KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

2014 columns, Gaming & Technology

Silicon Valley will eat itself

by Connor Tomas O'Brien , August 18, 2014Leave a comment

hbo-silicon-valley

 

At a certain point in the lifespan of any subculture, fiction and reality start to blur. Members of the subculture begin to model their character and appearance on the idealised representations of themselves they read about or see on screen, and the loop continues until nobody can be quite sure whether their traits and obsessions are genuine or contrived.

The chief pleasure of Mike Judge’s new single-camera HBO sitcom Silicon Valley is its engagement with this kind of hypertextual/metatextual looping within startup culture. The characters in the show – half a dozen young programmers who’ve just received Series A funding for ‘Pied Piper’, their data compression startup – have all seen David Fincher’s The Social Network and Joshua Michael Stern’s Jobs, and are obsessed with modeling themselves on Hollywoodified versions of Silicon Valley icons. Silicon Valley is less a show about hackers or hacking than it is about the ongoing, endless mythologising of startup culture, from both the Hollywood soundstage and from within the world of these startups themselves.

In one scene, a character is called out for wearing a black mock-turtleneck and responds, ‘Steve [Jobs] and I have always shared a similar aesthetic’, as though confused as to who may have influenced who. In another, the same character advises the show’s protagonist to ‘be an asshole’, presumably in order to channel Mark Zuckerberg-by-way-of-Jesse Eisenberg (bad behavior is made acceptable, after all, if validated by an Aaron Sorkin script). Almost every character on Silicon Valley seems to emulate an idealised version of themselves, their flaws legitimised by Hollywood’s current obsession with young programmers (the more their behaviour borders on sociopathic, the better). Even the show’s protagonist, ostensibly its ‘straight man’, dresses almost exactly like Zuckerberg, his wardrobe hoodie-heavy, his hair a mess of curls.

Kate Losse has noted that our culture now fetishises ‘young, male, awkward, unattached engineers’. This fetishisation is precisely what makes Silicon Valley’s bizarre staging so relevant. In a show like The Big Bang Theory, the starring nerds exist in a world which either ignores or derides them. Silicon Valley’s characters, however, exist in a post-Social Network, post-Jobs reality where they have now come to resemble, in some odd sense, celebrities. They attend parties at which men and women are paid to talk to them, and rock stars are made subservient to the whims of coders. Many of Silicon Valley’s characters seem to believe they are the stars of their own shows. In 2014, this possibility doesn’t seem so remote. Surely the founders of Airbnb, Uber and Snapchat are all hoping they’ll at least receive something something akin to their own version of Pirates of Silicon Valley, and find themselves glamorously portrayed by handsome television celebrities.

Silicon Valley becomes problematic, though, if the behaviour and attitudes of those within startup culture are influenced by onscreen depictions of their fictional peers. The show completely fails the Bechdel Test; criticising the ‘overcompensatory masculinity’ of ‘brogrammers’, but failing to show women in any technical roles, or in any situation in which a male is not present. Five episodes into Silicon Valley, and the only women you’ll find on screen are personal assistants or models.

To some extent, this must be deliberate. Silicon Valley is calling out startup culture’s toxic aspects. It is an environment which treats women as either distractions or as sources of unpaid emotional and affective labor. It would feel odd for a show like Silicon Valley to attempt to underplay this reality by including women in technical roles, when many real Silicon Valley companies are male dominated. At the same time, as the show makes clear, members of startup culture are inordinately influenced by the versions of themselves they see on screen.

In a recent Twitter chat, Mike Judge was asked repeatedly about the lack of female representation in Silicon Valley, and promised to write two new female characters into the second season of the show. It will be interesting to see whether the inclusion of these female characters contains an element of tokenism, as in the season 2 premiere of Girls, when Donald Glover’s Sandy became a token non-white character. Hopefully, Judge will offer fully formed female characters who could conceivably exist within the show’s universe of enfants terribles. One of the difficulties with attempting to diversify the casts of television shows and films is that the real world is not always diverse. Girls is a show circling around young, privileged white women, and to pretend such a world is heterogeneous would be misleading. Similarly, the satirical jab of Silicon Valley would be weakened were it to offer a female-friendly version of startup culture that didn’t represent reality.

Is it possible for a creator to mimic and skewer a flawed subculture in fiction, if they recognise that their work will feed back into the loop the subculture uses to understand and legitimise itself? Girls does not exactly offer a wholehearted endorsement of the lifestyles of the particular set of insular young Brooklynites it focuses on, The Social Network does not vindicate Mark Zuckerberg’s callousness, and Silicon Valley is not a defence of contemporary startup culture’s misogynistic pomposity. All of these texts, however, can be willingly misread as offering validation by those who identify with the characters they see on screen.

It’s worth considering whether creators have an obligation, when satirising the world, to try to make the world inside their fiction a better place – and whether we, the viewers, are prepared to become their caricatures.

Connor Tomas O’Brien is a web designer and writer, co-founder of ebookstore platform Tomely, and co-director of the Digital Writers’ Festival.

