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Silicon Valley Noir And The Deeper Questions Of How We Live


Spoilers abound.

The current age of television is marked by the outsized growth of Silicon Valley Noir — a style of dark, foreboding looks at the ethically complex and morally questionable elements of advanced technology and how they alter the way we live and die. There are patterns and repeated story arcs in these creations, and in the context of the current pandemic, when so many of us are stuck in our homes streaming away, they offer us a glimpse of certain elements these stories might be leaving out of their narratives — and the deeper questions they often choose to ignore entirely.

You can draw multiple common connections through “Devs” (FX/Hulu), “Mr. Robot” (USA), “Homecoming” (Amazon), most episodes of “Black Mirror” (Channel 4/Netflix), “Maniac” (Netflix), “Electric Dreams” (Amazon), and of course “Westworld” (HBO). Every major streaming entity has something in this space, and there are plenty of other examples.* These stories frequently pit dark, moody, hoodie-wearing misunderstood geniuses against the encroaching forces of government and corporate America, typically backwards old white men.

The most prominent creators operating in this space are Alex Garland, Sam Esmail, Charlie Brooker, Jonathan Nolan and spouse Lisa Joy, and Cary Joji Fukunaga — all born in the 1970s, and half of them Englishmen. Production company Anonymous Content worked on most of the series listed above. The plotlines they favor regularly focus on those who seek to use technology to achieve a higher existence or a form of immortality. Narrators will be unreliable, timelines will overlap, and people will suddenly commit suicide or otherwise force their death in public spaces.

Bringing back family gets a hefty amount of attention. Nick Offerman’s “Devs” CEO has the same motivation as the Kingpin in 2018’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” — an attempt to bring his family back to life after a tragic car crash (although the Kingpin has less moral compunction — or is it dimensional preference? — about stealing a wife and child from an alternate timeline). B.D. Wong’s White Rose in “Mr. Robot” is similarly willing to do anything, including an attempt to rip apart the known universe, to restore a happy life with a lost loved one, while Emma Stone in “Maniac” would sacrifice her sanity to stay with her lost sister. The attempt to use hosts to achieve an uploaded form of immortality crops up often in “Westworld” and “Black Mirror.”

(Also, in multiple entries, emotionally or drug-addled characters take doomed leaps of faith to demonstrate their deep-down belief there are other worlds than these. There’s a TV Trope for that.)

Nearly all these series use social media as a reference point in the narrative, but there are significant differences in the way it is applied. In “Mr. Robot,” social media is often something the protagonists can use almost at will to get their message out, creating flashmobs and social movements as if the people were all clued in, and maneuvering around the presumptive corrupt media and the slowpokes in the corporate and governmental space. In “Black Mirror,” it is most often a tool for mob destruction — series creator Brooker describes the phenomenon as “we as an animal aren’t yet adept to use this incredible new power we’ve been given. It’s like a new limb we’ve grown and we’re flailing around and knocking all the furniture over.”

A Sense of Moral and Political Incoherence

While each of these series is interesting for different reasons, one thing they have in common is an abiding sense of political and moral incoherence. The concept of godhood is merged into the code and the cloud. They are anti-corporate and anti-government, pro-technology and pro-“science” — which often functions in ways indistinguishable from magic.

But the storytellers often can’t decide whether these structures typically operate as genius-level omnipresent, omniscient entities — with the power to see the future and eliminate anyone, anytime, anywhere — or whether they are dull, monotonous, slow-witted Goliaths confounded and confronted by hacker-champion Davids.

In “Mr. Robot,” a repeated trope is multiple people delivering hard, dangerous, anti-establishment, chaos-inducing truths while wearing masks. Esmail, the creator of “Mr. Robot,” has been tweeting quite a lot of late, mocking the people protesting for reopening the economy, including sharing something the other day about the irony of people protesting that things must reopen while wearing masks. Of course, there’s no conflict there. The real irony is that, for something as anti-capitalist as “Mr. Robot” to exist, a lot of capitalism (or magic) is required.

