Pop Culture

Disrupted: Distinguishing Fact from Fiction in Silicon Valley

One of the first things you see in HBO’s new show, Silicon Valley, is Kid Rock. He’s onstage and mid-performance, calling out to the crowd to make some noise. In almost any other context, this would have been followed by a pan to deliriously cheering fans. But as the camera pulls away, it is revealed that the Kid is playing to a near-empty backyard full of stock-still-standing young men nervously checking their phones. After a negligible response, aware that he is fighting a lost cause, Kid grumbles, “Fuck these people.”

So begins the first season of Mike Judge’s (Beavis and Butthead and Office Space) satirical take on the tech industry. The Kid Rock performance is the centerpiece of a party celebrating the start-up Goolybib’s recent acquisition by software giant and Google-caricature Hooli for an amount of money so large it’s abstract. The show’s main characters, a group of socially awkward and high-IQ twenty-something software programmers, are at the party because they know one of the barely post-collegiate Goolybib founders. In the social milieu of the party Kid Rock is not a player but a sideshow. His appearance is calculated to illustrate that the leaders of the tech industry, like former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who cameos as himself, are firmly at the top of this world’s social hierarchy. As one of the show’s nerdy programmers astutely points out, “Kid Rock is the poorest person here.”

Judge has blithely pitched his show as “Entourage with Asperger’s,” and the comparison is probably even more apt than Judge himself would care to admit. Both revolve around a tight-knit group of male friends jointly navigating a treacherous and glamorous industry. The show follows the story of Richard, who, with help from his roommates and programmers-in-arms, inadvertently creates a highly valuable new data-compression algorithm that becomes the target of a bidding war between Hooli and eccentric venture capitalist Peter Gregory. Spiritually, Richard & Co. have more in common with the Tri-Lambs from Revenge of the Nerds than the slick entertainment-industry types of Entourage, a show in which a celebrity appearance by someone like Kid Rock would have been designed to reinforce the status of the main characters, not make a point about their own irrelevance.

The sense that the participants in the tech economy are living in a carnival fun-house mirror separate from the rest of the world is a theme the show returns to repeatedly. The real Silicon Valley is in the middle of a heady economic boom that has led to near-absurd increases in the cost of housing. Having friends who have recently fled San Francisco for the more affordable pastures of the East Bay, I can attest to the fact that the Bay area has recently become even more expensive than it already was. While trendy neighborhoods have never been cheap, now even in places that were once considered somewhat reasonable rents have reached unprecedented levels. This is one of the main forces behind the recent tech bus protests; many feel that by providing free, convenient buses to their offices in the South Bay, tech companies are inadvertantly encouraging their well-paid workers to live in San Francisco and Oakland, thereby pushing up rents and displacing long-term residents. And rents around Palo Alto, et al. themselves have increased dramatically as well. This reality is reflected by one character who, on his way to work, comments on the bland suburban South Bay sprawl surrounding him by asking, “Jesus, why is it so expensive here? Look at this place, it’s a shithole.”

But the point of the Valley isn’t the view or anything to do with the physical world; it’s about ideas. The CEO of Hooli, Gavin Belson, forces his employees to watch propagandist promotional videos on their way to Hooli HQ in company-run private shuttles. “Hooli is about innovative technology that makes a difference… making the world a better place through minimal message-oriented transport layers,” Belson intones in voice-over while still pictures of him amongst African villagers are displayed. The show spares no mercy in skewering this brand of semi-delusional utopianism, so popular amongst some in the tech community. While the vast majority of people involved in creating new technology seem well-intentioned, and their ideas have transformed our day-to-day lives, a strand of hubris occasionally accompanies that creativity which suggests to them that the rules that govern the rest of us only impede their vision. Whether it was Pets.com’s determination to satisfy the untapped market for online pet supply delivery in the first dot-com bubble, or contemporary ideas like the initiative venture capitalist Tim Draper is attempting to get on this year’s ballot that would divide California into six states—one of which would be made up of just the Bay Area—there’s never been a shortage of wacky ideas emanating from Silicon Valley.

Peter Gregory seems obviously based on Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and propagator of ideas such as building permanent, independent ocean communities known as seasteads and encouraging young people to shun college and create start-ups instead. Ideas get repeated seemingly for the sake of repetition. Gregory repeats them so frequently that they start to sound intelligent and original. One of the best things about Silicon Valley is its portrayal of these eccentric figures and the culture cocooning them. Corporate executives unself-consciously wear Vibram FiveFingers to the office, retain ingratiating spiritual advisors, and drive laughably undersized automobiles. When a Hooli underling tells Richard that he only gets to see Belson ten minutes a month, another executive jumps in to point out, “But that ten minutes is just incredible.”

The obsession with technology and deal-making is pervasive and inextricable. During a doctor’s appointment, Richard’s MD pitches him on an idea for a health app that can distinguish between panic attacks and heart attacks. “Let me know if you do end up taking that ten million dollars,” says the doctor, “because we could really make the world a better place.”

The world of Silicon Valley leans heavily male; only one female character is given a remotely substantial role in the first episode. The rest of the time, women are either simply eye candy who don’t say anything—the Goolybib party is compared to a Hasidic wedding in its segregation of men and women—or the objects of scorn. Although this accurately reflects the general mindset of the male-dominated tech industry, the show doesn’t always seem aware that its own lack of self-awareness in the depiction of women often reinforces those views.

At the beginning of the show, Richard and his friends are contemptuous of gigantic, cultish companies like Hooli, which, as Richard puts it, is rife with “bike meetings and voluntary retreats that are actually mandatory.” Yet Richard himself doesn’t lack for the same kind of ambition he dismisses. By the end of the first episode, Richard has decided to refuse Hooli’s takeover bid and instead choose Peter Gregory’s offer of a smaller stake that will allow him to retain executive control. In a climactic speech, Richard makes it clear that the same raw ambition that is at the root of the Valley’s corruption is within him as well. “For thousands of years,” he says, “guys like us have gotten the shit kicked out of us. But, for the first time, we are living in an era where we can be in charge and build empires. We could be the Vikings of our day.” And that sums up the dilemma facing the show: Whether the underdog characters can build a successful technology company without morphing into self-aggrandizing, avaricious warrior-coders who lay waste to every authentic and grounded sentiment inside themselves. This speech, in its own way, is as tainted with venality and debasement as any of Hooli’s public relations promos.

Ian Edwards is a writer living near San Francisco. He tweets at @ian_edw.