Mr. Robot and Philosophy: Beyond Good and Evil Corp
US: Jul 2017
Here is the difficulty in writing about the philosophical underpinnings of a show like Mr. Robot: The ideas that Mr. Robot presents are not new, or difficult, or particularly imaginative. Especially for the audience meant to consume it—an audience ready for the next big thing in the era of “Peak TV”, an audience more than willing to follow a show for a season with only the vaguest idea of what is really going on—the various theses of Mr. Robot are almost facile. Where Mr. Robot shines is in its style. The way it tells its story, the voice it gives its wholly unreliable narrator, the speed at which things move, the often awkward and skewed camera angles, these are the things that make Mr. Robot like nothing else on TV. Boil it down to a plot synopsis, and you end up with “jaded hacker formulates plot to ruin corporate America. Hijinks ensue.”
How do you dive into philosophy with a show that so deeply relies on a sense of style? For a few too many of the essays contained within Mr. Robot and Philosophy, the answer is to ape that style.
Case in point: No less than four of the book’s 19 essays (five out of 20 if you include the foreword) start with some variation of the words Mr. Robot‘s protagonist uses to open the series. Seeing “Hello, friend” once is worth maybe an eye roll. By the time you see it a fourth or fifth time, it’s hard to not tune out entirely.
Even aside from the glut of essays that start with “Hello, friend”, there’s a conversational tone prevalent in these essays that’s clearly geared toward those coming into Mr. Robot and Philosophy as fans of the show more than those looking for philosophical discussion. Many of these essays contain interesting ideas, but the tone of Mr. Robot is hard to resolve and take seriously when presented in the context of a philosophical essay.
Christopher Ketcham’s “We Become the Grid” is a fine essay on the way our interconnectedness can (or could) turn us, our brains, our interactions with each other and the outside world, into one more series of algorithms and datasets just to be exploited. This is interesting of its own accord, but by presenting it in the clipped, questioning sentences that Mr. Robot tends to deploy, Ketcham brings us to hear his essay in Elliot’s voice.
As a narrative device it’s fine, but when you’re an author trying to make a point, Elliot is just about the last person you want speaking for you. He’s paranoid, his grip on reality is tenuous at best, he happily acknowledges his own unreliability. Without the context of the show, it’s impossible to take Elliot seriously as a conduit of information. It undermines Ketcham’s ideas to use this voice, which is too bad because his ideas are interesting and worthwhile.
Happily, these sorts of criticisms are only valid for around half of the essays in the book. There’s also plenty of writing here that’s worth examining in some depth. Most effective are those pieces that offer an examination of the television show itself rather than the world within that show. Cristopher Hoyt contributes “Mr. Robot, Mad Son of Noir”, a fascinating take on the parallels between the show and classic film noir. From morally ambiguous protagonists motivated by a sense of duty to camera shots that involve thick shadows and angular framing, Mr. Robot‘s various artistic choices make it a surprisingly effective example of modern noir.
Elsewhere, despite a title that is too cute by half, Don Fallis’ “On-keeping-everyb0dy-1n-the-d4rk.docx” is a fine meditation on the ways that the various characters in Mr. Robot use deception and concealment to achieve their various ends. What’s most effective about this essay is the ease with which characters in the show can hide things and misdirect others, to the point where it’s difficult to keep from seeing signs of misdirection all around your everyday life.
Indeed, as a shortcut to a life of paranoia and mistrust, “On-keeping-everyb0dy-1n-the-d4rk.docx” may well be the essay that most evokes the show it’s discussing.
As a book of essays by a wide variety of authors, it stands to reason that Mr. Robot and Philosophy will contain its share of hits and misses, and to be sure, a superfan of the television show—particularly a fan that sees in the show a somewhat-accurate reflection of the world outside—will find lot to chew on. Still, too much of Mr. Robot and Philosophy seems like a missed opportunity. More edits to differentiate essays that are too tonally similar would have gone a long way, and a larger focus on essays that examine the show’s stylistic choices rather than trying to inhabit them might have made for a more consistently engaging read. Fewer “friends” would have been ideal. As it is, despite its occasional highlights, Mr. Robot and Philosophy is little more than the sort of curio you glance at, thumb through, put down, and move on to other things.
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