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Laughing at Myself in Silicon Valley

As a native of the place, I have an interesting relationship with HBO’s comedy show Silicon Valley. If it were to lionize the tech industry that gives my hometown it’s name, I would probably not like it very much, but the show’s writers choose to take the route of a somewhat affectionate parody instead. As such, it’s always a bit hard to tell whether the show is celebrating the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship that the Valley likes to think it has, or offering a serious critique of those ideas.

For the past three seasons, Silicon Valley  has followed the misadventures of fictional startup company Pied Piper, which uses a black box compression algorithm to achieve unprecedented data storage capacity and video streaming quality. Pied Piper is never allowed to experience success for more than two episodes because of the incompetency of its management, or bad luck, which forms the basis of the show’s humor. At its core, Silicon Valley is very formulaic: something that shakes everything up happens at the start of the season, there’s a two-episode cycle of good and bad fortune and by the end of the season everything resets and no progress is made. But, given that Silicon Valley is a sitcom where continuity or plot isn’t the point, this may not be a serious issue.

That said, with the new fourth season of Silicon Valley beginning to air, I found myself intrigued by the seemingly mandatory opening shake-up of the first episode. Having spent three seasons with the same cast of characters comprising Pied Piper, the beginning of this season finds the CEO, Richard, leaving the team. Pied Piper has become a video streaming service, and Richard wants to dream bigger with the algorithm he created. Don’t worry — the same central cast from before will undoubtedly remain the focus of the show.

On my end, I found Richard’s motivation for leaving the team to be… interesting. When explaining what he hopes to accomplish with his algorithm, Richard claims he wants to create a “New Internet.” What exactly does this mean? The plan is to use the Pied Piper algorithm to connect and pool the processing power of all the computing devices around the world, which will lead to an explosion of the human potential for achievement and make all information “free,” everywhere, forever, somehow.

My reaction to the pitch, as presented in the show, was one of total bewilderment. I had no idea if I was supposed to be taking Richard seriously or not. On face value, the idea sounded completely ridiculous, but the show didn’t do anything to explicitly signal that it was aware of the pitch’s absurdity; there are no deadpan quips about Richard’s unbelievable naiveté. Then again, it’s still possible that the show is self-aware: after he gives the pitch, Richard is heartily congratulated by a known narcissist. This lack of clarity of intent is confusing and detrimental to the show’s plot.

Nonetheless, even if Silicon Valley were to play the tech utopia idea straight, it would still make a lot of fun of the idea along the way. But, it also means that the humor and satire would only bite so deep in contrast to subversion, which would mock the fundamental idea.

What’s interesting is that the show has mocked the concept of tech utopia in the past: the motto of Hooli, the fictional, soulless tech giant stand-in is, “Making the World a Better Place.” This line gets run into the ground over the course of the first season, until it becomes as meaningless to the ear as it is on paper. Hooli doesn’t care about making the world a better anything, they just want to make more money. But Silicon Valley could still be depicting Richard’s altruistic intentions sincerely; just because Hooli is evil doesn’t mean that Richard’s company necessarily is. The show attempts to draw a distinction between what is sees as the amoral greed of mega-corporations and the philanthropic entrepreneurship of true innovators.

I hope the show is not doing this, because that distinction is nonsense. One of the more unpleasant refrains in popular media and the news cycle is the idea that the tech innovators in California are going to save us from our political situation or environmental catastrophes. Silicon Valley is at its best when it goes after this mythology. It doesn’t have to get into a serious critique of why capitalism will not save us or how the tech industry’s leaders are ineffectual in their resistance, at best, and actively complicit in the current administration’s mess, at worst. It just has to show that it doesn’t make sense to be optimistic about the tech industry because the people in it are fundamentally and comedically flawed, and that it makes more sense to laugh at them instead.

Silicon Valley’s comedic hit rate is reasonably high and I’ll forgive the show for engaging in some sentimentality over innovation, which makes me cringe. A lot of the humor isn’t wrapped up in the broader context of the show’s setting, but instead in the mechanics of well-written, humorous dialogue and comedic delivery. The first episode of the new season was filled with this, and I found myself satisfied on that front.

Silicon Valley never gets too political, but that’s probably a good thing. Not everyone shares my views on the area, but as long as you can laugh at yourself, anyone from the Silicon Valley can find something funny in Silicon Valley.

Albert Chu is a junior in the College of Engineering. He can be reached at ac2369@cornell.edu.


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