The TV show “Silicon Valley” provides a rare glimpse of humor and wisdom in our culture. It’s got more hilarious displays of human folly than anything else on television, but it is also uniquely articulates a serious problem with technology. Are we still really innovating?
According to his comic muse, director Mike Judge does not believe you have to see people suffer miserably to see them truly. He has no love of melodrama. He wants you to see people as they ascend to the height of their powers, because he wants us to have a chance at a happy ending. But he moves to that happy ending through the crisis implicit in the kind of success his tech-genius protagonists pursue—blindly confident, comic heroes that they are!
His protagonists are programmers trying to make a new thing happen. They start with a beautiful, childish idea called Pied Piper: an attempt to teach the world to sing. That would make democracy real by music, and make us all happy.
But wait, isn’t the Pied Piper an ominous character? Before you know it, these “innovators” uncover a power in pursuit of their dream. This discovery takes over their lives. They unknowingly become its servants, even as they marvel at it. A new thing is a prophecy misunderstood. It might be a billion-dollar business—or the end of the world.
Can you own such a thing? Can good things come to you out of it? Does it make you a friend to mankind, or an enemy to the people who know about your possession? How do you deal with that power? You have to protect it, organize around it, make a business out of it. Last and least, you have to ask what it’s good for. Well, it’s science, so it’s supposed to be good for everything: whatever you want to do, it will do it.
What Does True Progress Look Like?
Through three seasons of laughable nerds’ antics, “Silicon Valley”‘s takes us through the conventions of the technology world, quietly articulating its ultimate question: What new things really constitute progress—and why?
Like all rationalist satire, Judge’s work ridicules a kind of fanaticism we ourselves fail to confront—a belief that would collapse under examination, which we daren’t examine. This is not pleasant stuff, because we all use the products of Silicon Valley. You and I have made Facebook a top-of-the-world corporation. Its founder is wealthy beyond human measure. Now, is that progress? What good is it? Is this what it means to build the future?
Judge’s poetic conceit is simple: A new scientific power is brought to mankind by way of Silicon Valley. But then it turns out he has discovered a strange spirit animating it: the Pied Piper turns out to be Peter Thiel, America’s most interesting oligarch—or, maybe, aristocrat. You have him to thank for Facebook, to a large extent. What’s he going to say in his defense: that Facebook was inevitable, and he just invested when it was worthwhile?
Maybe. But that’s not a worthwhile future, it’s just the one we’re stuck with. Maybe he’s using the proceeds, as well as his reputation, to make new things possible, things that really are worthwhile. You can thank him for Paypal, too, and I don’t suppose anyone’s complaining about that one. But how about Palantir, which brings technology to the intelligence and military services that could create a whole new kind of surveillance state?
Genius is morally and politically ambiguous, let’s say. It moves in worlds beyond our ken, where the powers of government (which most of us just don’t know about) meet the designs of billionaires (none of whom we’re ever likely to meet).
The Desire To Make New Things Isn’t An Intrinsic Good
The spirit of Peter Thiel is the desire to make worthwhile new things—not just a successful company, or money. In season four, our tech founder learns that the future is the only place where he can be free. Why did it take the story three seasons to get here? After all, it started with a character obviously based on Thiel himself, who makes it possible for our hero to make a new future. But the show, like the world it imitates, is full of obstacles. Founders and innovation go hand in hand, as in Thiel’s teaching, but the going is actually very hard, and dangerous for the founders. Judge suggests that only something like comic catastrophes will save a founder from being thrown out of his own business.
Thus, Judge orchestrates his attack on fake progress. In “Idiocracy,” he showed us that a future of consuming stuff you want and corporations sell is literally garbage heaped high in a mockery of skyscrapers. Now, his inside-baseball account of corporations astutely identifies Thiel as a whistle-blower.
He tells an ugly truth about the ideology of progress: Silicon Valley is not really a temple of innovation, but rather a den of stagnation and conformism. People who go there in search of innovation are thrown back upon their own resources when they learn how badly they’re being treated. They have to decide whether they’re serious, or whether they just want a part of a profitable racket. Silicon Valley is not an alternative to America. It suffers like the rest of America. People are dissatisfied with their work and lives, but have not found a future worth their dedication.
Visions that could reasonably be called progressive turn out to be hampered, not helped, by the ideology of technological progress. Here, Judge’s moral realism reveals ideology to be a debased form of poetry, practiced to conceal something ugly. Corporations dominate or exploit brainy kids who are too innocent for their own good. You have to believe in progress desperately if you don’t really have anything else in your life. Thus, complacent optimism actually puts off the lonely business of coming up with something really new.
Innovation Requires Us To Fight Silicon Valley Conformity
Creativity, innovation, originality—all this has become a cult or a con, in Silicon Valley just like everywhere else. The cult as much as the con is about concealing the utter conformism of people afraid of the future, because it might bring changes that affect them adversely. Maybe the rest of America needs real progress to help with jobs, but that just is not a concern to these characters. Neither does our comic hero turn into a better man, responsible for his fellow citizens.
But he loses the typical Silicon Valley illusions—one hilarious mistake at a time. He learns about his limits, and therefore about his proper activities—and we learn how difficult it really is to stop living out an empty ideology. As he stumbles toward his true purpose, he learns how many people stand in the way, people unable to see anything but their interests.
Judge, like Thiel, is a cultural critic of progress for the sake of real progress. He points out the hypocrisies and self-interest of Silicon Valley, because only if people are held accountable can they do their jobs right. Progress is not a foregone conclusion—it’s hard work, and much harder than it needs be because of conformism. Judge shows, just like Thiel, that nowadays, it takes vaguely crazy people to try for real progress.
Why? Because the overachievers, trained to overachieve from a young age, are actually conformists terrified of incurring disapproval in institutional settings. The spirit of Thiel needs an ally in his conflict with Silicon Valley conformism—and Judge’s comedy shows, both by wit and vulgarity, the ally is the people. He’s trying to give Thiel what he looked for in supporting Donald Trump: a popular counterweight to the rigid oligarchy that stands in the way of the future.