The Importance of Art (Mr. Robot)


(Yes, another lead picture that is red on black).

As has been discussed previously, and in many other places in the blogosphere, it is readily apparent that the population, as a whole, isn’t listening too well to the warnings and pronouncements by those who are warning about the coming train wrecks in the environment, energy, and economy.   In a nutshell – reality is ignored, and fantasy (mostly) reigns supreme.

In the exasperation of such information and idiocy, it is sometimes good to take a break; try and take a deep breath, and relax.   Upon the recommendation of a fellow techie (who suggested watching it for its technical veracity), my very rare passive time in front of a television screen was directed to USA Network’s Mr. Robot.   Rather than relaxing me, what was received was yet another lesson in why Art is important.

A bit about the series Mr. RobotMr. Robot follows one uber-savvy computer wizard with a healthy dose of social anxiety disorder, and his interactions with his peers, friends, neighbors, hacking targets, and the group of hacktivists he works with.   Although the series is well done, especially from a technical standpoint (the technical consultants to the series should be given some sort of award; many films and movies get the whole hacker/computer thing quite wrong – these folks get it right – real Linux; real commands!), the real amazement and joy in watching Mr. Robot was the discussion about reality of our world.  The series is well done in other ways; there are shades of gray, instead of black and white classic tropes, but for me the series hits hard when it comes to reality.

You may or may not be a gold bug, for example, but early on in the series, Christian Slater’s character says,

Money hasn’t been real since we got off the gold standard. It’s become virtual software. The operating system of our world. And we are on the verge of taking down this virtual reality.

Now, those of you who think that the gold standard is a barbarous relic may be correct in some sense.  Gold may not pay dividends, you can’t eat it – the list is long.   This essay isn’t about the gold standard. But the critical part of the quote is that money isn’t real now, and this is one of the pillars of our troubles – reality has been ignored.

There are a few who picked up on this; but it isn’t important that a few people write about the departure from the gold standard.   If there is something to emphasize in that brief quote, it is in that simple word standard – some sort of unchangeable metric that can’t be fiddled with, faked, or fooled.    If our currency was backed by kilowatt-hours, kilocalories, oil, timber, beaver pelts, cigarettes, or any other such physical realities, it would have shaped our way of life (and perhaps outlook) significantly differently since that fateful day in 1971 (ironically, almost near the peak of US oil production).   If anything in our collective technically driven Western culture has done so immensely well, it is to ignore reality.   Now, a false criticism may be leveled here – our technical society does really well with reality; Google metrics track our searches; we are able to measure emotions with things such functional MRI and PET scans; and our knowledge of some physical and mathematical constants is measured within many significant figures.  But this isn’t doing well with reality; it is doing well with small discrete facts.   Our overall ability to look at the entire system, as an entire species and as societies has tragically and repeatedly been incredibly poor.

Christian Slater’s character later states,

Is any of it real? I mean, look at this, look at it! A world built on fantasy! Synthetic emotions in the form of pills! Psychological warfare in the form of advertising! Mind altering chemicals in the form of food! Brainwashing seminars in the form of media! Controlled isolated bubbles in the form of social networks. Real? You want to talk about reality? We haven’t lived in anything remotely close to it since the turn of the century! We turned it off, took out the batteries, snacked on a bag of GMOs, while we tossed the remnants into the ever expanding dumpster of the human condition. We live in branded houses, trademarked by corporations, built on bipolar numbers, jumping up and down on digital displays, hypnotizing us into the biggest slumber mankind has ever seen. You’d have to dig pretty deep, kiddo, before you can find anything real. We live in a kingdom of bullshit, that even you have lived in for far too long.

Again – the departure from reality is brought front and center.

Although Mr. Robot doesn’t deeply delve into the world of climate change (that’s the job of Cli-Fi!), what this piece of television art does do is bring up the realities of money, debt, and the precariousness of our modern world, and best of all – the lack of reality that we all live with.  If Art does anything for us, it does that most important thing- show us that.   Art may not be able to calculate things to the Nth decimal place, but Art shows us what is important, in the larger sense.  All the engineering and scientific analyses over the past years seem to have done very little in convincing the world of anything.  Art can illuminate; Art can tell stories that make us want to know the truth.  It may be that Art (in the form of music) can even reduce cognitive dissonance , that handmaiden in the ability to ignore reality.

Art is important, and probably more important than most of us (engineers and scientists especially) would like to think.

Questions for this week:

  • Is art (or Art!) important in your life?  Why?
  • Do you think art can do the things that science and engineering can’t?
  • “Without art, we’d be ants.”  Any objections to this?
  • Koyaanisqatsi (discussed last week) and Mr. Robot are completely different; but both show us a reality that we don’t usually like to consider.   Any other pieces of art (music, theater, film) that have shown reality well (The Big Short is another recent favorite)?








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