Hacking Is 'A Bit Of A Superpower,' Says Creator Of 'Mr. Robot' Sam Esmail believes hackers have immense power — the trouble is, superhero psychology isn't always sound. He says his vigilante hacker is driven by narcissism, paranoia, loneliness and pain.
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Hacking Is 'A Bit Of A Superpower,' Says Creator Of 'Mr. Robot'

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Hacking Is 'A Bit Of A Superpower,' Says Creator Of 'Mr. Robot'

Hacking Is 'A Bit Of A Superpower,' Says Creator Of 'Mr. Robot'

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TV shows like to explore the anxieties of a particular time, so "Law And Order" and "CSI" gave us violent crime. "Homeland" and "24" gave us terrorism. Now "Mr. Robot" gives us two big things to worry about. The show focuses on a group of hackers who could destroy the economy and their nemesis, an evil corporation that could take over the world.


RAMI MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) Sometimes I dream of saving the world, saving everyone from the invisible hand - the one that controls us every day without us knowing it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What if this all went away - the city, the money, all of it?

SHAPIRO: "Mr. Robot" has won Golden Globes, including best drama. It was recently nominated for six Emmys, and its second season is airing now on USA. The creator of "Mr. Robot" is Sam Esmail, who told me he had some firsthand experience with hacker culture before he ever got into television.

SAM ESMAIL: My poor attempt at hacking was limited to this really ill-advised decision to hack my girlfriend's college campus and send out an e-mail on some stupid, you know, dumb, angsty rant. And I easily got busted because I did it from the job at this computer lab that I was working at NYU. They traced it back to that IP address, and I got fired and put on academic probation. And that was the end of my hacker days.

SHAPIRO: What was it about the hacker culture - the ethos, the kind of dissatisfaction - that stuck in your head for all these years that you would come back to it now?

ESMAIL: Well, the thing about angst is it's - you know, it's - obviously, there's a lot of negative connotation to it. But I also think there's another side to it, and that other side is being able to channel that anger for good. And honestly, the Arab Spring - you know, I went to - I'm Egyptian, so when I went to Egypt maybe a few months after the revolution sort of went down there - and I was talking to my cousins who were young and who were a part of it. And they used technology and - you know, to sort of make this happen - and used social media.

And they were really angry, and that's how that whole thing started. And I - you know, I just thought, oh, that - that's a good use of anger. It's actually necessary, in a way, to really kind of cause change in your society if you're dissatisfied or disgruntled about it. So there's a duality to it that - where, obviously, I think angst could go really awry and can get really self-indulgent. And then there's the flip side where it is actually sometimes necessary that fuels things like a revolution or a change in your society.

SHAPIRO: Your main character, Elliot, is possibly more skeptical about big corporations than anyone else. And he is also a totally unreliable narrator who is kind of unstable. I wonder if you're telling us that if we're afraid of the power of corporations, as Elliot is, well, then we're probably paranoid and crazy like Elliot is.

ESMAIL: Well, I'm not - I'm not saying that. I mean, the thing about it is that Elliot is a very specific character that I have witnessed and I've read about among hacker culture. And I think he's a very extreme example - someone who is incredibly distrustful of the world, of government, of corporations to a sort of mentally ill extent.

I mean, think about the attitude of someone who thinks that there are all these resources dedicated to spying on them and their personal lives. There's a little bit of narcissism in there, and there's a lot of angst, and there's a lot of self-loathing. He's hard - sometimes hard to root for, but the one thing that I think gives him that human side is the Rami Malek side of it all.

SHAPIRO: He's the actor who plays Elliot. Yeah.

ESMAIL: Exactly - is the vulnerability - is - underneath all of that angst, all of that paranoia is loneliness, is pain. And that's really the root of all that.

SHAPIRO: His character has a sort of Robin Hood quality where, you know, he steals data from drug dealers or cheaters or child pornographers. And it's seductive, but he doesn't have this power because he's necessarily earned it. He just happens to have a certain set of technological skills. And I'm not sure how to feel about that - that anyone with the ability to hack can carry out their own sort of vigilante justice.

ESMAIL: Right. And that again goes back to the narcissism. And, if you think about it, just the sort of psychology of a superhero is because I can, I should protect people, and I should put the bad guys away, and I should defend society. But it's - you're forming your own justice. You're - there's no judge and jury here. You are it. That, in and of itself, is, you know, a very complicated way of looking at morality.

SHAPIRO: Do you think of this as a kind of superhero show?

ESMAIL: You know, it's weird because I always think hacking is a little bit of a - of a superpower. I mean, that...

SHAPIRO: You can see through walls.

ESMAIL: Exactly. Well, you get - you can see through everyone's personal lives. And that - really, that's all - that's all sort of a construct of modern society. I mean, back in the day, all your personal information was not necessarily online, you know. So the fact that you can manipulate people because you can hack them and basically learn everything about their personal lives - I mean, that is an immense amount of power.

SHAPIRO: It's funny. As I go down this road of thinking of the hacker as the I'm superhero, I'm thinking, well, social outcast, check, alternate identity in the digital space, check.

ESMAIL: Dead father.

SHAPIRO: Dead father, check.

ESMAIL: Check.


ESMAIL: Evil nemesis - yeah, exactly.

SHAPIRO: So having written this show and now directing every episode of season 2, do you feel yourself being more paranoid and changing your passwords and stockpiling food and buying a cabin off the grid in the Woods?

ESMAIL: No, I'm - you know, it's interesting. I think a lot of people confuse (laughter) me with the main character. I'm not in any way, shape or form like that. I'm very protective of my online life, and I try and take as many security measures, but I think everybody should. But, no, I am not like the off-the-grid kind of guy. I'm actually quite - hopefully quite normal.

SHAPIRO: I actually wasn't suggesting in any way that you are Elliot, but just that in exploring the possibilities...


SHAPIRO: ...Of what a motivated hacker can do.


SHAPIRO: You think to yourself, I should be a little more paranoid than I am.

ESMAIL: I am definitely paranoid on my online life, but hopefully it has not gone into my system in terms of my just everyday life.

SHAPIRO: I mean, for example, season 2 features a great scene early on with a fully wired house that basically rebels against its owner. And it made me think, you know, should I have more candles and distilled water on hand than I do?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Nothing is working.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'm perplexed. Everything is inside the walls. That's how it was installed when I ordered the Smart House package.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Now the alarm is going off, and it's freezing. It's below 40.

ESMAIL: You know what? I've got to tell you something. I love technology, and I love gadgets. I buy all the new gadgets when they first come out. You know, when we were shooting that sequence at that house, the house is so amazing and so beautiful. And even as we're shooting, you know, all these little, horrific scenes that went on, I was like, oh, I can't wait to get this. Oh, I've got to get this.


ESMAIL: Oh, my God. That's so awesome.

SHAPIRO: I had the exact opposite reaction.


ESMAIL: There you go. I should be more paranoid.

SHAPIRO: Sam Esmail, it's been great talking with you. Thanks a lot.

ESMAIL: Thank you so much, Ari. This was fun.

SHAPIRO: Sam Esmail is the creator of "Mr. Robot," which is currently in its second season on USA.

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