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Friday, December 25, 2015

More Psychology on Mr. Robot

There is a lot to mull over if I am to look at "Mr. Robot" from the psychological point of view. In my opinion Sam Esmail is far more deeply invested in psychology in the context of Internet and technology than any other issues on the surface, be it hacking or corporate greed.

It touched a nerve for me because I have been thinking about similar ideas for the past year or two. How do we adapt our social needs and instincts, honed over a hundred thousand years of talking incessantly to our relatives in tribes of a few hundred people into this diffuse community of faceless clicks around the world? This is more or less what I am doing right now, typing on a blog space, leaving some online footprint, while satisfying the ambivalence of both putting my thoughts "out there" for anyone to see and knowing that few, if anyone, will read them.

Of course being lost in anonymity is not a new phenomenon. That began when we moved from agricultural society to the industrial age. That was when we began to leave our village and everyone who knows us from birth. The Web merely took us further down the road. How are our natural instincts holding up in this world?

In Mr. Robot, Elliot Alderson tells us (his imaginary friend), "I hack everybody," from friends to foes or just people he is curious about or rubs him the wrong way. But he has not told anyone he likes or cares about that he has hacked them, except Krista, his psychologist. As I pointed out before, a psychotherapist hacks the patient's mind --- No, that's not accurate; rather, the therapist helps the patient hack his own mind, with his consent of course. So one could argue that the reason why Elliot has told her to her face that "I've hacked you" and then threw out some unpleasant facts about her online footprints is an expression of his hostility and aggression toward her, even though he also appears to want her help and her love (with inevitable transference of his relationship with his mother). This is entirely realistic and astute.

This reminds me of a discussion I heard at one of the meetings I covered when I was reporting on psychiatry a few years ago. The question was whether it is ethical for a psychiatrist to google his patient, especially when the psychiatrist suspects that the patient is lying. I remember one of the arguments was that knowing more facts about a patient can help the psychiatrist better diagnose and treat the underlying disorder. However, the presenter was generally against googling patients without their consent for both ethical and therapeutic reasons. It would probably damage the psychiatrist-patient rapport and do more harm than good.

It does bring up the question of how much one can know another person through their online persona, and then the question of how much one can know another person through face-to-face interactions. While we instinctively give more credibility to the latter type of relationship --- and I am no exception --- I do wonder about the limitations of face-to-face relationships as well. How many times have we heard or participated in conversations in which people talk past each over? Do people really hear each other when they speak? The futility of online debates has been well established, and I suspect the deterioration of democratic process and increasing political polarization have been at least partially caused by moving the civil discourse from town halls to the comment sections of Web sites. Human communication is ineffective enough even when we are looking into each other's eyes. Now we are just tossing our own thoughts out into the world and imagining being heard, all the while never hearing anyone else.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

And Seven Times Never Kill Man

After someone made the connection between Chewbacca (and subsequent the Ewoks) and the George RR Martin's novella "And Seven Times Never Kill Man," I went back to re-read the story. It became clear that both Georges were metaphorically commenting on the Vietnam War in their depiction of a jungle war, in which the technologically more dominant and more powerful side is defeated by a weaker tribe.  

Needless to say, GRRM was vastly, vastly more interesting. Lucas catered to what people want to believe, derived from wishful thinking; and Martin went by his astute observation of history. 

What is mind tickling, however, is how Martin's vision based on one particular war panned out in many future wars, in which the military victories of the mighty empire over small insignificant tribes set off an insidious slow incineration from within the empire ... until they too begin to sacrifice their children to the pale god of war Bakkalon. 

Martin's predictive power is spectacular. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Mr. Robot

I have been a little obsessed with this series lately. Binge-watched Season 1 twice, with some of the segments more than twice. Not being a computer person, what I have picked up is the psychoanalytical parts. I'm guessing the author/showrunner Sam Esmail has probably been analyzed himself. In interviews he admitted to having had OCD and anxiety disorder. Plus he grew up in New Jersey, close to New York City. It's not far-fetched that he is proficient in the psychoanalytical theories.

Putting aside the computer hacking stuff (which is generally regarded as pretty authentic, though not that I could tell) and "Fight Club" references (which Esmail flaunted rather than concealed), the first series can be interpreted as using hacking as a metaphor for psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis (which is back in vogue within the psychotherapy community now after all the shortcuts have more or less failed or faded) is essentially hacking one's own mind. While most of us do not have out-and-out dissociative identity disorder like the main character in the series, we all repress and suppress some things in our mind, as Freud pointed out over a century ago. The unconscious is a huge part of the human mind but inaccessible to our conscious thoughts. Psychoanalysis tries to "hack" at least some of the hidden mind, but behavioral therapy tries to fix us without this. Brilliant.

Separately, Esmail himself has admitted that he was in part inspired by the Arab Spring movement. It took me an unnaturally long time to realize that my visceral reaction to this part of the story --- young people trying to "change the world" --- is connected with my own experience with the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. It was a traumatic event to my generation, even though I never directly participated. I have tried not to think about it and all the complicated feelings it stirs up. See how this works? We all have things we want to hide from our own mind. The Chinese government has been able to scrub that event from most Chinese people's memory, more easily than "1984," thanks to computers, the Internet, and the Great Fire Wall. What "1984" has gotten wrong is our own complicity in the forgetting. The power forcibly erases it from the digital world of knowledge, while people voluntarily erase it from their mind to forget their feeling of powerlessness.

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