Archive for August, 2016

Mirror’s Edge, Mr. Robot, and Misunderstanding

I really liked the first Mirror’s Edge game. It was fun. Short, but tightly constructed in a way that rewarded replaying and re-examination. The plot was a bit shallow and a bit daft, but it was fun. I played it for a couple months and sold it to Ed McKay’s, as was my practice at the time. The second game, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, improved the individual gameplay mechanics, but made some other design choices that resulted, ultimately, in the game’s being extraordinarily disappointing. Chief among them was the fact that it’s story was not only sloppily constructed, its universe poorly world-built, but it was philosophically dependent on an anti-capitalist polemic which was not only personally irritating to me, but predicated on misapprehensions about what capitalism even is. But it was just a dumb game, I beat it in about 2 days right after I finished the last draft of Empire of Silence (title not final), and I put it in my box to sell to Ed McKay’s. It’s still sitting in that crate, alongside a few old mass markets and some school books I want gone with the bad memories they brought me.

It would have been little skin off my back, but the problem recurred. I started watching Mr. Robot today. An excellent program, beautifully shot, astonishingly well-acted, dazzlingly well scripted. It made me realize that the reason cyberpunk is nearly dead as a subgenre of SFF is because it is–in some social circles–already present in the here and now. It’s a cyberpunk piece, and a piece of realistic fiction. It’s dripping with existential dread and the kind of stylized self-loathing that appeals to me because I am, ultimately, a member of my own generation. It also really understands how to use the cliffhanger. I have work to do today, revisions for Empire of Silence, but it dragged me through two episodes despite my best intentions.

But it commits the same logical sin as Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, and for that reason I’m considering stopping to watch the program already. I won’t, because unlike some of the more convicted intellectuals of our day and age, I am not so offended by a challenge as to retreat to my own private ideological sanctuary when challenged. I can take criticism, particularly intellectual criticism, because “I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors” of thought.

The City of Glass in Mirror’s Edge is a shining corporate dystopia, and, to the incurious, a scathing indictment of Western capitalism. Only it isn’t. In Glass, a single security company rules the city with an iron fist. The police are just thugs employed by this security firm. There is no opposition, no opposing company of policemen, no opposing corporate entities. As the hero, you are fighting not against the capitalist system, but against an authoritarian government with a corporate gloss. Call a jack a jack, please. Mr. Robot’s critique is by far the more nuanced, centering (insofar as I can tell after a mere 2 episodes) on a group of Anonymous-expys indelicately called “F-Society” who plan to bring down this massive super-conglomerate called E Corp. The eponymous Mr. Robot (played by the usually awful Christian Slater, who is excellent here) talks about destroying all the financial infrastructure of the world and to thereby redistribute wealth by effectively erasing all record of debts and the like. It’s a chilling and an attractive notion, and there is some truly excellent motif work conflating the “imaginary,” credit-based system of economics we used with the “invisible hand” of capitalist discourse. I love the artistry, but the mistake comes from this supposition that money and the control of money is inherently evil and that it is–in an absolute sense–to blame for all the evils of our modern world.

This is repeated ad nauseum by persons of a more socialist bent. I appreciate their frustrations with the nature of the world, but I feel compelled–when faced with anyone decrying the failures of capitalism as an economic modality–to indicate the massive explosions in production, scientific advancement, cultural tolerance, artistic expression, life expectancy and the quality of that life which occurred once capitalism became the predominant economic model followed by most of the human race. Things are a great deal more equal now than they were under the auspices of feudalism and mercantilism, and individual quality of life is much higher here than under the more nominally socialist/communist systems in China and the former Soviet bloc. It would be foolish of me to suggest that capitalism is solely responsible for the up-swelling represented by the nineteeth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, but it would be disingenuous of anyone to deny that a shift to capitalist practices has been instrumental in these massive improvements to the world and to the quality of the lives of people living in it.

To suggest that money is an evil by which the worlds described oligarchs maintain their control is spurious. To suggest that the abolition of the imaginary, “invisible” construct of money would free us from the control of those same oligarchic powers is equally spurious. Money is not at fault, nor is the market nor capitalism nor the earth-bound ghost of Adam Smith, rattling his gilded chains. Power and control can take many forms. Ask any two victims of abuse to see what I mean. Despite what certain contemporary scholars naively postulate, humans are drawn to hierarchic systems. The anger so many of my generation and their political antecedents direct at “capitalism” would be much better directed at the collusion between bent politicians and big business, not at the businesses themselves. Such collusion dissolves any interest on the part of government to advance the cause of the people in favor of backing the business interests of a politicians financial backers. I’m not saying anything new here. What does bear saying, and saying often is this: anger against capitalism as an institution and philosophy is profoundly misplaced.

In the absence of capitalism’s non-specied currencies, mankind would–I guarantee–find another metric by which to enslave and oppress certain subcategories. I do not pretend to know what those metrics for oppression or the tools wielded in the prosecution of said oppression may be (for the sake of science fiction, I’ve always found genetics to be an engaging force), but the human impulse to dominance and domineering will remain regardless whether the capitalist or socialist ids win the battle for humanity’s soul. In the meantime, I only ask that storytellers call things by their proper names. The runners in Mirror’s Edge are battling an authoritarian government, not a corporation. That is the philosophical argument in play. The hackers in Mr. Robot, too, are battling a monolithic, monopolizing conglomerate with its fingers sunk deep in government and in peoples’ every day lives. Mirror’s Edge entirely fails to understand the problem it is addressing, while Mr. Robot’s problem is more complex, more representative of this ideological blindness common on the internet amongst (especially younger) people who are content to shameless plagiarize their political ideologies from the satirical ramblings of late night comedians.