Mind as Computer: Subjective Realities and the Programmable Mind
The most common portrayals of computer hacking and engineering seek to remove human elements in favor of visuals, leaving these depictions to be ridiculed by the experts they’re portraying. Sam Esmail has addressed this inauthenticity, to the surprise of many, in his post-cyberpunk drama, Mr. Robot by assembling a cast that mirrors a segment of the American population that is technologically literate, both self-taught and formally educated, working on their own or from inside the tech sector, and places them in a setting that is immediately recognizable to the audience.
Mr. Robot follows Elliot Alderson, a cybersecurity engineer and vigilante hacker who unknowingly forms fSociety, a group of activist hackers that has systematically infiltrated the world’s largest conglomerate, Evil Corp. Together with the Dark Army (mercenary hackers from China) fSociety puts into motion a plan to destroy Evil Corp’s servers, separating the masses from their debt, and pushing the conglomerate to financial ruin.
The main storyline concerns itself with examining life in a capitalist society, particularly where consumerism, debt and influence are concerned, feeding a general misanthropy that is at the heart of the series. However, Esmail places greater importance on his characters, and the state of their mental and emotional health as the physical and digital realities they interact with fold in on one another. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the first moments of the pilot episode.
Hello, friend. Hello, friend? That’s lame. Maybe I should give you a name. But that’s a slippery slope. You’re only in my head. We have to remember that. Shit. It’s actually happened. I’m talking to an imaginary person.
Programmer as Software:
The connection man has with his computer is a social observation of a culture driven by information, one where the individual and the application of their data tailors their perception of reality. For Elliot, his world and person are shaped by these same elements, however, his ability to process this information is undermined by illness.
Suffering from both clinical depression and social anxiety, Elliot has managed his conditions with a combination of drug consumption and addiction management. Though damaging on its own, his recreational abuse of medication arguably does less to reinforce his conditions than his practice of experiential avoidance. By keeping himself from social interactions, denying most desires, and avoiding uncomfortable thoughts, Elliot has attempted to dull the sharpness of anything that causes him pain. This addresses a pattern of behavior actual sufferers from either condition use in order to bolster their mental health, something that seems logical on the surface. This, unfortunately, does not hold, and Elliot eventually finds himself succumbing to more severe bouts of depression, paralyzed again by the thought of interaction.
Having all but eliminated social interactions, Elliot has supplemented human relationships with an imagined one. Elliot’s friend—the viewer—sits on the other side of fourth-wall-breaking conversations that builds intimacy by including them in the reality he inhabits. Sam Esmail strengthens this tether with his disregard for traditional photography, making use of lower quadrants, something film students are often dissuaded from doing due to the unsettling reaction viewers have when seeing actors in such uncommon placements on screen. This disorienting effect attempts to communicate the off-kilter view Elliot has of the world, but also how those who populate that world notice the peculiarities within him.
In time it’s revealed that Elliot’s friend is actually one of two. Mr. Robot, Elliot’s deceased father, Edward, is unmasked as a projection of Elliot’s subconscious. The relationship between Elliot and his father is arguably the most contentious, ranging from friendly to outright dangerous. Such a violent shift in behavior is rooted in Elliot’s childhood, and has informed his relationships with men as an adult. This is perhaps best realized in Elliot’s vigilante hacks, all of which have targeted men.
Though raised by an emotionally and physically abusive mother, who undoubtedly worked in tandem with Edward to support Elliot’s maladaptive schemas, she does not seem to be as influential a factor in Elliot’s relationships with women. In fact, those are the healthiest relationships he engages in.
Despite trauma and abuse, Elliot managed to make and keep a childhood friend, develop sexually, and exercise a general concern for those in his life, allowing him to act as a source of support and protection for others. This same group has made an investment in Elliot, in his presence and even his betterment. They do so being at least partially aware of his psychological state, and as a result they endure the emotional stress that results when Elliot undermines their wishes and applies his judgment instead.
