On Wednesday, 15 July 2020, the Twitter accounts of some of the most powerful people in the world, including Elon Musk, Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Kim Kardashian were hacked, with tweets being sent to ask for cryptocurrency. After hours of trying to detect the source of the hacks (and failing at it), Twitter prevented verified accounts from posting at all, for fear of more. It was probably the most severe social media hack of all time, and some experts believe that to pull it off, the hackers would have needed access to Twitter’s internal infrastructure.
Historically, hacking in film has been portrayed dismally, laughably even: music pumping loudly at 200 beats per minute, a hacker is seen hunched over his computer in the back of a moving car, typing furiously, brow furrowed. After a few seconds he gives a casual “I’m in” and presto! He’s disabled the national bank’s security system or programmed every traffic light in town to flash to the tune of Jingle Bells.
In fact, because not much was known about coding and the intricate processes that made it possible for all of us to walk around with powerful mass-produced computing devices in our pockets, it was easier to “imagine” what it could be like, at times exaggerating the depiction of a coder, turning it into a hip young whiz cracking security codes in a matter of seconds. The often inaccuracy of Hollywood’s portraying of what it means to hack into someone or some organisation’s personal data is not just about cliche situations; it also doesn’t take into account the time it takes to hack. Even movies made well into “the Information Age” still sometimes make the same elementary mistakes that were made decades before, like Swordfish which portrayed code as a three-dimensional interface in 2001, or Skyfall in 2012.
But the days of the omnipotent action-sequence hacker are dwindling. Mass distribution of computers and smartphones have democratised the internet, and the internet is democratising knowledge of all things. IT and computer science are popular school and university subjects and there is a plethora of apps to help a Luddite learn to code. And while the world is plugging in, cybercrime becomes more and more common in peoples’ daily experience.
This weekend we’re watching a thrilling award-winning series launched in 2015, which explores the complexity of hacking and the mental struggles of a life behind screens.
Elliot is an antisocial, online vigilante who busts cybercriminals (think of him as a creepy hacker Robin Hood) dressed in a hoodie; he’s played by the talented Rami Maleck, who won an Emmy for the performance and whose acting range knows no bounds.
Elliot is an outcast, shackled inside his own mind behind walls of screens. Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits might say he suffers from the “Industrial Disease” of our time – call it Millennial Disease – social anxiety, depression, and a sardonic resentment of pretty much everything.
The early episodes feature a lot of Elliot skulking about, looking sullen and delivering vague but confident nihilistic rants in monotone about “the higher ups” and the “corporations” and “the machine of the world”, saying things like “the world itself’s just one big hoax”. These early monologues do sometimes feel like they’re trying too hard to be Trainspotting, but for all Elliot’s wry cynicism and thinly veiled misanthropy, he’s actually just an intelligent loner, frustrated with the way things are.
It’ll be understandable if you need to roll your eyes a little, but Elliot does make some intriguing points during his angst rants. He takes the concept of our “subjugation” to capitalism and pushes it further to support a philosophy you could call economic determinism. He believes that in some way, money determines the outcome of all of our choices, but the illusion of choice is maintained through our needing to do the spending ourselves.
It’s these antiestablishment sentiments that lure Elliot to an anarchist hacker group called fsociety (fuck society) who are on a warpath towards revolution. By the time you actually meet Mr. Robot in the first episode, the fun has already begun. “You’re here because you sense something wrong with the world. Something you can’t explain, but you know it controls you and everyone you care about … money.”
Mr. Robot seems clearly influenced by the groundbreaking graphic novel and movie V for Vendetta, and the most crucial plot point of the first season is an unashamed revamp of a particular cult classic of the late Nineties (we won’t say which), but the series is best compared to Dexter.
Dexter was a hugely popular series in which a similarly tormented sociopathic protagonist was a forensic blood spatter analyst by day and a vigilante serial killer by night. The first season was excellent, and propelled Dexter through seven more, but as they moved on, the quality degraded, and by the time it reached its eighth and final season, it was horrific. The view that the final episode of Dexter was one of the worst finales of any mainstream series is held by its fans and haters alike.
When the protagonist in a series is a sociopath, the writers face a growing dilemma as seasons progress: either allow for character development to keep each season fresh, which risks losing an audience which tuned in because of the intrigue of a disturbed character; or don’t, which risks viewers becoming disillusioned with the protagonist or simply bored by the repetition.
Dexter somehow managed to do both, changing the parts of his character that fascinated people, while leaving the parts which did not. But Mr. Robot escaped this fate, maybe simply because they knew when to quit. The show’s creator, Sam Esmail, said of the series, “Since Day 1, I’ve been building toward one conclusion — and in making Season 4 of Mr. Robot, I have decided that conclusion is finally here”.
While both the second and third season took some heat for allegedly being too focused on Elliot’s internal narrative, that shifted in the final season, and the general opinion of Mr. Robot’s fan-base seemed to be that the series concluded as well as it started.
The hacking in Mr. Robot is definitely dramatised. Some of it is not nearly as advanced as it’s made out to be, relying mostly on cyber security being lackadaisical from the get go, other times it assumes that the hacker is either extremely talented, lucky, or both. But the hacks are feasible, and they become more and more feasible every day. Code is the future, and the villains of that future, the terrorists and the hijackers (and maybe even the Robin Hoods) will be hackers. Mr. Robot takes an entertaining peek behind that coded curtain to explore its possibilities. DM/ ML
Mr. Robot is available for streaming on Showmax.
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