Mr Robot is the most successful example of a small but fast-growing genre of “techno-realist” media, where the focus is on realistic portrayals of hackers, information security, surveillance and privacy, and it represents a huge reversal on the usual portrayal of hackers and computers as convenient plot elements whose details can be finessed to meet the story’s demands, without regard to reality.
There’s a problem with this: information security really matters, and practically no one understands it, and most of what people think they know comes from (usually terrible) media portrayals. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, used to prosecute Aaron Swartz, was passed after a Wargames-inspired moral panic about teenagers starting WWIII from their bedrooms, and the next president thinks that hackers are 400 pound guys in their bedrooms and wants to rely on his 10 year old nephew to thwart them.
In my feature article for MIT Tech Review, I discuss the techno-realist movement, how it applies to my own novel Little Brother and its adaptation at Paramount, and what it portends for the future of art, security and law.
The show excels not only at talk but also at action. The actual act of hacking is intrinsically boring: it’s like watching a check-in clerk fix your airline reservation. Someone types a bunch of obscure strings into a terminal, frowns and shakes his head, types more, frowns again, types again, and then smiles. On the screen, a slightly different menu prompt represents the victory condition. But the show nails the anthropology of hacking, which is fascinating as all get-out. The way hackers decide what they’re going to do, and how they’re going to do it, is unprecedented in social history, because they make up an underground movement that, unlike every other underground in the past, has excellent, continuous, global communications. They also have intense power struggles, technical and tactical debates, and ethical conundrums—the kind of things found in any typical Mr. Robot episode.
Mr. Robot wasn’t the first technically realistic script ever pitched, but it had good timing. In 2014, as the USA Network was deliberating over whether to greenlight Mr. Robot’s pilot for a full season, Sony Pictures Entertainment was spectacularly hacked. Intruders dumped everything—prerelease films, private e-mails, sensitive financial documents—onto the Web, spawning lawsuits, humiliation, and acrimony that persists to this day. The Sony hack put the studio execs in a receptive frame of mind, says Kor Adana, a computer scientist turned screenwriter who is a writer and technology producer on the series. Adana told me the Sony hack created a moment in which the things people actually do with computers seemed to have quite enough drama to be worthy of treating them with dead-on accuracy.
Mr. Robot Killed the Hollywood Hacker
[Cory Doctorow/MIT Tech Review]