(Note: “Mr. Robot” ran on USA Network, which, like its parent company NBCUniversal, is owned by Comcast, which is significantly invested in China, where they built their largest Universal theme park. As their CEO said last September, to do business in China: “You don’t start talking about the leadership in China. You would be crazy to bring up Hong Kong, Taiwan… You would never start talking that way. You just focus on what you are trying to do.”)

These stories consistently assume these individualistic loner hooded weirdos are fundamentally right about the makeup of the universe and how it ought to be remade, or where the ethical limits of remaking it are drawn. Along the way, these disruptors of humanity — with whatever moral motivation they have — leave a trail of societal breakdown, and in some cases a tidal wave of institutional destruction, all toward a path they assure us will be better.

The Hooded Heroes Are Always Right

These stories consistently show us the hoodied heroes are right. They were human or fallible for a moment, they may lose the argument to the more socially well-adjusted or the less-intelligent authority figure, but after the people who talk instead of type move on, give the hero a laptop and he can prove his rightness, typing away his magic code in ancient incantation. If only it worked out that way for social media postings. If only it worked for Theranos.

The Silicon Valley noir genius hacker chaos bringer thinks he or she is the hero, and is provided multiple bad actions by others along the way to prove this heroism internally. But the abiding sense of loneliness and abandonment still doesn’t send characters toward the institutions of community that free people to find their path to a life well-lived.

It brings to mind the plot twist in “Braid,” a video game where you think you’re playing a noble-minded person seeking to save a princess from a castle only to discover that you’re actually a troubled stalker she’s been wanting to run away from all along. In seeking an alternative to things that were part of normal human experience for thousand of years, Silicon Valley built us new limbs we don’t know how to use without damaging others or ourselves.

There’s a level of insight contained in the last sequence of 1975’s “Three Days of the Condor,” ending with its infamous questioning of confidence in The New York Times as an institution, largely lacking from these series. The protagonists frequently presume they can “break a story wide open” and have some instantaneous societal changing effect.

Rarely do they pose the question: even if the deep dark truth you believe you’ve found is published, will the people care? Rarer still do they wrestle with the notion that perhaps people will care, but not the way they hope: that they’ll turn on the creators of chaos, and seek to crush them for the good of the herd. Maybe they will hate you for it. Maybe they just want to be left alone. Or maybe a fork on a table is just a fork on a table.

How Much Do We Really Need This Soma?

The pandemic has thrown into question how much we depend on this entertainment as soma to keep us from asking deeper, harder questions about ourselves and how we live and die. For all the advancement of our age, an astounding amount of it has focused on entertaining ourselves and making for a more convenient and comfortable life.

Instead of devoting ourselves to questions of the soul, we’ve watched characters on the screen act out such endeavors. We’ve been too busy “bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift” — or for the hoodie-wearing heroes, trying to make that Oculus work even better.

Alex Garland, the most interesting of the creators, wrote his debut novel at 25 about the promise and failure of an island utopia in “The Beach.” His science fiction has evolved over the years, including writing or adapting the films “Sunshine,” “Never Let Me Go,” “Ex Machina,” and “Annihilation,” but if his latest series is any indication, his perspective on the possibility of utopia seems to have shifted.

At the end of “Devs,” the protagonist, Lily, is told she should be happy, that she is in paradise — a created, artificial utopia strung together out of lines of code. The new sprite version seems uncertain whether she ought to take this instruction at face value, and be happy in this newly created dimension spanning reality. It brings to mind that other, more famous line from Condor: “You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?”

While “Devs” doesn’t provide an answer, Lily is right to be uneasy about the artificiality of this impending future, disconnected from everything that’s truly human, where God is whatever we watch on the screen.

So should we.

* (This leaves aside the less noir and more hilarious/realistic entries like “Silicon Valley,” “Halt and Catch Fire,” and “The IT Crowd,” and the more traditional biotech suspense series like “Orphan Black.” Parts of “Legion” season 3 could be included, despite not being tech-focused, because the character of Switch is basically a time-hacker. The OA should not be included in this list because it is far too stupid.)