Mr. Robot

Mr. Robot Season 4: True Science Fiction

The following is a two-in-one post. The first part is on the simulation hypothesis; the second is about USA Network’s Mr. Robot. Originally, the universe simulation section was going to be a footnote in the primary Mr. Robot piece. However, that footnote soon grew to David-Foster-Wallace-esque proportions and transformed into its own separate section.

Part I: Simulation Hypothesis

The Matrix was a groundbreaking film particularly for its “bullet time” effect. However, the film’s pop culture relevance has more to do with its interesting sci-fi conceit: The characters in The Matrix are all living inside a computer simulation.

This was not a new idea at the time of The Matrix‘s release. A similar concept of a “brain in a vat” was forwarded by René Descartes in Meditations on First Philosophy back in 1641, but The Matrix and the internet revolution put it on everyone’s minds. Of course, The Matrix is a work of fiction. However, the simulation hypothesis makes logical sense.

According to Moore’s Law, the number of transistors that can be put onto a computer chip doubles every two years. Basically, Moore’s Law is an observation that computing power doubles every two years. Computers are already incredibly powerful and capable of doing so much. If this trend of increasing performance continues, even more achievements will be possible. Furthermore, the oncoming AI revolution will completely change what we can do with technology.

Given enough time, the amount of computing power available to us will be virtually infinite. With such power, eventually we will be able to simulate our universe. Video games have gone from simulating 2D worlds in Super Mario Bros. to fully realized 3D ones in games like Grand Theft Auto. Eventually, we will be able to create a simulation for the entire universe. If all this is possible, then perhaps we are already inside that simulation. Another universe got there first and created our virtual one.

But this does not mean there is only a 50-50 chance of us currently living in a simulation. Because if we can create one universe simulation, we will create hundreds or thousands of them. And if those simulations are accurate enough, those simulated worlds will create their own simulated worlds and so on. It will be an endless sequence of simulations inside simulations. As such, there would only be one real world and an infinite number of simulation worlds. Elon Musk claims there is a “one in billions chance we’re in base reality”.

But I don’t believe we are living in a simulation. I am not 100% sure of this, but my gut feeling is that there is only a 10-20% chance of the world around us being  a computer simulation. Maybe I am delusional. After all, the simulation hypothesis is a logical extension of Moore’s Law. On the other hand, the possibility remains that one of our premises is flawed.

The most likely premise to be incorrect is that our technological power will keep growing. Moore’s Law seems like a dying trend as chip manufacturers struggle to improve their products. Obviously, a fully-featured universe simulation would require an immense amount of computing power, and we may never get there.

Some people would be depressed if it was discovered we were living inside a simulation. They could argue that life is meaningless without the permanence of reality.

But to me, the more depressing idea is that we are not living inside of a simulation, because that means there are limits to what we can achieve with technology. Our world is besieged with challenges from global warming to the dangers of artificial intelligence to planetary destruction to the heat death of the universe. We like to believe that our technology will eventually overcome all those problems.

One of the most exciting moments of any Star Trek episode or movie is when the Enterprise jumps to warp speed. The crew of the Enterprise are able to casually break the laws of physics and achieve faster-than-light travel. Great science fiction makes you believe anything is possible. The limitations of science and technology are merely obstacles to be overcome, not immovable ceilings.

But maybe those limits are unbreakable. Nothing has been shown to travel faster than the speed of light. When you zoom out far enough, perhaps computer power growth is logarithmic, not exponential. Maybe entropy cannot be defeated.

If we are not living in a simulation right now, then that means that our technological abilities are limited. Our species may begin and end on this planet; we are servants to, not masters of, the universe. So the possibility that you and I are only software on a Windows 17 computer is much more comforting than the coldness of reality.

Part II: Mr. Robot

Since I was a child, I have loved going to the bookstore. If I wanted a new game or movie, I would have to save my allowance for weeks or use my precious birthday/Christmas money. On the other hand, my mom would buy me a book on every visit to the bookstore in order to promote me reading.

I was always drawn to the science fiction/fantasy section of the store. My favorites were the Redwall and Harry Potter series. Stories about magic and advanced technology turned me into a voracious reader even though I could not articulate back then why I loved those genres so much. Years later, I would discover The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman which eloquently explained the appeal of fantasy:

This is a feeling that you had, Quentin. Once, a very long time ago. A rare one. This is how you felt when you were eight years old, and you opened one of the Fillory books for the first time, and you felt awe and joy and hope and longing all at once…You wanted the word to be better than it was.

Fantasy and science fiction are effectively the same genre. Science fiction tends to be more grounded in reality, and its stories tend to be centered around the undeveloped technology (whereas some fantasy stories include magic only tangentially). However, fantasy, in particular hard magical fantasy like much of Brandon Sanderson’s work, exhibits similar traits to sci-fi. Ultimately, the two genres are linked due to Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Fantasy and sci-fi are both fundamentally about the impossible.

