stepped into an Orwellian nightmare – affirming what they’d always feared to be true. They wouldn’t be that far from the truth. In 1949, Orwell wrote about omnipresent government surveillance and in 2015 we have become willing participants in an endless cycle of social “selfie” manipulation. The producers are savvy enough to take advantage of the marketing manipulation they castigate; but this is not the most salient point. What is important is the underlying theme of Mr. Robot – revolt. The idea that “Revolution” is on the horizon is a component part of the show’s appeal and the producers capitalize on our collective unrest by reassuring viewers on their Facebook page that “the next installment of the revolution” will air on Wednesday nights along with slogans such as, “The 99% has your back, friend.” It is exactly this type of mass commercial aggregation that Mr. Robot rails against – but we get it. No matter the method of delivery, we are down with the message. The digital age has given rise to legions of mindless sheep and birthed exploitative corporations who control the Internet and therefore, our minds. The unspoken question of Mr. Robot is, “How long are we going to let them do this?
This piece first appeared on QuailBellMagazine.com and has been reprinted with permission.