A new drama on cyber spying thrillingly – and accurately – up-ends cliché to portray the complex power of information. By Helen Razer.

Mr Robot’s fresh take on hacking

Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson
Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson

If we care to read about Edward Snowden – and his story is so complex in its unfolding and simple in its brutal end, who could blame us if we don’t? – we cannot fail to see a world in which we are now no longer just coerced but controlled by information. There’s much of terrifying value in the work of courageous journalists such as Glenn Greenwald or of pathologically fearless ones such as Julian Assange and these remind us, at least, to change our passwords or, at best, to urge our lawmakers to leave our data undisturbed.

These accounts tell us of the risk to lived liberty, of a near future in which the whistleblower will fall forever into silence or our drunk pictures on Facebook will turn up in a Family Court custody hearing. They show us how our infractions – minor or major, committed knowingly or unknowingly – will come to define us and alter the course of our lives.

The people committed to showing just how and where our data, if institutionally retained, can take us are doing some of the best work around. These journalists and activists tell us a lot about the future as it will be endured by the data-logged masses. What they are unable to tell us, however, is how such technology becomes a technology that impacts the self.

Thank goodness, as ever, for art, which is able, although not often inclined, to show more than the terms of the social landscape but also how we who have built it come to be transformed therein. It’s one thing to warn a readership that they will one day break a law or convention for which they will be punished. It’s another to show an audience how the terms of this control gets right inside us and impacts not just the possibility of future retribution but of the way we actually are.

Mr Robot, a television series created by admitted “unsuccessful hacker” Sam Esmail, makes a good fist of shaking us into consciousness on this count. While this thriller, which openly courts a comic-convention niche by means of nerd-speak and some very marketable costumes, is not the last dramatic word in data and its impact on the self, it is, to date, the best.

Overwhelmingly, when film and television drama engages with the idea of insecure information, it does so with all the informed subtlety of George Brandis. A film such as 1995’s Hackers says little that is derived from the actual practice of hacking and even less about what it means for us to have so much of ourselves on loan to server farms. What we have in Hackers are some precocious kids who learn the error of their ways while we learn nothing about the stored errors we have become.

Ten’s 2012 telemovie Underground: The Julian Assange Story was, while one of the nation’s least embarrassing biopics, nothing more than the story of a Troubled Man. And it did almost nothing to show why such an important figure had become so legitimately troubled.

This year’s hacker movie, Blackhat, was always bound to fail, selecting, as it did, an unfeasible hunk such as Chris Hemsworth for the lead role. It was bad enough they cast a guy who looks better suited to fighting in the Marvel universe than against agents of social control. That opening scenes show this counterfeit elite reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, probably the 20th century’s supreme work on techniques of concealed control, set the dreary procedural up for further falls.

Mr Robot is not at all, like most “hacker” dramas, procedural – what we don’t get here is a “hack of the week” but a big story about a whole world of information its author has said extends to five seasons. What we are also spared is the false intellectualism promised by cultural totems such as Foucault. Although Esmail is, obviously and professedly, a great fan of that only other admirable screen work on the human tolls of information, The Matrix, he doesn’t start out, as the Wachowskis did, with a picture of his hero reading Baudrillard – another essential thinker on invisible controls. The richest references here are to the language of technology itself.

Mr Robot might talk about hackers but it also talks to them. Its jokes about Linux and slow-rate attacks are, presumably, hilarious to those in the business of compromised systems. Certainly, within minutes of the pilot’s free, legal release by internet, the boards at 4chan and Reddit suspended their usual impatience with everything and lit up with thanks that someone had set aside the usual Tron-style graphics to depict a raid. Mr Robot got upvotes for screens showing actual code and dialogue that describes the folly of relying on “exit nodes” in “Tor bleed plaintext”.