ACO logo




9781863957434

Kill Your Darlings

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their June picks

Looking for a book recommendation? Staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »

lisa-gorton_the-life-of-houses

James Tierney

A Novel of Longer Exhalations: Lisa Gorton’s The Life of Houses

It’s sometimes said that each book teaches you how to read it. That each way of telling a story needs to not only beguile anew but needs to tutor the reader in the ways to best attend its pages. Read more »

9781743316337

Danielle Binks

Finding Books for Young Readers: The Reading Children’s Book Prize

James Patterson once said, ‘There’s no such thing as a kid who hates reading. There are kids who love reading and kids who are reading the wrong books.’ So how do we get the right books into the hands of budding bibliophiles? Well, the Readings Children’s Book Prize Shortlist is a great place to start. Read more »

clouds-of-sila-maria-1

Rebecca Shaw

The curse of the ‘gal pals’

As a well-known humourless, angry, hairy arm-pitted, feminist lesbian, I encounter daily issues that I can place on a scale from things that mildly irritate me all the way to things that completely offend me. Read more »

2691149967_01b38304f3_b

Rebecca Shaw

Fuck Yeah: Swearing like a lady

I had been trying to pinpoint exactly why the HBO television show Veep brings me such joy. Yes, it is a very funny, very well-written show with a great cast, but that didn’t quite go far enough in explaining the immense enjoyment it gives me. The eureuka moment finally struck when I stumbled over a compilation video of the best insults from the show. Read more »

AnneEdmonds-300dpi-sml-860x450_c

Alexandra Neill

Curse of the Comedienne: When comedy comes before gender

At this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I saw only shows by women. I did this for several reasons: to support great comedians, to force myself to see more shows I knew nothing about, and because I really like comedy by ladies. I also did it because I was curious. I love comedy, but increasingly have been bothered by the obvious gender disparity. Read more »

Zombies

Michelle Roger

It’s All Just Preparation for the Zombie Apocalypse

‘She’s just another Walking Dead hanger-on,’ I hear you say. Well, yes, I am partial to a bit of walker action. And yes, I may have entertained the odd erotic daydream about a crossbow carrying, scraggy-bearded redneck – but this is not where my zombie obsession began. Come gather around people. Hear my obsessive zombie-loving origin story. Read more »

tom-cruise-jack-reacher-premiere-postponed

Chris Somerville

A lit match in a box of wet dynamite: Tom Cruise is Jack Reacher

I first watched Jack Reacher a few years ago, in a spate of insomnia. The plot is a confused mess, both needlessly intricate and incredibly simple. I’m not going to go into it, mainly because I don’t actually know why the people in this movie do anything. Read more »

Partisan

Joanna Di Mattia

To experience the world with blinkers on: Ariel Kleiman’s Partisan

Partisan beautifully evokes that complex space between childhood and adulthood, when we start to question the worldview we have inherited – when we begin to see the world through our own eyes. It is both a coming-of-age story, and an innocence-coming-undone story. Read more »

Zombies

Michelle Roger

It’s All Just Preparation for the Zombie Apocalypse

‘She’s just another Walking Dead hanger-on,’ I hear you say. Well, yes, I am partial to a bit of walker action. And yes, I may have entertained the odd erotic daydream about a crossbow carrying, scraggy-bearded redneck – but this is not where my zombie obsession began. Come gather around people. Hear my obsessive zombie-loving origin story. Read more »

OITNB2

Anwen Crawford

Still in Prison: The limitations of Orange is the New Black

No, I haven’t binge-watched the entire new season of Orange Is The New Black in one sleepless, bleary-eyed frenzy. This season, the show’s third, doesn’t lend itself to that kind of viewing. The pace is slower, the cliff-hangers missing. Read more »

kim-kardashian-selfish-cover-main

Brodie Lancaster

We Are All Kardashians

For the past five years, I have loved and been obsessed with the Kardashians. Specifically, the E! reality series that made them famous. I often feel the need to intellectualise why I like these series and the people on them – you know, because I’m not a moron, and these are shows about morons, for morons. Read more »

ss_8df8236403f5aad45eeedd33d2bd545e45435b39.1920x1080

Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

CrawlMeBlood_20150607_261_LoRes copy

Jane Howard

Adhocracy: Lifting the curtain on the creative process

Every June long weekend I wrap myself up in several extra layers and make my way to the Waterside Worker’s Hall in Port Adelaide for Adhocracy, Vitalstatistix’s annual hothouse that brings together artists from around the country for a weekend of creative development. Read more »

Orlando #2 - THE RABBLE

Jane Howard

This Is a Story of Artistic Excellence

This is a story of the first four plays I saw at Malthouse Theatre. It’s a story that can only continue as long as support for independent artists continues; it’s a story that can only keep growing as long as support for independent artists grows. It’s a story of where artistic excellence comes from, and how we get to see it on our main stages. Read more »

AnneEdmonds-300dpi-sml-860x450_c

Alexandra Neill

Curse of the Comedienne: When comedy comes before gender

At this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I saw only shows by women. I did this for several reasons: to support great comedians, to force myself to see more shows I knew nothing about, and because I really like comedy by ladies. I also did it because I was curious. I love comedy, but increasingly have been bothered by the obvious gender disparity. Read more »