Eventually though, I turned away from the sci-fi/fantasy shelves of the bookstore. The books started to seem childish, and all the covers started to look the same. Plus, cute girls tended to browse other sections of Barnes & Noble.

Quite a bit of my sci-fi/fantasy book reading time was replaced with television watching. One of my favorite shows right now is Mr. Robot. Most TV shows, like CSI and NCIS, portray programming and hacking unrealistically. Alternatively, Mr. Robot‘s Elliot uses command line terminals, keyloggers, Linux, and other real pieces of technology. USA Network’s best show is grounded in realism.

Mr. Robot "eps2.9_pyth0n-pt1.p7z"
Angela meets her younger self. “eps2.9_pyth0n-pt1.p7z”

Or at least it was until season 2. In the first part of the season 2 finale “eps2.9_pyth0n-pt1.p7z”, Angela is interrogated by the Dark Army in a strange black-walled room. Everything in the scene is disturbingly off to the point where elements seem almost supernatural, and the questions asked to Angela are eery and foreboding. The interview seems to be conducted by a younger version of Angela. In fact, the child actress in this scene later plays Angela during a flashback in season 3. But the most striking part of the scene is when Whiterose enters. She clearly believes that her Washington Township project is important and wants Angela to believe in the Dark Army’s work. Whiterose confidently tells Angela, “I don’t want your proof. I want your belief.”

Up to this point, the show has not clearly explained what the Washington Township project is. However, we have been given several hints. The core motif of the show is programming. Whiterose believes that upon the project’s completion it can bring back the dead like Angela’s mother and her assistant Grant, literally changing the world around us. Most importantly, Whiterose tells Angela during their meeting, “I guess it all depends on what your definition of real is.” Whiterose believes in the simulation hypothesis and that we live in a simulated universe. The Washington Township project is her attempt to hack the universe, gain admin access to the simulation, and reprogram the world.

Mr. Robot "shutdown -r"
Philip sits with Angela. “shutdown -r”

But no matter what Whiterose believes, this is not possible. Philip Price brings this hopeful plan crashing down in the third season finale”shutdown -r”. He claims Whiterose’s objective with the Washington Township project is a delusional, ridiculous fantasy, and the audience believes him. Despite all her intelligence, Whiterose is mistaken. Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail rejects the science fiction genre and keeps his show grounded in reality.

However even though it is not a work of sci-fi, Mr. Robot demonstrates what makes the genre so powerful. I lied earlier when I wrote, “Fantasy and sci-fi are both fundamentally about the impossible.” That’s not the case. Science fiction and fantasy are not about the technology or magic. All the great stories in Western canon contain fantastical elements: The Odyssey, Beowulf, Hamlet, The Divine Comedy, and so many more. We do not even commonly think of them as sci-fi/fantasy. Instead, what makes those stories endure is their focus on human element of their characters.

Why do we care about magic (or technology so advanced that it is indistinguishable from magic)? Every time a magician performs a trick there is a moment of disbelief. He pulls your card out of the deck, cuts a woman in half, or turns your soda into Cheez-Its. Your brain has figured out what happened but has not yet realized what you saw was impossible. The same is true in fiction which draws you in then someone shoots a fireball or takes a time machine to the past; for a moment, you forget this is all made up. And in that moment of belief, problems seem so much smaller. If someone can shoot electricity out of their hands or travel faster than the speed of light, then everyday problems like finding happiness or ending conflict suddenly seem far less difficult.

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Elliots visits Angela. “eps3.7_dont-delete-me.ko”

The focus on its characters is what Mr. Robot does so well. The most important scene in season 3 comes at the end of”eps3.7_dont-delete-me.ko”. All day long Elliot has contemplated committing suicide but at the end changes his mind. He visit Angela at her apartment. She is still mentally broken from accepting her role in the E Corp bombings. Throughout the show, Elliot consistently struggles to connect with others, but here he is able to bond once more with Angela by telling her a story:

Do you remember when we used to do our wishing game? We’d close our eyes and we’d wish for something. Whatever we wanted…After we made all our wishes, we would close our eyes really hard, hoping that when we opened them it would all come true…And even though they never came true, we still liked doing it because the ending was never our favorite part anyway. It was the wishing.

Dreams don’t always come true. Angela’s mom and Elliot’s dad are never going to be brought back, no matter what Whiterose promises, but it’s alright as Elliot explains, “No matter what happens we’ll be okay.” They have each other.

Whiterose is wrong; you cannot literally go back and change the past. But what great stories, regardless of genre, are about is the ability to affect change in yourself, others, and the world around you. And the most magical ability available to us is not a Washington Township project that can reprogram the world; it’s the power to connect with others and fix our mistakes. Watch Mr. Robot and you will believe you can turn back time.

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