No. I’m not sure what that means either. But I do know that the only significant hacker criticism of the show seemed to be that its protagonist, Elliot, played by Rami Malek of the World War II miniseries The Pacific, is too hot and too sexually active to really know his way around a server. This seems like a reasonable beef. Otherwise, a writers’ retinue of technical advisers, some of whom are, reportedly, anonymous felons, pleases those who work, like Elliot, often simultaneously to maintain and undermine security.

With just four of its episodes screened, Mr Robot has shown with no little accuracy not only how hacking is done, but why it is done. And it’s this that is of interest to an audience beyond the deep web.

Even if we noobs can understand why Snowden, a dyed-in-the-wool moderate critically let down by the false promise of liberal democracy, might seek to compromise information, we don’t often think about why less noble others would hack. Elliot, who does become involved in a self-sacrificing plot to erase the world’s debt and bring down corporate America, hacks out of habit. He hacks out of self-loathing and a sense of isolation. He hacks because he’s bored. For mine, the scenes that show Elliot’s kneejerk hacking – such as that which might play out in the real world in a terrible act like “revenge porn” – are the most truly rebellious.

Let it be said, there’s a fun revolutionary story arc here. The plot is great leftist fantasy and that the Anonymous-style group “fsociety”, led by Mr Robot himself, as played by Christian Slater, sees the private accumulation of wealth and data as threats that exceed even that by government control is satisfying to the materialist viewer. There are some great asides about corporate sin, and the show chides Apple for its claims to uphold human rights even as it routinely overlooks infractions in the factories making its products. This is one of my favourite bad-ass telly moments of the year. That the program shows not only the evil inside the system but the evil inside us makes it so much more complex.

Elliot is a gifted hacker given over to a revolutionary goal, but he’s also a total shit. Mentally unwell and able to spy on the lives of anyone he cares to, he is brought to screen as few narrators can be in any medium: first-person, unreliable and ubiquitous. What he gives us is more than a cyber Holden Caulfield who blurs the distinctions between evil and good. He shows us that the distinctions between the self and the information it signifies have fallen away.

Why would someone spy? Why would someone disclose or retain information? We pose these questions – although not as often as we need to – about government and private institutions, and we pose them, more often, at revenge porn hackers, and the answers we provide are hardly adequate. We say “because they’re bad” or “because they can” and we leave the most terrifying truth undisturbed. And that is, as Mr Robot warns, because information is power and we are information.

Esmail refrains from the use of posh French books to show us that he’s doing something clever here. But if he were to select one, it would be Postscript on the Societies of Control by Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze, who is thanked in the preface to Hemsworth’s Foucault, does not think of power as something into which we are coerced. Rather, it is something that we are. It is inside us and even more diffuse than Foucault dared imagine.

Any machine or technology, says Deleuze, is social before it is technical. Technology is an expression of a given social form and is neither its cause nor its effect. And so, the new control that denies or offers us access happens to be written in the numerical language that Mr Robot gets so right. These codes, which only require programming, have come to turn us on and off. We no longer need to be brought to heel by complex discipline. A password will do it. Power, even though it has been shot through us in a complex way, has never been so simple. We don’t need to go to school or work or prison to have our behaviour corrected. Now, it is controlled by keystrokes. And so, without an impossible army of noble hackers committed only to do selfless good, our liberty is no longer possible.

Mr Robot is, like Deleuze, fantastically depressing and this is as evident in its plot as it is in its style. The pilot, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, of the visually grim The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, gives us a pre-apocalyptic New York. The hopeless city, which is as far away from Martin Scorsese’s mean streets as it is from Woody Allen’s delightful ones, looks like it will never die but just hang on, forever, diseased by hidden power.

You can, more-or-less legally, view this pilot free online; it’s just a geoblocking extension away. What you can’t do yet is see it on Australian screens. But apparently several streaming services are bidding for the distribution rights and, in a matter of weeks, you’ll be able to make yourself as depressed as I have. For the moment, Mr Robot has no local distribution overlord. Like everything, though, this information will soon be controlled.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 25, 2015 as "Sharp as a hack".

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Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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