Mr. Robot on Alienation

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In the final push towards season 3 of Mr. Robot, the New York times published “Rami Malek of Mr. Robot Doesn’t Want to be Alone Anymore.” There’s not much in the way of spoilers, but one thing Malek points out is a change for Elliot’s character, that the most isolated man in New York now wants “to be part of this world.” Mr. Robot has been talking about this circumstance as something fundamentally American, made possible by needs created by capitalism, and our inability to reconcile all this with what we understand to be human.

Many philosophers and sociologists have explored it before him, but Karl Marx gets credit for defining alienation. In a capitalist society, communities are divided along lines of wealth, which determines a person’s agency. This results in an estrangement between individuals and their thoughts and actions. This sociological observation has found its way into many economic theories formed by anarchist thinkers and Mr. Robot: 1.51exfiltratiOn points to this with references to Ukrainian anarchist Maria Nikiforova and Peter Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread.

A prime example of this is the progress of automation, which is in the process of killing entire sections of the job market, rendering once-highly-skilled workers obsolete. Succeeding in the western world requires new skill sets and/or the backing of a seemingly stable institution, like a successful corporation. In choosing to take part in this limited spectrum of employment, many are asked to perform tasks that in no way recognizes them as humans deserving of dignity. Through alienation, an epidemic of loneliness has been allowed to spread in ways that wouldn’t have been possible without a specific socioeconomic reality.

Mr. Robot examines Marx’s stages of alienation through three characters who happen to not be Elliot, Mr. Robot’s protagonist.

Angela

Mr. Robot

Angela starts off as something of an “everywoman.” She’s an eager Allsafe employee who doesn’t feel respected or valued at work, which is reflected in her paycheck. So she tries to change that. After recruiting Elliot, who’s seen as the company’s top employee by their boss Gideon, Angela tries to negotiate a raise that she seems to think will better reflect what she contributes to the company. Instead, she gets a semi-promotion to the case manager for the Evil Corp account, which she treats seriously because of how it will inform Gideon’s opinion of her.

This exchange value is how we commonly frame employment. Though Angela doesn’t feel Gideon respects her, she’s willing to take on increased responsibility in the hopes that doing more will result in being valued. This is problematic because Angela must rely on Gideon to determine her worth to Allsafe, influencing her sense of self.

After flubbing a couple small details at a meeting with Evil Corp’s executives, Elliot comes to Angela’s defense, which causes her to be ushered out of the room and kicked off the account. For weeks she ignores Elliot and when she finally does speak it’s to point out her annoyance at him for standing up for her. To appear less competent in Gideon’s eyes, compromising her value to Allsafe, forced Angela to choose between Gesellschaft, her role as an employee in a company, and Gemeinschaft, relationships with family and friends like Elliot.

Mr. Robot

Expanding on Marx’s ideas, Ferdinand Tonnies saw that people were constantly being presented these opposing choices. Gesellschaft offers up material benefits and incentives to obtain more by placing a value on a person’s contribution to an organization. Gemeinschaft exists without incentive but provides people with a sense of community by allowing them to bond with another person based primarily on their character.

The obvious path would be to strike a balance between the two. Anyone who’s tried to have a successful career and a rich social life knows how naive that position can be.

Despite Evil Corp having killed her mother through corporate negligence, and Gideon taking her off the account–the original script goes a step further with Gideon handing her role to her less competent boyfriend Ollie–Angela continued to work diligently to protect their network. In accepting that Gideon’s relationship with Evil Corp is of greater consequence to Allsafe than her show of dedication, Angela falls back to a lesser position without protest. She understands Gesellschaft is a norm she must make peace with.

At the same time, when Evil Corp suffers a massive DDoS attack under her watch, Angela quickly reaches out to Elliot. This isn’t because Elliot is the best cybersecurity engineer Allsafe has, even though he is, but because he’s Angela’s closest friend. Gemeinschaft works because Angela doesn’t have to bargain to get Elliot’s help, she doesn’t have to evaluate his worth as a member of their friendship, she simply has to ask for help. In and out of their professional setting, Angela and Elliot are mutually invested in each other’s personal lives and chastise one another when their absence becomes apparent.

Because she values Elliot for the person that he is, Angela needs only his approval to willingly doom Allsafe by saying she broke the chain of custody with the DAT file that led to Terry Colby being cleared of charges Mr. Robot tied to him after fsociety’s first hack.  Angela thinks that having a confession to move forward with a class action suit that’s been stalled since 1995 is enough to get Antara Nayar, the lawyer who represented her father and Elliot’s mother, on her side. Nayar may genuinely like her but she keeps Angela far from the case. Again, career and ethics are purposefully separated, dropping Angela to her lowest point and telling Evil Corp it was time to offer her a job.

Mr. Robot

While she undergoes a substantial change, it’s possible that she’s more alienated than when she worked for Allsafe. At one point Angela’s convinced CEO Philip Price values her as an employee, then thinks she can exploit that and force the largest corporate entity in history to insure the protection of people working at the Washington Township plant while also climbing the corporate ladder and replace her boss.

Not only are her ambitions denied, but several of her relationships are strained by her new job, namely her father who sees her new job as an insult to her mother’s memory. This pushes her to be brave and attempt to turn over Evil Corp records to the government, but even this feels compromised, and without anyone to trust she wants to turn herself over to the FBI. Then, the Dark Army steps in.

We know little about White Rose, and even less about what she told Angela after playing Land of Ecodelia. But Angela comes back to New York, willing to cut off Nayar and work for the Dark Army. This could be a sign that she’s found a group worth working with that won’t exploit her labor but recognize her as an individual ready to invest in their cause. But if this is another attempt to seek out ambition for its own sake,  we’ve already seen how that works out.

