The dark, psychological hacker drama Mr. Robot slayed audiences at South by Southwest, and now it’s been turned into a series. It’s one of those rare shows that actually seems to understand what’s corrupt and rotten at the heart of the tech industry — and wants to burn it all down. We talked to the show creator.
Sam Esmail created Mr. Robot and wrote the first episode. He says part of his inspiration was his own history as a coder “back in the day,” when he says he started an internet company. But in large part, the story really about a specific aspect of technology: social media, and how it is destroying human relationships by turning our fundamental emotional connections into commodities.
The show unfolds from the point of view of misfit hacker Elliott (Rami Malek, whose wrath is aimed at the Facebook drones who click “like” boxes without ever thinking about how corporations are controlling every aspect of their lives. There’s definitely a strong element of Fight Club here, and it works because Malek does such an extraordinary job bringing Elliott’s pain and ennui to life.
As you can see in the teaser above, Elliott hates Facebook. And this is something he shares with show creator Esmail, who told Gizmodo:
I do hate Facebook, though I have a Facebook account. I’m sure FB can be used for good things, and they do philanthropy and that’s worthy of respect — but I think when a corporation decides to have a focus where you make money off human relationships, that’s incredibly dangerous. It crosses the line. People think Google is evil, but I’m a fan of them because that’s great for me if I’m searching and they want to advertise about what I’m looking for — that makes sense to me. But Facebook has a business model of “you are learning about me and taking me and my relationships apart to monetise that.” It’s a trojan horse for something sinister.
Facebook has said we want your emotional and social attachments in one place and we will control it for you. They are openly asking you to give that power to them and it seems like a dangerous combination. I’m not saying it’s a conscious thing that Facebook is doing, but it’s a slippery slope. It’s a power that I don’t want to give somebody like that. Also, I hate that they call it fucking social media. It’s how we relate to people.
But Esmail isn’t as hopeless as his character is. “I hope social media changes,” he said. “There is a good concept behind social media.” In fact, one the things that inspired Esmail to write the show was watching how his young cousins in Egypt used social media for political change:
I’m an Egyptian and I went to Egypt after Arab Spring. My cousins are young and they were angry, but they were channeling that for positive change. The revolutionary spirit they had was so inspiring and moving — and they used Twitter and Facebook, and the controlling generation couldn’t figure out a way to stop that. That to me was totally the final piece of the puzzle when I went into writing Mr. Robot.
Like young people during Arab Spring, Elliott in Mr. Robot wants to change the way things are — but he’s not sure how to do it. Then he’s contacted by a secretive group of hackers called F-Society (led by Mr. Robot, played with snarky gusto by Christian Slater). Somehow, Elliott begins to emerge as a troubled hero. I asked Esmail why he thinks the anti-social geek has become such a cultural obsession in pop culture. He replied:
It’s something about the reluctant hero — you empathise with a guy like that. You don’t like the guy who loves to be hero. You like the guy who doesn’t love the fame of it, but is still good at it. They’re just trying to be normal but they aren’t. I think that’s it. It’s a character archetype that’s been around for a long time, but now it’s fitting into nerdy hacker mould.
Clearly we’ve seen it in the comedic sense ad nauseam with Big Bang Theory and Silicon Valley, but I think the dramatic version — we haven’t seen that a lot. There’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and maybe The Social Network. But that angle is still new and fresh.
Though the show doesn’t officially start until June 24 in the US, the pilot is available on demand, and on YouTube for those with a VPN to get around the location block. Watch it now. We'll keep you posted as to whether any UK channels pick up the show.
And by the way, Esmail told us that the “E” in Evil Corp is “totally the Enron logo.” Then he laughed. “It’s not like they’re going to sue us for it.”