Delivered with all the emotion of a computer handshake, the first line of USA’s hacker drama Mr Robot tells us a lot about its black hat hero. Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) sounds searingly awkward – more than a little creepy – and mostly like the kinda guy you’d rather not be paired with for group work. Definitely not heroic qualities. But Elliot is (allegedly) the hero – even if he does look more like a bum, hunched into a black hoodie and glaring at commuters on a subway car. Mr Robot spends a lot of time trying to convince us of that fact.
We’re very quickly made to understand that something isn’t right with the boy. He’s addicted to morphine, he hears voices, and is seeing a psychologist despite this baggage, Elliot’s vigilante antics – hacking & exposing the data of child pornographers and his psychologist’s unfaithful boyfriend – are immensely satisfying to watch, and confirm for us that, even if he isn’t a nice guy, he’s a good guy.
Our ‘hero’ eventually joins with an (allegedly) idealistic hacker collective called ‘fsociety’ at the request of their leader, the eponymous Mr Robot (Christian Slater), who recognizes Elliot’s technical skill, and his dissatisfaction with the current state of world affairs. Together, they hatch a plan to erase all American debt records & spur some kind of working class revolution.
In our post-GFC, post-Occupy world, such a goal comes with easy-to-assign connotations. Elliot and his merry band of hackers are ‘freedom fighters’ – why else would they be fighting for our freedom?
In actuality, the motivations of ‘fsociety’s’ members are as many and varied as Elliot’s paranoid delusions. Darlene wants ‘momentary anarchy’. Mobley wants to ‘pal around’. Romero wants ‘a whiff of fame’. Trenton, who discloses this information to us, seems to be the noble one – she only wants to prevent her parents dying in debt. Everybody else views the stated goal as secondary to their own.
Interestingly, this cross-section matches up with the range of motivations found in terrorist groups like ISIS. In a report published by Quantum Communications, fighters from Syria and Iraq revealed they have very similar reasons for going to war.
There are thrill seekers, who join for an adventure; identity seekers, who feel isolated or alienated by society, and turn to extremist groups in their search for acceptance; status seekers, looking for fame & respect; and justice seekers, who want to eliminate perceived oppression.
Returning to Elliot’s earlier exploits, it’s notable that he publically exposes the targets of his vigilante acts; it’s the power-play of a powerless individual. By his own admission, Elliot sees the hacks as his only way of connecting with society – but it’s not so much connection as control. Our schizo-hero is more comfortable when events unfold the way he plotted them.
Elliot is exactly how we first perceived him: delusional & dangerous. And fsociety is not the logical and hoped-for endpoint of movements like Occupy Wall Street. Mr Robot shows us the kind of minds that are able to actually effect change, and it it’s not pretty. It turns our expectations around – and around again. This isn’t Robin Hood and his Merry Men. It’s a bastard mix of Anonymous, the Fourth International, Al-Qaeda and Project Mayhem. They are not our saviours. They are in it for personal gain.
But fsociety’s plan is ultimately a success; where other, real-life movements peter out, the hacker collective triumphs. Mr Robot is making a point. Real change only happens when it is propelled by something other than ideals. The Arab Spring hit winter. Occupy Wall Street fell apart. But power-mad Stalin made it to the top. Sometimes, you need to be a deranged terrorist to change the world.
There’s a great line in Episode Four, delivered by black hat hacker Cisco to the (allegedly) idealistic Darlene, about her utopian goals. But with what we know about fsociety, it comes across more as a dig at a naïve audience who would rather watch & discuss change then deal with the grim reality of effecting it.
“These guys don’t mess around. Now whatever it is you think you’re doing, freeing the masses…the guys I work for, they aren’t motivated by shit like that.”
Hello – friend?