Rami Malek as the protagonist of Mr. Robot, Elliot Alderson.

Courtesy of Universal Cable Productions

Rami Malek as the protagonist of Mr. Robot, Elliot Alderson.

September 16, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Why We Need to Watch Mr. Robot

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The recent news that Mr. Robot’s fourth season will be its last signals the end of a show that redefines what it means to be revolutionary. The techno-thriller chronicles the story of cybersecurity engineer Elliot Anderson, a morphine addict who wants to save the world from corrupt corporate powers. The cybersecurity firm that he works for protects the data of conglomerates such as E Corp, a manufacturer of most of the world’s computers and phones and a provider of much of the world’s entertainment. E Corp, led by a power hungry board of directors, also covered up a toxic gas leak that led to some of their workers contracting leukemia — including Elliot’s father. Thus, despite the mission of his workplace, Elliot works to expose some of E Corp’s secure digital records with the hopes of diminishing their grasp over the global market.

The show’s concept is by far one of the most intriguing, timely and significant that I’ve ever encountered. Through its plot, Mr. Robot makes me question the impact, or lack thereof, that my my career choices will have beyond band-aiding smaller problems or coding for some company that breaches their customers’ privacy for profit. Being a computer science major has taught me valuable problem-solving skills, but if I don’t use my knowledge to challenge injustices both within and outside of the tech industry, what will I have truly solved? How to make more money for the real world E Corps, Amazon and Google?

Other TV shows steeped in the life of computer scientists often depict something far closer to the norm: creating projects in the pursuit of wealth (Silicon Valley), or working with the government to stop crimes (Scorpion). These shows do much to reinforce careerism and little to address the dangers of a society growing more dependent on technology as a means of communicating, dating and making monetary transactions. They passively work to enforce the stigma that the government, and the tech corporations that we use day to day, can actually be trusted. Anyone who says otherwise gets labeled as a “conspiracy theorist” or “paranoid” — words that a first-time viewer may use to describe Elliot — despite the mounting pile of incidents providing merit to those beliefs. Cambridge Analytica’s amassing of “private” information of Facebook users, enough for the company to claim that they have 4,000 data points on over 230 million American citizens, should be more than enough to raise concerns. Their usage of that data to aid the Trump campaign in targeting voters should be more than enough to not only validate Elliot’s mission, but push us to follow his lead.

In an era where peak social media usage reinforces users’ moral ignorance, a protagonist such as Elliot is a crucial revelation. When asked what’s bothering him about society, he says “we collectively thought Steve Jobs was a great man, even when we knew he made millions off the backs of children.” When reflecting on society’s reliance on social media as a vortex of fake intimacy and fraudulent insight, he claims it’s “because we want to be sedated. Because it’s painful to not pretend. Because we’re cowards.” His truth speaks for itself. Within the first 15 minutes, Mr. Robot showcases a character whose ethics aren’t buried under a desire for likes, retweets or dollar bills. A character who has deleted all of his social media, shirks a healthy dating life, jeopardizes his job security, and battles a morphine addiction, all in his quest to, as he puts it, “save the world.” Elliot’s willingness to defy the status quo to fight against E Corp, despite the high personal cost, makes him an embodiment of the message of Colin Kaepernick’s latest Nike ad: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Still, I’m sure not every single computer science major will relate to or support Elliot’s despise of E Corp and other big corporations. A main appeal of the career fair is the possibility of getting some six figure salary from one of these companies, as if that, alone, justifies years of hard work and indoctrination. Institutionalized private education will almost always gear its students to find as lucrative a career as possible, as tuition-payers will want an adequate return of investment. Though naive, this thought process is neither uncommon or damning. Silicon Valley has a prime example in protagonist Richard Hendrix, a somewhat well-meaning person whose enamor of wealth and startup success has blinded him to his work’s lack of a virtuous purpose. Not everyone has the means, insight or courage to ensure that their work aligns with their moral code. But for those of us who do, Mr. Robot’s prioritization of doing what’s right over monetary profit makes the show a necessary and refreshing viewing.

As Mr. Robot enters its final season, the legacy of its protagonist as a revolutionary will only be further cemented. For throughout the data heists, terrorist attacks, faked suicides, drug-induced hallucinations and untimely character deaths, the show’s most compelling aspect is Elliot’s unwavering allegiance to humanity.

Jonvi Rollins is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at djr277@cornell.edu. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester