Mike Judge has always had a penetrating eye for the ridiculousness of American business. And in his new show, “Silicon Valley,” which premiered on HBO on Sunday, he tees up on an industry that prompts both peans and tear-downs: the tech business. Specifically, Judge is interested in Richard (Thomas Middleditch), an employee of a Google-like company called Hooli, where business meetings happen on bikes and the CEO thinks of himself as a world-historical figure. Richard goes from inhabitant of a group house that has dressed up by dubbing itself an incubator to a tech-world player after the Hooli CEO and a rival venture capitalist see the potential in an app Richard created, and get into a bidding war for him.
But how accurate is Judge’s social satire? I enlisted my colleague Catherine Rampell, who writes about economics (and is my adviser on all things numbers-related) to chat about “Silicon Valley” and what it might mean for tech companies to “change the world.” Our conversation appears below.
Alyssa: Mike Judge’s “Silicon Valley” is operating in a dream spot for comedy. The show, about young programmers in the cradle of the tech industry, gets to tee up gags like $200-a-quart liquid shrimp on offer at a party, or the extremely tiny car favored by venture capitalist Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch), and get laughs both because the inventions are goofy, and because they are so close to the mark they might be real. When an entrepreneur who just sold his company to Google tells the guests at his party, “A few days ago when we were sitting down with Barack Obama, I turned to these guys and said ‘Okay, we’re making a lot of money. And yes, we’re disrupting digital media. But most importantly, we’re making the world a better place through constructing hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility,” the joke is that the language is hilariously self-serving and obtuse, and also that the guy totally believes it.
But as much as Silicon Valley takes great glee in making fun of programmers and the executives who turn their work into enormous piles of money, the show avoids slipping into a tone of easy contempt. Its condemnations of the tech industry are condemnations of us, too. When Erlich (T.J. Miller), who sold his company, Aviato (pronounced with an accent that can only be described as faux-European) and now runs an “incubator,” tells Richard (Thomas Middleditch) that he has to start working on a monetizable-product, he names an app that “gives you the location of a woman with erect nipples. Now that’s something people want.” I wish I could say he was wrong.
Catherine: Agreed, the show is a lot of fun. And much more biting than I’d expected — which (luckily for the producers) seems to jive with the current cultural zeitgeist. After years of relatively starstruck coverage of startups, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of anti-Valley backlash in the media in the last few months. Within the span of a few weeks we’ve seen articles with headline like “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem” and “Technology’s Man Problem” (both in The New York Times; never accuse NYT headline editors of shying away from problems!) and “The Brutal Ageism of Tech” (the New Republic). Plus there’s been all that coverage of anti gentrification protesters blockading/attacking/puking on Google buses.
The show punctures a lot of the self-righteous pomposity of what Sam Biddle called “our mercenary Asperger’s overclass,” but I’m not sure I agree that any of the barbs are directed at society writ large. The (fictional) Nip Alert startup seemed like an accidental shoutout to the (real) brotastic Titstare app presented at TechCrunch Disrupt last fall (after the “Silicon Valley” pilot was filmed, I think), which renewed the debate about sexism in startup-land. (No joke, the presenters reportedly opened with “Titstare is an app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits.”)
So far the show’s biggest targets don’t seem to be the consumers and fanboys of Silicon Valley’s output, but rather the messianic billionaire CEO’s claiming to be doing God’s work; and the clueless man-children and brogrammers they infuse with ludicrous amounts of cash. Speaking of crazy billionaires, I really love the irrationally anti-college Peter-Thiel-inspired character you mentioned (Peter Gregory), and am wondering how the show will handle the actor’s sudden death last December. Do you know?
I also love love love the running gags about Silicon Valley peculiar modes of transit — the bike meetings, the unendurable traffic, the corporate buses, the teeny bespoke cars. Everything, really. I wonder if the transit humor (like some of the other in-jokes) is funny to people who haven’t spent much time in the region though.
Alyssa: First, the logistics: “Silicon Valley” had filmed five episodes of its total eight with Christopher Evan Welch, so Peter Gregory will be with us for a while yet, urging college students to throw over the tuition payments their parents have already made and light out for the Gold Rush. Which he, of course, is making a bundle from by buying small parts of companies like poor Richard’s.
I agree with you that “Silicon Valley” is a lot tougher on its brogrammers and wannabe-Vikings than it is on those of us sitting here at home buying Nip Alert. And I was curious how you responded to the way the show tackles a central question: Whether or not the characters’ claims to be changing the world are as ridiculous as they seem. Gavin Belson’s (Matt Ross) assistant Jared (the very funny and very deadpan Zach Woods) tells Richard just how committed to “social justice” Gavin is, and to be fair, the CEO of Hooli does seem personally committed to subsidizing the guru industry.
But when he figures out the potential of Richard’s app, what does he do with it? He immediately starts thinking about how to make it “business-facing.” He wants to make a better navigational system, not, say, make it easier to collect public health data in Africa. All of the characters seem focused on producing what will feel like comparatively big changes in the lives of people who are already relatively privileged, be it the college kid who can afford (in terms of both money and expertise) drop out of college to try to start a business, or the consumer who will benefit from a self-driving car. But in the actual scheme of “social justice,” these are tiny improvements. So can Silicon Valley change the world? Or does it just not want to really shake things up that much?
Catherine: I think there’s a big difference between “changing the world” and “social justice.” Richard’s fictional file compression algorithm might indeed be capable of dramatically transforming the ways businesses operate and consumers spend their money. Those changes in turn could lead to major gains in economic growth, probably mostly enjoyed by rich countries like the United States, but likely with some spillover into developing countries too. So yes, I think it’s reasonable to say that the imaginary Pied Piper company could “change the world” — just as plenty of real-life tech companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and others already have by these sorts of metrics, as have lots of innovative companies in other industries.
But that’s not the same thing as saying Silicon Valley companies are focused on improving the lives of the poor, or helping liberate the oppressed, or eradicating disease or whatever. And indeed the tech industry, like the finance industry, has been criticized for luring the country’s best and brightest away from such worthy goals with big VC infusions offered in exchange for creating the next generation of sexting apps (which again, could change lots of people’s lives, but you’d be hard-pressed to argue that social welfare has improved as a result). At least in the finance industry people are usually transparent about the fact that they’re in it for the money, the infamous Lloyd Blankfein “God’s work” comment excepted. In Silicon Valley there seems to be a greater propensity to conflate “making a product that people really like and thereby makes us a lot of money” with “improving humankind.”
Sometimes those two purposes are aligned. But sometimes they’re in direct conflict, as when companies must choose whether to aid and abet governments that want to censor online search results or track down political dissidents; teenagers who want to bully and blackmail each other; or criminals who want to create black markets for drugs or even people. It’s easy to claim you’re making the world a better place when avoiding “evil” doesn’t threaten your bottom line. The show “Silicon Valley” devotes a lot of time to lampooning self-righteous claims about “making the world a better place” for their emptiness; I’d love to see a plotline where the characters face a direct choice between making money and doing what’s right for “humankind.”