The future of money, banking, and payments as seen through Mr. Robot
- It takes the financial system seizing up for the migration to cryptocurrency to begin in earnest.
- What happens when trust in the financial services is completely lost?
I can’t stop watching Mr. Robot. It’s one of those shows that leaves you feeling palpably worse than you felt before the show started. But I can’t escape the grip of this dark, dystopian story of a bunch of hackers attempting to bring down the fabled E Corp.
Evil Corp, as the show’s protagonist, Elliot, calls it, maintains a banking and consumer credit division, in addition to selling other prosaic things like consumer electronics. The firm controls something like 70% of the global consumer credit industry. That makes it an easy target for fsociety, a confederation of hackers that intends to erase the massive debt burden on this generation of Americans.
The hackers win, at least initially. Evil Corp’s systems are brought to their knees and the financial system seizes up. Without access to money and civil services, everything becomes barterable and entrepreneurial people begin offering services, like burning trash, to fill in the holes.
And that’s the interesting part. The story is ostensibly about the dismantling of one of the largest financial firms in the world, but little direct air time is given to that piece of the story. Instead, viewers only catch quick glimpses of the show’s perspective on money because the plot focuses instead on the psychology of the protagonists. But how the post-modern system is portrayed is interesting because it touches on money, value, and the move towards cryptocurrency.
Here’s what Mr. Robot has to contribute on the future of money.
With credit gone, trust erodes and cash is king
After Elliot, Darlene and team erase Evil Corp’s consumer debt ledgers, the stock market and world financial systems are sent reeling. Rationing becomes the norm as money becomes extremely tight. As the company scrambles to resuscitate its database, consumer spending is restricted to $50 per week. Even Evil Corp’s CEO, Phillip Price is asked to pre-pay for a swanky dinner for four at an empty restaurant.
All forms of money are eminently hackable
Money and health. Health and money. The one isn’t too useful without the other.
— Mr. Robot (@whoismrrobot) July 21, 2016
In the show, the lowly automated teller machine is mincemeat for the unscrupulous. In fact, as a promotion for Mr Robot’s second season, fans hacked a fake ATM for real money. Just like in real life, even bitcoin is susceptible to fraudsters. Early in Season 2, we meet a badly-bruised computer engineer who used to run a bitcoin service. He’s being pressured by a couple of miscreants, who run an ecommerce site where you can literally buy anything. They want him to restore his service, which he sort of refuses to do because it’s continuously exploited and robbed by hackers. The webmaster’s fate is bleak, as is the view of digital currency’s security in the show.
Money devalued in favor of messaging and optics
For the Mr. Robot hackers, it’s not about the money. In the premier of Season 2, the group appears to be ransoming off Evil Corp’s encrypted files. An executive from the company is told to bring nearly $6 million in cash to a park in front of One World Trade Center. Tension builds as he awaits further instructions. They finally come as the executive is told to remove the cash from duffel bags and set it on fire.
“The scene drives home an alarming idea: When you get down to it, paper money is a symbolic construct. With no financial records left, what value does it really have? What value does anything have?” wrote Vulture.
In the battle of digital currency, bitcoin loses
A photo posted by Mr. Robot (@whoismrrobot) on
In addition to mentions of bitcoin wallets being ransacked by loosely-confederated hackers, Mr. Robot introduces its own twist on digital currency. It appears Evil Corp, which had its traditional lending business hacked, also has its own form of digital currency, called E Coin. Episode 7 of the second season makes reference to this currency, though we’ve seen allusions to it already in in-store signage. An announcement comes down from on high that taxis will no longer be taking cash and people are encouraged to use E Coin. In a world that just suffered a massive hack that disabled the financial system, digital currencies appear more stable that traditional cash.
“But hey, what if the dollar was no longer a stable enough currency to trade in, thanks to, say, a massive hacking attack? Would that not make E Coins a very attractive alternative currency, one that was both stable and already being used by most households?” wrote the Guardian.