BY SCOTT WARDELL
"Control is an illusion" lies at the heart of what makes Mr. Robot such a mindfuck of a series. This theme works in tandem with the series tagline "Our Democracy has been hacked." The interplay between power and control has been a central tenant of Mr. Robot from the show's inception, and with #MrRobot Season 3 returning on October 11, the struggle for authority looks like it will explode into the show's most dramatic season yet.
Furthermore, decrypting the declaration "Our Democracy has been hacked" reveals how power and control silently operate in the background of society. In examining how these two elements are being manipulated in everyday life, we see how many of the characters on Mr. Robot — and the public at large — possess far less agency than they believe.
The World Of 'Mr. Robot' Is An Illusion
Instead of operating in a world determined by freewill and choice, there's a theory that the entirety of Mr. Robot is an elaborate game controlled by two powerful men clashing for dominance. At any given point, Dark Army leader Whiterose and E Corp CEO Phillip Price are the two most influential figures on the series, each obsessed with obtaining more power than the other.
If we approach the events of Mr. Robot as a competition for power — a chess match — between Whiterose and Phillip Price, then all actions within that game are deliberate manipulations by these two players as they move their pieces. Their influence is so deeply rooted that it dictates how characters think and behave, like human robots.
How do Whiterose and Price wield such control over other characters? They hack people. Elliot often uses digital jargon when describing people and their behaviors, so it should come as no surprise that the same principles of manipulation can be applied to people as well. Whiterose (as Minister Zhang) teases this in the Season 3 trailer:
"If you pull the right strings a puppet will dance any way you desire."
How exactly does this process work? The disturbing truth is that the practice of hacking people has been elegantly refined by those in power for centuries.
Hacking People Is Social Conditioning
Hacking is not a modern concept. Before the digital age hacking was a form of social conditioning, with powerful individuals and large corporations finding ways to subjugate and control the public as far back as the 17th century. What's changed over the course of its evolution are the tools and methods with which it is carried out.
American linguist, philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky outlines how this process of social conditioning evolved from violence to sublimation:
"Corporate propaganda [...] it's goal from the beginning — perfectly openly and consciously — was to control the public mind, and the reason was because the public mind was seen as the greatest threat to corporations.
It was recognized early on that it was going to be necessary to control people's minds.
Look at the earliest stirrings of democratic revolutions in England in the 17th century. There already was concern that we're not going to be able to control people by force and we therefore have to control them by other means — controlling what they think, what they feel, their attitudes, their attitudes toward one another — all sorts of mechanisms of control are gonna have to be devised which will replace the efficient use of force and violence that was available to a much greater extent earlier on."
The Mr. Robot Season 3 trailer suggests that a surge of state-sanctioned violence is precisely what will occur as the conflict between fsociety, the Dark Army and the FBI continues. In addition to military forces, it seems that a biological agent might be infecting people all across New York City, inciting further chaos and disorder.
While it's clear how physical action can be used to subdue the masses, nuanced approaches are corporations' preferred methods of control, as they secure the same obedience without the same public protest.
Seeing how institutions such as media, television, newspapers, schools and churches affect our thinking is easier to observe when examined on the individual level. One particular scene in Mr. Robot Season 2 demonstrates precisely how these mechanisms work to infiltrate and influence our minds.
Human Robotics Begins With Data Mining
In Season 2, Angela is kidnapped by Whiterose's men and tasked with answering a series of random questions that initially feel like intimidation tactics. However, Angela's interrogation has a much more clandestine purpose; it is a cleverly disguised form of data mining, a process of examining (typically large) data sets in order to generate new information.
Questionnaires like the one in which Angela participates contain questions designed to reveal personal information without the user ever realizing what is being asked. The interrogator "separates the value of [the] answer from the nature of the question," extrapolating more information than the participant knows he or she reveals.
Your relationship with your mother will tell someone how you feel about women, whether you want children or not says a lot about how you feel about the future, and whether or not you believe in the supernatural tells them to what extent you will trust without seeing. Whether you think corporations are evil or not tells them if you're a 1 or a 0.
This information can then be used to specifically target an individual for influence without his or her knowledge — precisely what Whiterose wants for Angela. Using the information gathered from this session, Whiterose can not only predict Angela's future behavior, but can construct a new narrative for Angela to unknowingly follow.
Until this point, Angela operated under Phillip Price's influence, whether or not she recognized it. In taking a position at E Corp, Angela believed she was working to expose the truth about the Washington Township plant leak and subsequent coverup. Yet, Angela more often served Price's agenda, like when Price used her to arrest two E Corp executives, Jim Chutney and Saul Weinberg, for insider trading.
In spite of Angela's efforts, E Corp's agenda continued to move forward. Price dropped the third party inspections of the plant and denied Angela's request to move into the Risk Management Department, flexing his power over her at every opportunity.
Seeing a chance to capitalize on Price's prior conditioning of Angela, Whiterose provides a sense of purpose to Angela's personal tragedy, effectively reprogramming and recruiting her to work for the Dark Army without her knowledge. Season 3 will likely see Angela become a major figure as she maintains her position at E Corp while safeguarding a recovering Elliot and unwittingly facilitating the Dark Army's plan. Additionally, with Darlene dangerously positioned between fsociety and the FBI, Angela may need to assume more control in the hacker collective, bringing her even closer to Tyrell than the Season 2 finale teased.
The Will Of The People Has Been Hacked
Angela's conditioning is a form of human robotics via data-driven behavior change. While corporations have used this technique to ensure the public's submission to authority as well as feed consumer habits, the sobering truth is that people have lost their autonomy. Mr. Robot fully exploits this idea by suggesting that Democracy — the will of the people — has been hacked by large corporations vying for power.
If corporations like E Corp hold all the cards, then why would Phillip Price allow fsociety to execute the Five/Nine Hack and further threaten his company? As things stands, the hack derailed E Corp's network and locked digital records, but it also facilitated a $2 trillion, interest-free loan from the Chinese government and launched ECoin, the largest e-currency competitor to the Chinese-backed Bitcoin.
Though we assume E Corp faces grave threats from fsociety in Season 3, Phillip Price still remains the most powerful man in the room, and seems to have actually benefitted in the wake of Five/Nine. Price goes so far as to declare his thoughts on E Corp's position in the Season 3 trailer:
"World catastrophes like this — they occur because men like me allow them."
If every action thus far has been a deliberate move by Phillip Price or Whiterose as they compete for power, then the illusion of control looks to become a source of violence and retaliation in Season 3. No only is this a reminder of the antiquated mechanisms of control employed by the powerful, but it also marks a definitive turning point for all those involved. With all-out war on the horizon, it's unlikely that all the pawns will make it out of the game alive.
(Sources: Politics Means Politics, Reddit h/t @a_James_Woods, The Harvard Trade Union Program)