Here is a name you should know—that is, if you don't know it already: Robert Gordon. He is an economist, and his ideas on economic stagnation and the current state of technological change can help explain why Mr. Robot will be the most important science-fiction TV show since Battlestar Galactica. And yes, despite taking place in a time that looks very much like the present, Mr. Robot is science fiction. Why? Because if you remove it from the continuum of works like Her, Sleep Dealer, The Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic, Dark Angel, and, of course, Blade Runner, it pretty much comes out of nowhere.
Now, Gordon's theory: He believes that the US economy, which is the center of the global economy, is in a state of stagnation for a number of reasons. The main one is that technological change is not as disruptive as it used to be. For example, the leap long-distance human communication made from carrier forms (post, bird, and so on) to the telegraph (19th century) is galactic when compared to that between the telegraph and the fax (20th century), and between the fax and e-mail (late 20th century). Gordon concludes that the technologies of the future will not radically change the world in the way technologies of the first (1840 to 1914) and second (1920 to 1940) industrial revolutions did.
"Everywhere I look, I see things at a standstill, I see offices with the same hardware and software as they had 10 years ago," said Gordon in a lecture he delivered on May 16 at the London School of Economics and Political Science (it's available on YouTube). He also points out that if one goes back 20 years, they will find the business office is much the same as today's (the only notable difference being computer screens got flatter). You can see this for yourself if you compare the offices in The Matrix (1999) and Mr. Robot (2015). The hero of the former, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), works in a place (the software corporation MetaCortex) that has few differences from the place (Allsafe Cybersecurity) the hero of the latter, Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), has a desk in.
But The Matrix took place in a deep and dark future that reproduced through a computer-connected "neural active simulation" what was then (the end of the 20th century) the present. That future was technologically more advanced in the world of this computer construct. With Mr. Robot, as far as we can tell, the future is today. We live in the same future as the show. Not only are the technologies in the program the same as the ones in our world (smartphones, laptops, wi-fi, social media, microwave ovens), but it also has similar and identical political and cultural developments. Barack Obama is the president in Mr. Robot. But the show fuses Bank of America, Apple, and Halliburton into a fictional mega-zaibatsu called E Corp. It also transforms the real association of hackers called Anonymous into a crew of hipster hackers called fsociety.
The leader of this group is Elliot, a young man whose mind seems to have been fried by what in the movie Johnny Mnemonic (1995) is described as "nerve attenuation syndrome" (NAS). Recall the scene in Mnemonic that has the street doctor Spider (Henry Rollins) explaining to Johnny (Keanu Reeves) what causes NAS: "Information overload! All of the electronics around you! You are poisoning the airwaves! Technological fucking civilization." This looks like what we see in Elliot's eyes. The way they can't rest on anything, the way they dart this way and that, the way they seem about to pop out of their steaming sockets, roll across his desk, and stop at the base of a flat-screen monitor. Elliot is a total mess, he is addicted to painkillers, and he is a hacker whose mind appears to have been hacked. It has a bug in it. The first season is about this bug. It's called Mr. Robot.
The show is also about a social revolution that has Bernie Sanders written all over it. The hackers want to liberate the world by breaking the power of the 1 percent. That power takes the form of debt (student loans, home loans, credit cards, and so on). Erase that debt, and the world can reboot. But, to be honest, this story is not that interesting or that new. It's identical to the one in Dark Angel, which was made in 2000 and set in Seattle (Mr. Robot is set in Manhattan).
What's great about Mr. Robot, and what one hopes is not lost in its second season, is its tone. These 10 episodes, all directed by show creator/writer Sam Esmail, consistently combined three elements: Rami Malek's intense appearance and performance, a soundtrack with the mood of 1990s late rock and triphop, and shots that are gorgeously photographed, composed, and lit by Tim Ives, the show's cinematographer.
We frequently find interior shots with a disenchanting (indeed, disturbing) depth of focus. This has the effect of submerging the fictional characters in a "technological fucking civilization" that we recognize as our own. In the old science fiction, you finished a show or movie and returned to the drab, technologically lagging real world. With Mr. Robot, you finish the show and return to a world that's almost exactly the same. We live science fiction.