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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.

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