Mr. Robot: A Hacking Show that Gets it Right

In an age where technology is centric and vital to people’s lives, the concept of hacking is one which most of the general public is aware of. We hear news stories of companies being hacked as well as personal experiences of being the victim of hacking. However, the concept of hacking is very complicated. This means most people do not have a good understanding and have many misconceptions of it. This lack of understanding and the fact that many hacks are done with malicious intent develops an inherent fear and excitement of hacking. As a result, filmmakers often take advantage of this fear and excitement by using plots or scenes involving hacking. However, they also take advantage of the average viewers lack of knowledge regarding the subject by portraying hacking and hacker culture in embellished and unrealistic ways.

Filmmakers sacrifice authenticity because to most viewers the actual act of hacking dull. Mr. Robot is a television show about a stereotypical, socially inept, hoodie-wearing, young male hacker named Elliot. Elliot is a vigilante hacker who is attempting to take down a massive corporate conglomerate called E-Corp. At first glance the premise seems to be another abysmal attempt at a hacking show that will have people involved in hacker culture rolling their eyes. However, as the plot develops and these themes are explored we see many truths. The viewer becomes enveloped in a story of hacking that attempts to create an exciting and engaging plot while maintaining authenticity. Mr. Robot succeeds in delivering a realistic and authentic portrayal of many aspects of hacking and hacker culture.

On the surface, many portrayals of hacking are flawed because filmmakers struggle to demonstrate hacking in a visually interesting way. Filmmakers use buzzwords such as mainframe and encryption are usually thrown around unnecessarily and special effects are used to make the physical act of hacking interesting. The creator and executive producer Sam Esmail spoke in an interview about how he hates how filmmakers portray hacking saying, “I’m sorry, but every movie and show about hacking is so fucking terrible!… And they feel like they have to do all these CGI graphics, and you’re like, hacking doesn’t look anything remotely like that.”

Mr. Robot avoids these unnecessary and overcomplicated demonstrations of hacking and instead presents a realistic depiction. For example, there is a scene where Elliot wants to hack a man’s account. Rather than using some superpower-like computer skills to hack the account, he uses a program to run an attack. He inputs all the personal information he has of the man to assist the brute force attack. It’s unsuccessful so Elliot decides to try and find out the man’s phone number. He doesn’t magically use hacker powers to discover the phone number, he instead uses social engineering. Elliot finds the man and asks to borrow his phone to call his mom. He instead just calls his own phone to obtain the number. We rarely see hackers fail in films and Mr. Robot demonstrates how despite Elliot’s brilliance, hackers do not have magical abilities and sometimes hacking cannot solve everything.

Elliot’s character explores many stereotypes of a hacker. Elliot is portrayed as the extreme of many of these stereotypes, one of which being an asperger-like extreme intelligence. The stereotype of hackers being incredibly smart and socially challenged is not completely true by all means. However, it is true that there are many people who posses a super-intelligence in an area that does not translate to others. Hacking, similar to many other complex subjects, draws many people of this type. Of course Elliot is an extreme example, but many of Elliot’s personality traits are a true depiction of some people in industries such as hacking.

In Mr. Robot, Elliot is intelligent enough to take down the world’s most powerful corporation. However, he struggles in many other aspects of life. His intelligence does not translate into maturity or emotional stability. He struggles with social interaction, because his extreme intelligence makes him unable to accept illogical social norms. When a coworker who is dating Elliot’s longtime friend attempts to connect with Elliot and resolve any awkwardness, Elliot responds saying “I’m okay with it being awkward between us”. He even at times expresses how he wishes he could just be ignorant like normal people, and enjoy the world through an inquisitive lense.

Elliots lack of personal skills and emotional instability have forced him into a life of loneliness. However, he is not the type of loner illustrated by the stereotype of a hacker in their mother’s basement playing video games. Elliot is forced into adulthood at a young age after the death of his father and neglect and abuse of his mother. He struggles to cope with this and Mr. Robot represents him as a modern “Ponyboy” of hacker culture. He thinks that life is unfair and this is largely due to the background of his father’s death. His father died of leukemia when Elliot was eight due to a toxic environment working at E-Corp, who Elliot refers to as “Evil Corp”.

Mr. Robot explores the idea that many hackers use hacking as a way to cope with their issues. In a scene where Elliot is shown huddled in his apartment crying, he expresses in a voiceover, “What do normal people do when they get sad? They reach out to friends or family… That’s not an option for me.” He connects to people not by social interaction, rather by hacking them. Mr. Robot attempts to convey the powerful attraction hacking has for people like Elliot whose extreme intelligent makes him feel disconnected from the normal world. Elliot understands people and is able to use social engineering to exploit them. However, his social insecurity leads him to feel vulnerable in the world. He does not open himself up socially as he explains, he will “Never show them [his] source code”. He worries that if people understand him they will be able to “Find a bug in his source code” and be able to exploit him. This disconnects him from society, and hacking gives him a sense of control in a world where he feels powerless.

The most extreme example of how Elliot uses hacking to cope with his problems is his mission to take down “Evil Corp”, the company whose neglect led to his father’s death. The premise that backs Elliot’s actions in the show is the idea that hacking can be used for social justice. This is a very realistic and relevant topic, as we are currently seeing this type of activity in our own society. There are groups such as Anonymous who consider themselves “Hacktivists”. They use hacking to achieve a greater good, albeit often in illegal ways. In August 2015 a hacker group publicly released all the private user data of AshleyMadison.com, a website used to connect people who are interested in having an affair. Another hacker group with ties to Anonymous hacked into the database of the Ku Klux Klan. They exposed the names of a few notable people including US Senators, and stated they will release the full list of memberships on Thursday, November 5th.

Similar to many of these recent examples of hacking events, Elliot is driven by benevolent morales. When we meet Elliot he is exposing a man for leading an underground cyber distribution of child pornograpy. He also uses hacking to help people he cares about. For example, he hacks his therapists boyfriend to expose him for cheating. These types of events are things that actually happen in our society. They are done by hackers of all types. Either by individual hackers or groups like Anonymous or the group called Fsociety that Elliot joins to help take down “Evil Corp”.

This mission of social justice is an authentic demonstration of what many hackers like Elliot do. The characteristics often associated with hackers often influence them to use their skills to cope with their issues. Many people use hacking to make a positive impact on society and to give themselves a sense of purpose and control. Mr. Robot does a great job of not taking advantage of the audience’s lack of hacker knowledge. Instead of focusing on using hacking to heighten the excitement of the plot, Mr. Robot examines themes of hacking and hacker culture. Mr. Robot is finally a show about hacking that hackers can watch without cynicism.

— Steve Jones

steve@stevejones.io