Tyrell

Mr. Robot

Tyrell is an ideal to strive for in an alienated world. Rather than be used by systematic exploitation, he’s mastered it. When first meeting Elliot, Tyrell has a genuine bonding moment with the quiet tech over Linux distros. It seems he’s made a new friend, but Tyrell is ready to use Elliot to secure his promotion to CTO after Colby’s arrest. When Elliot rejects the offer, the friendly facade falls and Tyrell reveals his true face–that of a profoundly unhappy man.

Tyrell has succeeded in life by adopting an anomic view of the world. Popularized by Emile Durkheim, anomic societies lack a general moral guidance, giving some permission to use unethical means to achieve goals.

In “The Alienation of Modern Man,” Fritz Pappenheim defined success in anomic societies and what alienation encourages us to do to achieve it through a photographer. Upon encountering a gruesome car accident, the photographer is presented with being a concerned bystander and rush to the aid of the dying motorists or take pictures that will circulate around media circles. If the photographer is anomic, they determine that the pictures are more important to them than saving some strangers and proceed to photograph the scene as the motorists die.

If a person of this kind, when he witnesses the agony of a dying man, can think only of taking a picture, it shows that there is a cleavage between the prize-seeking photographer and the human being in him. He is alienated from the situation in which he is involved and, at the same time, alienated from himself.

–Fritz Pappenheim

Mr. Robot

The only thing that can urge an anomic individual to acknowledge their alienation is a significant professional failure or a personal crisis. Tyrell experiences both while trying to become CTO. He tries to exploit Sharon Knowles’s interest in him and gather compromising pictures so her husband, Scott, could be shamed into resigning. This fails. Tyrell learns that Scott plans to fire him, causing him to panic and kill Sharon. It’s the point where Tyrell realizes the pointlessness in chasing the CTO position. He tries to tell Joanna, his wife, and co-conspirator, what he’s realized but all that comes out is gibberish to her. We, however, are aware that Tyrell is speaking about Elliot and the grand plans he (along with Mr. Robot) has set into motion.

Since Elliot is unable to recall, and Mr. Robot remains unwilling to say what went on during the three days after the five-nine hack, we’re left with an incomplete picture of Tyrell’s separation from Evil Corp. What is certain is that in failing professionally and realizing how he exploited employees and bystanders alike in his quest for power, he discovered an option to marry his skills as an engineer and his newfound hatred for Evil Corp.

When he reappears towards the end of “eps2.9_pyth0n-pt1.p7z” he’s not the person he was. There’s a profound change in his character, just like Angela. This is a significant step in reuniting Tyrell with the basic humanity he rejected for Evil Corp, but the Dark Army makes it easier by presenting both the opportunity to fight a common enemy in the company of someone they both love (see “eps2.9_pyth0n-pt2.p7z” for confirmation).

Though it was difficult for them to move this far away from recognized structures of exploitation, it may be harder still for others.

Dom

Mr. Robot

Special Agent Dominique DiPierro is professional, vigilant, resourceful, daring, perceptive, and adapts to danger at a moment’s notice without slowing down. She posses all the qualities a top FBI agent should have, including the willingness to accept that she’s nothing more than one woman in a sprawling bureaucracy full of people who overrule her investigative instincts and don’t take the job half as seriously as she does. Dom is mostly fine with this because, unlike most professions, she’s one of the few people who abandoned a life that didn’t agree with her to pursue a mission to satisfy her curiosity with the “selfish brutality” of the world while giving her an opportunity to confront it. But she knows that she’s capable of being more effective if only given the opportunity. That conflict isolates her.

FBI Dom is a different person from at-home Dom. Compartmentalizing her personality is necessary to shift the energy normally reserved for her personal life towards her job. What little time that isn’t spent working is wasted away in bed, watching bad actors pretend to fall in love on reality TV, followed by some unsatisfying masturbation while role-playing with men online. It’s in that spartan apartment that Dom is forced to acknowledge her own panic, and in those moments she turns to her digital assistant in hopes that something will receive all her repressed emotions.

Mr. Robot

In a setting where Elliot Alderson is a repository for every negative emotion and circumstance, a human can experience, Dom manages to be the most pitiful. By allowing herself to be exploited by the FBI, she has sacrificed nearly everything. Now, she is identifiable only through her work as an agent.

With no meaningful presence in the lives of others and no role in the world beyond her profession, Dom’s basic humanity has atrophied. And she’s aware.

Conclusion

Mr. Robot

Sociological observations are littered throughout Mr. Robot. Alienation is so prominent because, as Marx identified, it’s a product of capitalism, the closest thing we have to a shared global culture. These circumstances affect just about every character, and some find an opportunity to see if their current actions and humanity conflict and try to address it. For people like Dom, and perhaps even Elliot, prolonged isolation and a disconnect from the self makes it increasingly difficult to rejoin any semblance of community. Even if that only includes one other person.

Marx argued that the only true path forward is to create a new socioeconomic infrastructure that allows people to live by embracing humanity rather than suppress it. Mr. Robot promised Stage 2 would be the way there, giving people no choice but to demand a new world without Evil Corp be built. How honest or clear-headed he remains to be seen, What is certain is that Tyrell and Angela aren’t in the clear. Alienation is cyclical in nature, and White Rose is working on something that doesn’t seem to include Elliot and Darlene’s original plan. They may have walked away from Evil Corp but they’ve landed right back into the center of another organization that’s willing to exploit them for their own ends.

Luckily for everyone, but Dom, in particular, alienation, like a lot of problems, can be ignored with significant distraction. Considering the chaos Stage 2 is introducing, everyone will have something to keep them busy.


If you’d like to check out Mr. Robot to experience some of the show’s deep philosophical musings or just need a distraction from your own alienation, you can find a copy of the first season here, or the second here.

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