This pattern of interaction seems to follow John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, specifically where children’s attachment to parents are concerned. Or the attachment to those who filled parental roles. After being pushed out of his bedroom window and neglected for months—the consequence of only trying to get his father help—Elliot learned from Edward that men can turn on him in an instant. Logically this should carry over to reflect his abusive mother, but in her place was a surrogate in the form of Darlene, a resilient younger sister who Elliot has effectively quarantined in his mind, set apart from the rest of the family. And in doing so, Elliot has burdened Darlene while also empowering her with the ability to reach under layers of psychological damage to revive the person buried beneath.
What allows Elliot to communicate with a projection of a father he doesn’t recognize and remove a sister from memory is his dissociative amnesia, which targets episodic memory, erasing or distorting a handful of days or specific events and people. Though rare to this condition, dissociative amnesia can also trigger hallucinations and delusions, such as speaking to the dead and the overwhelming sense of being pursued. Though a very serious disorder, it could be helped were Elliot to acknowledge the authority of his psychiatrist, Krista. Had his treatment begun in childhood, it might’ve made a difference.
Psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman, an expert on childhood trauma and recovery, found that children came out of trauma wanting to turn inward in search of psychological protection rather than seek assistance from any recognized authority. So when the son of a computer engineer needs to address traumatic events, it should come as no surprise that he deals with his psychological troubles the way he deals with everything else.
For Elliot, analyzing people in search of a hackable exploit has much in common with the process software developers employ when developing a patch. A patch is software released by the developer of an existing program to provide it new files, override others, and keep some from executing. In Elliot, dissociative amnesia has been applied like a patch to the program that is his mind, creating new people, allowing him to assume contradictory personalities, and delete entire relationships from memory. And though it attempts to be, a patch can be far from perfect. In Elliot’s case, it can cause more damage than it was meant to address.
Sam Esmail has clued the audience into Elliot’s state of mind largely through misdirection. But his strongest comments on these issues, his metaphor for “mind as computer”, is communicated continuously through Elliot’s observations of others, diagnosing behavior and thought patterns using terms exclusive to computing, further illustrating that people are things he can exploit through his skills as a hacker. It’s a disturbing space, even for someone who inhabits that reality regularly. And it takes an equally disturbing episode to rival older traumas and pull him back to a physical reality, a place where he can accept that what is wrong with him is beyond his ability to control. This was best covered in Elliot’s admission to his psychiatrist Krista that he’s been hacking her since he began treatment, entrusting her with the secret of his crippling solitude because he perceives her to be as lonely and as miserable as he is.
I mean, Elliot is basically a thinly-veiled version of me. ~Sam Esmail
Pursuing these themes from the vehicle of Elliot, Sam Esmail has made a statement on the inability of the individual to address what is corrupted within them on their own. This is not the first patch Elliot applied and not the first time his mind has been corrupted by it. But even admissions of guilt on his part—the lies, the negligence of his health, the deliberate subversion of the will of others—does not guarantee a path forward. In fact, when Elliot’s memory is stitched back together, and the fabric of his hyper-reality is torn again, he finds himself angrier and more anxious than before. This comes when he rediscovers an uncomfortable truth—for the program that is his mind, these traits are not bugs, but features. Elliot is incapable of deleting these files no matter how corrupted they may be because they are essential.
Rather than attempt to craft a solution to Elliot’s complex conditions, Sam Esmail prefers to present Elliot’s mental illnesses with little judgment or prescription, yet never shies away from detailing how damaging they are. As unfair as it may seem to the character, this is simply how Elliot is. Healthy is a state that he will probably never comprehend, let alone achieve. For Elliot, the closest he can come to healing is through familiar files, and the hope that, when he needs them, his interaction hasn’t rendered them inoperable.
“Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror” by Judith Lewis Herman, MD
“A Secure Base” by John Bowlby