Mr. Robot is disturbing because its dark dystopia is pretty close to our reality

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23-Sep-2016

 

‘Alexa, when is the end of the world?’ asks Dominique DiPiero, the FBI agent hunting down the cyber criminals, early on in Season 2 of Mr. Robot.

As if such existential questions were a piece of cake, pat comes the answer from Alexa, “Unless a future technology goes very wrong indeed, Earth is most likely to be destroyed in several billion years’ time.”

Amazon Echo’s spectacular product placement aside, Dom’s conversations with Alexa (including a more protracted and sadder one in the penultimate episode of the season – “Alexa, do you love me?”) bares the tone of our times and sets the platform for the entire series: The paranoia of the-end-days-are-coming narrative accentuated by a forlorn, technology-first existence.

As you watch Mr. Robot, two conflicting thoughts clash together in your head, like parallel subroutines gone rogue, creating a paralyzing horror deep in your spine. It’s the kind of horror that only the plausibility of the deepest fears in your mind can summon.

The first thought is that the world Mr. Robot portrays is a caricature; a cinematic rendition of something straight out of a dark graphic novel like Watchmen. This one too has superheroes, but unlike the flamboyant costumed vigilantes from comic books, these beings lurk in the shadows of global internetworks, burrowing their way like digital rats, planting logic bombs and social engineering people to their will.

mr_robot_watchmen

The dark side of the heroes, which Alan Moore explored in Watchmen, is very much at play here. Perhaps being demented is a prerequisite to believing that you, an individual, can change a nation, and be more powerful than the vast majority of it.

By nature hackers lead a schizophrenic existence: a meatspace one, often in small doses, striving to fly under the radar; and a cyberspace one, more vital, powerful and hair-raising. Is it inevitable that this mental fracture oozes across boundaries?
Hello, Mr. Robot.

Every moment adds to the sustained onslaught that the narrative wages against your notions of normal — perhaps their current day irrelevance being the point itself. Everyone you meet in this canvas bowls you a mental-construct googly.

It’s a fertile bed for therapists. Schizophrenia? Check. God complex? Check. Loneliness induced depression? Check. Then there are the grey areas that challenge your views on what’s healthy and what isn’t, ranging from cross-dressing, S&M and an unhealthy obsession with self-improvement.

All of this brings me to the second thought and this is the chilling one: this is not a world out of science-fiction or fantasy. The universe of Mr. Robot is all too real. Sam Esmail is a mood artist painting this dark dystopia with nothing more than the artefacts of our current time, shaping the contours just a little more to tickle our senses.

It’s a place and time now defined by one event — 5/9, not dissimilar to the post 9/11 planet we live in today. This event has changed the world, sending out economic, social and cultural ripples, altering geo-politics and threatening to break civilization. The society as we know is falling apart – because well, “f*** society”.

Kernel panic. Fatal error. System needs reboot.

But can you reboot civilization?

The streets are filled with burning garbage. Cash is hard to come by and ecoin is rising (the government held captive under the fear of rise of bitcoin and its inability to control it). People (at least the rich) live in smart houses and Chinese hackers are feared. The biggest evil of the times is not a nation or a terrorist group (there are those too) but the large monolithic corporation – the ultimate culmination of the unbridled greed of liberal capitalism. Debt is the big social scourge that the revolutionaries of FSociety are looking to liberate everyone from.

If this feels all too familiar to real life, it is. Granted, the volume on the dial of today’s world is set to one, for now. It’s ratcheting up as we speak, the cacophony of beeps and dings rising around us, plunging us deeper into a state of fear and anarchy driven by our inability to cope with our own inventions.

What makes it all the more surreal is the unreliable narrator, bending the story to his whims, and decimating our confidence in his narration.

Upon this countertop, Mr. Robot mixes a salad of millennial notions. Hacking, corporate apathy, gender fluidity, the anonymity of the web, role of religion, mental health and technology, governance, distribution of wealth, notions of marriage and sex, money, social equality, debt, the dark web and crime are all pickled and thrown in with a generous sprinkling of fear, loathing and hate.

What makes it all the more surreal is the unreliable narrator, bending the story to his whims, and decimating our confidence in his narration. In fact it is the key thread that provides both the suspense as well as the perspective on the events unfolding during the season.

It screws with your mind. But also, it is a useful filter to provide perspective on the other screwed up, yet accepted, things the world does.

For instance, in one episode, the protagonist, Elliot Alderson, a cybersecurity expert, goes on a rant against religion that gets to the core of religious debate in the modern, technology-led era. If schizophrenia is a mental illness, isn’t religion too? Isn’t everyone relying on an imaginary friend to show them the way, guide them and help them when needed? Why do many continue to live in this mass delusion?

His questions (paraphrased) are pertinent, and yet without simple answers as it goes back to the core of what’s humanity and how do we cope with the immense knowledge we already possess about ourselves, our place in the universe and the eventual mortal limitations.

The protagonist, Elliot Alderson, a cybersecurity expert, goes on a rant against religion that gets to the core of religious debate in the modern, technology-led era.

More importantly, Elliot’s mental health is a window into the world we are all moving in. Are we living with multiple identities, being fractured by our disparate digital presence and dwindling real-world manifestations? Is this a shared schizophrenia, one that is accepted as part of our existence?

Also, it brings up the bruising impact of technology on our mental health. In a world where we are increasingly disconnected from real personal connections and increasingly interact through transistors, what’s to become of our mental state?

Evolution did not train us for this.

From midpoint in the season, Elliot, having cheated us with his narration, seeks to win back our confidence. What follows is a decimation of the fourth wall as we begin a journey of exploration led by the protagonist. Blind leading the blind?

Also, it brings up the bruising impact of technology on our mental health.

The quest unravels a dark and mysterious plot that involves the Chinese Darkarmy, FSociety, US and Chinese governments and above all, ECorp. The stakes grow higher and higher – national security, economic collapse, death! As season 2 closes, we are left with a terrifying sense of everything coming to a cataclysmic conclusion. Stage 2 looms in front like a dark and forbidding storm, ready to plunge us into even higher anarchy and violence.

But all that is only partly relevant. For Mr. Robot is a signboard for our future as much as any other TV series with plots to tie and new complications to add. It’s a commentary of our times.

The threat of a large cyber-hack crippling the world economy is very real. Once that happens, we may be moving into a post the-big-hack world. Cold war was defined by nuclear arms. The 21st century has so far been defined by terrorism. But cyber threat may define this new world. It is a threat that will have large implications in the meatspace — perhaps enough to alter the direction of humanity.

Mr. Robot lets us peek briefly into this world with horrified captivation.

Also read: Westworld Redux: Artificial Intelligence and real questions about human-ness



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