The protagonist of Mr. Robot, a brilliant but profoundly disaffected hacker, conjures the titular character from his own psyche so he can transform the world. He finds that not only is a pact with a demon insufficient for remaking society, but that the ability to bring about intentional, lasting change is beyond even the highest powers.
[Note: this article was originally published on the above date at Homo Fuge, a short-lived blog project which has now been subsumed into this one.]
Recycle your animals
Fight Club, Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, They Live, American Psycho, Black Swan, The Matrix – the list of prior works to which Mr. Robot pays homage is long and growing.
“I rip off of every movie and TV show I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m a film nerd. That’s what I did growing up. Other than being on the computer, I was watching TV and movies. I make no apologies. Fight Club was one of my big inspirations for the show. I think the nod or the acknowledgement with “Where Is My Mind” at the end of episode 9 was, yes, in part letting the audience know that we’re very much aware that Fight Club was an inspiration, but at the same time, we make no apologies about it. We own it.” – Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail
The show tells an original story, but uses audio-visual building blocks that are familiar to its audience to invoke certain ideas and meanings. This indicates that Mr. Robot is aware of its place in the cultural landscape and that it has the ambition not just to entertain, but to shape our understanding of that landscape. It aims to help us make sense of the works it alludes to, parodies, and, to use Esmail’s own phrase, rips off. It has something to say about the world, about society.
We are the people
But of course, ‘society’ is just a label. It means different things to different people. Each of us remakes society as we move through, with or against it. What does ‘society’ mean for Mr. Robot?
When we first meet Eliot, he is working as an engineer for a cybersecurity firm, the biggest client of which is E Corp, the all-powerful global corporation. His paranoid delusions render the company name as Evil Corp. A sufferer of social anxiety disorder, he hacks into the online accounts and devices of people he meets to make a connection with them, including the therapist he is seeing to help him lead a more normal life.
Society for Eliot then, is almost unbearable. A senseless parade of conspicuous consumption in which everything, including love and sex, has been commodified, where everyone dances to the beat of capital. In a world in thrall to abstractions like money, likes, follower counts and carbon footprints, the ultimate source of power is the ultimate abstraction: information itself. Unlike people, data is rational. Data can be trusted to form the foundation of a society. Those who control it, control everything.
Much like the eponymous hero at the beginning of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Eliot’s disaffection with the world as it is causes him to seek control over the fundamental forces that shape it. Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and Eliot would certainly appear to contemporaries of Goethe and Marlowe as some kind of sorcerer. But rather than learn the dark arts of necromancy, Eliot has become fluent in code. Instead of drawing a magic circle on the ground to conjure demons, Eliot opens a shell. And his midnight manipulation of symbols in cyberspace, which seek to gain control of daemons (not demons), soon draw the attention of a host of increasingly powerful fiends.
First up is his own repressed alter ego, Mr Robot, who appears in the guise of Eliot’s own deceased father. He’s a blue-collar revolutionary, who wants to instigate a massive transfer of wealth by hacking into E Corp’s servers and eradicating all records of consumer debt. Like most revolutionaries, he has no plan for what happens after that.
Next he draws the attention of Tyrell Wellick, a ghoulish corporate climber whose proclivities for kinky sex, personal grooming and murder are all reminiscent of Patrick Bateman. Obsessed with the pursuit of power, and claiming to be free of normal human impulses, Wellick’s ambitions escalate rapidly from wanting to be the CTO of E Corp to acquiring the status of a god. Impressionable and impulsive, he is the quintessential executive.
Elliot’s activities with fsociety eventually out him on the radar of two truly god-like beings. Phillip Price, CEO of E Corp, lives by a simple motto: be the most powerful man in any room. As someone who orders around congressmen and mayors, and has the power to start world wars, he view politicians as mere puppets. Whiterose, his associate in technocracy, is both the Chinese Minister of State Security and the leader of the Dark Army, a Chinese hacker collective. A transgender woman who sees time as a most precious and most scarce commodity, she suffers those around her to live only for as long as they are useful to her. These two titans embody capital – Price the officially sanctioned, corporate version, Whiterose the illicit, off-the-books variety. Neither is hindered by petty humanitarian concerns or national borders, only by realpolitik.
The world is a business
Various other demiurges, devils, spirits and wraiths assist or hinder Elliot Andersen in his ongoing quest to work out what the hell is actually going on. What they all have in common is a desire to change the world, usually in service to their own depraved, uncontrollable urges, and without a clear end goal in sight. In much the same way that capital continually reshapes the world in the process of reproducing itself. There is no end point, no moral or ethical principle in play, just the inevitable yet unpredictable emergent behaviour of an unholy mix of human needs, physical matter and information. A runaway process which cannot be tamed by political ideologies, utopian visions or clear-headed pragmatism. Just as Faust (and Howard Beale) found when he attempted to gain mastery over the fundamental forces of the universe, the demon may indulge the fantasies of the megalomaniac for a time, but ultimately, it cannot be controlled.