Throughout the first two seasons of HBO’s comedy series “Silicon Valley,” protagonist Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) emerged as the visionary in his group of tech geeks. Together, through various machinations, they emerge from the home of blustery and bombastic Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller) to form a startup called Pied Piper. While Bachman provides marketing and spirit, and partners Gilfoyle and Dinesh provide code grunt work, it is Richard whose compression algorithm gives them all their big break.
Since the beginning, Richard has been the genius of the show, but he also started off as something more: its moral compass. With an “aw shucks, look at this cool thing I made” attitude, Richard took to heart the idea the tech can save the world, while those around him merely used it as a silly marketing pitch. After some shady dealings toward the end of season three and a big announcement in the premiere of season four, Richard may be poised to emerge as something else entirely: the villain of Silicon Valley.
Richard Is Dreaming Big
Richard’s big problem as we enter season four is his apathetic attitude toward the banal video chat platform, Piper Chat, that Dinesh used his algorithm to create. While his comrades are cheery at the prospect of cashing big checks, Richard wants more. Although he is CEO of Pied Piper and responsible to get funding for Piper Chat, he doesn’t believe in his company’s product. This is not because it’s not a good product—it is, and its user base is growing—but because it is not an earth-shattering innovation. Richard has something bigger in mind. Much bigger.
Richard’s new season-four passion is not the ultimate compression algorithm, it’s the creation of a new Internet. “Silicon Valley” co-creator Mike Judge has said that while writing the first season he was looking for what the next big thing in tech would be. He landed on compression, and as we’ve seen over the last few years, compression of data and data flow has been a huge deal, affecting lives all over the world daily.
Judge is not making up the idea of creating a new Internet. The building blocks for a phone-based Internet, the power of which sits in the pockets of individual users every day, are already in place. Blockchain, and the decentralization of the Internet of things many in the futurism movement propose, are poised to become the new Internet.
Developers are working on creating a decentralized Internet localized in everyone’s pocket devices. Much like in the famed “mean jerk time” scene in “Silicon Valley’s” first season, where Richard gets the key idea on how to revolutionize his compression algorithm, a decentralized Internet would cut out the middle-man. Users would connect to each other through open-source platforms and blockchains without having to route through a centralized hub such as Google or Facebook.
Currently, those hubs collect our information, then use it to sell us what the algorithm says we want, and tailor our searches to our past interests. In a decentralized Internet, that would not happen. Our information would belong to us, and to those with whom we have transactions.
How Revolutionizing the Internet Could Affect Richard
By taking large entities such as governments and multi-national corporations out of the Internet of things, and by putting individuals in touch with one another directly without a centralized place for those communications and transactions, it is not just the Internet of things that becomes decentralized. Changes will arise in banking, communication, business development, transactions between individuals, and transactions between individuals and their locations. This could completely overturn the hierarchy of the capitalist monetary flow.
It will be interesting to see, as the season plays out, if destabilizing the worldwide economy is what Richard has in mind. While technology is capable of this kind of broad, overarching, rapid change, there are ethical questions to consider, such as if disrupting the worldwide power structure would lead to more freedoms for humankind or less.
As “Silicon Valley” points out again and again, there is a feeling among the tech set that the advancements they are putting forth will inevitably better the world. As the show’s Google-inspired Hooli founder Gavin Belson says, “Hooli is about innovative technology that makes a difference, transforming the world as we know it. Making the world a better place, through minimal message oriented transport layers. I firmly believe we can only achieve greatness if first we achieve goodness.”
While this is undoubtedly a joke, it is funny because it mirrors the tech talk of the industry. Belson blindly accepts that the whole world shares the same definition of “goodness.” But we don’t. There is absolutely no consensus on what it means to be “better,” or what “goodness” is, never mind whether those things can be achieved through technological advancements. While rapid tech growth has liberated some, it has also led to manipulation and exploitation.
Exploring Power and Capitalism
As the show moves along, Richard’s appetite for power increasingly fuels all those around him. The great narrative trick Judge employs is making that avarice appear pure. He achieves this by making almost every other character a slave to the marketplace. Dinesh, Bachman, and Belson simply want to supply consumers with tech they want and are willing to pay for. Richard wants to control the entire Internet, not only connecting us all, but compelling us to be hubs in a worldwide supercomputer.
Right now, the power contained in our phones is used for simple interfaces, such as shopping, selling, and chatting, but there are so many questions about how that power could be used if the power of those phones were used toward a unified goal.
It is fascinating how easily being a servant of the marketplace paints a character as the bad guy, the one who only cares about money. But if we step back, as the series seems to be doing, we start to see that a marketplace is simply a set of choices. Democracy itself is a market not driven by virtue, but by choice. It is becoming increasingly clear that Richard’s objective is not to give consumers choices, but to control how they interface with tech—which is to say, to control them.
Near the end of season four’s episode one, we see Richard make his deal with the devil, in the form of venture capitalist Russ Hanneman. Hanneman is a hated figure, trusted by no one, with a flashy car, loud mouth, and a pile of capital. Like the serpent in Eden, he knows and plays upon Richard’s ambition. While it isn’t clear if Hanneman shares Richard’s thirst for power over the Internet of things, it is clear he will use that ambition for his ends. Where that leaves Richard, only time will tell.
There has always been a touch of Steve Jobs in Richard, the intuitive genius who struggles to play nice with his business partners, whose vision is always on the horizon. But Jobs had a dark side. Often his ambition and vision meant more to him than it did to other people, and Richard seems to be walking down that same path. Who is he becoming? Might it be the villain of “Silicon Valley”?