I, Mr. Robot

software, dystopia, and the view from 2005


I was in the lobby of a tire shop outside of Austin, Texas, when I started writing this piece. I had been trying to ignore the lobby TV so I could wrap up some work with a colleague in Michigan for a client in Bahrain, when a news segment about smartphone and social media addictions came on.

“Yeah, this talking head is right,” I told myself. “I should skip Facebook this morning and write that Mr. Robot thing I’ve been ruminating on.”

Besides, I try to put a daily limit on the number of smartphone videos I see of police shooting unarmed citizens, which seems like half my feed nowadays. It always weirds me out that such atrocities pop up in the same stream as, say, photos from my childhood best friend’s recent bird hunt with his stepson. When everything comes at you constantly in a single stream, it’s all equally banal, which I suspect is a feature, not a bug.

So I closed the browser and fired up my text editor to write a think piece about this ad-free TV show that I’ve recently started watching on a “TV network” (what even is that anymore?) that I wouldn’t know how to tune into if my life depended on it.

Now, none of the above is even remotely remarkable or interesting. Indeed, even pausing a moment to marvel at such spacetime-bending techno-wonders is lame at this point — shellshocked think pieces about the accelerating pace of cultural change are so 2014. But as jaded as I am, watching USA’s Mr. Robot really brings it all home to me at least once an episode, and I just have to get this off my chest.

When I watch Mr. Robot, it’s like I’m watching dystopian sci-fi, except holy crap I actually live in that world on the screen. As I sit there on the couch I think back to 2005, before the iPhone and Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Tinder and Instagram, before we all jumped feet first into “the stream”, and I watch the show through my pre-stream eyes. This practice triggers for me the novel sensation of having suddenly woken up in the future, and that sensation is part of the reason I enjoy the show. It’s like the inverse of virtual reality’s “presence” effect — I know that the world on the screen is real and that I’m actually in it, but I somehow don’t quite believe it.

This is what makes Mr. Robot so utterly compelling: it’s dystopian sci-fi about the right now, and it works because so much of “right now” is so new that it still has the potential to blow our minds when we grind it up and snort it in little 43-minute lines.

For those of you who watch the show or plan on watching it, I want you to borrow my 2005 glasses for at least one episode. To help orient you and jog your memory, here are some things that were true about the world in 2005:

  • There was no YouTube, and video on the web was still rare and flash-based.
  • It would be two more years before Netflix streaming would launch.
  • Thefacebook.com was still just a college thing, and the appeal was mostly for undergrads.
  • Bloggers were rockstars, and hyperlinks still mattered.
  • The Motorola RAZR had just been released in late 2004, and 2005 was the year that it blew up. It was tiny, and it was huge. My non-techie sister could do email on hers.
  • 3G cellular was state-of-the-art, and 4G wouldn’t be introduced for another three years.
  • Web advertising was quite profitable — wildly profitable by today’s standards, even. I won’t give any numbers, but Ars Technica and other independent publications could afford to pay writers well enough that we could actually poach programmers and engineers from their day jobs and turn them into journalists.
  • Amazon was two years away from releasing the first Kindle, and one year away from launching Amazon Web Services.
  • This was the first year that I and many others finally ditched paper maps and Google Maps print-outs for dash-mounted GPS units by Garmin and TomTom.
  • When Hurricane Katrina took out New Orleans in September of 2005, there were no smartphones to document any of it. Those of us on the Gulf Coast in the storm’s aftermath got our information via word-of-mouth rumor and broadcast news reports. Also, I spent a bunch of time in shelters helping abruptly displaced storm refugees use internet-connected PCs and one-off message boards to reconnect with their scattered friends and family, because there was no app for that.

As Josh Brown ably pointed out in a 2014 post that I still think back to periodically, it’s not just that the pace of change has accelerated in the past few years, but that the rate of acceleration has accelerated — we’ve hit the second derivative. Is there a third derivative in our future? Could we handle it if there were?

Software, network effects, and feedback loops

I have various hypotheses about why things have suddenly sped up so much, and I’ll share one of them, here:

We’re moving more of our social and economic lives into software, and everything about software is volatile because software is

  1. easily changed, and
  2. a force multiplier for human efforts — the good, the bad, the naive— in any sphere.

These effects are further compounded by network effects (networks of computers and humans are a force multiplier for software) and feedback loops (networked software is a force multiplier for the human activity of producing networked software). The result is that the ride just. keeps. getting. faster.

A flash crash in GOOG. Source: Nanex

The whipsawing of our largely automated stock markets in recent days is just a taste of what can and will happen to every sphere of human activity that we port from meatspace to networked software. And as with the stock market’s flash crashes and melt-ups, those changes will be catastrophic for some and wildly profitable for others.

Think about what’s already routine: we now live in a world where an individual’s career and entire stock of social capital can flash crash to zero thanks to a single ill-advised tweet; where a swath of the country’s marriages can flash crash thanks to a hack; and where a small bakery’s bank account can melt up thanks to a national backlash against a national backlash against a local incident involving a wedding cake.

When I think ahead to what the world will be like in 2025, I’m kind of terrified. Forget about climate change and terrorism and all that — I’m worried about what we’re going to do to ourselves voluntarily. I’m worried that the sensation that I get when watching Mr. Robot will become a regular feature of my life, and that I’ll routinely find myself looking at a screen full of “right now” and seeing something out of a dystopian sci-fi show from ten years ago, five years ago, or even two years ago.

The crazy thing is that we’ve barely gotten started. There is so much that has yet to be ported from meatspace to the ‘net, and every part of our lives that’s already on the ‘net will be refactored with increasing rapidity. And when I say “the ‘net” I don’t really mean “the web”, because the web as we know it is a sad mess of cave paintings compared to what’s right around the corner.

In the next five years, possibly sooner, VR and augmented reality will sweep over the developed world like a tsunami; the earthquake has already happened somewhere at sea, the wild animals have headed to high ground, and those outsized investments that have attracted so much media attention are the tide going out — we’re all just milling about on the beach while the wall of water closes in. We’re going to live inside our software, and it will live inside us. If you think VR is overhyped, you will be proven wrong shortly, when an infinitely malleable force multiplier for the full spectrum of human genius and depravity takes up full-time residence inside your eyes. Forever.

A ray of hope?

Interesting times, for sure, but I have one more hypothesis I’ll share, and it’s a little less terrifying: the human capacity for dealing with an overload of novelty is finite, and at some point we’ll start to bump up against those limits, individually at first, and then in demographic cohorts. Some of our networked software deploys will be rolled back into meatspace, and like all rollbacks of production code, those moments will be both painful and educational.

Maybe this last idea is just wishful thinking on my part — the hope that my kids will inhabit a world I can recognize, or at the very least be tethered to a networked software construct that’s less spiritually toxic than the stream. Either way, I don’t think it will take us another ten years to find out what’s next.