KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

2014 columns, 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




9864007066_4a196b364d_z

Tim Robertson

Fear, loathing, and the erosion of civil liberties

The hysteria currently being concocted by Australia’s political leaders is a smokescreen for the more serious threat facing everyone – an attack of the very freedoms and values our nation has been built on. Read more »

308982705_be9f94455b_b

Marika Sosnowski

Back inside: Life on the Syrian-Turkish border

In Turkey, less than 50 kilometres from the border, Syrians have chosen their favourite cafes, have opened Aleppine sweet shops and set up stores in the old city. Read more »

Frances Abbott

David Donaldson

Why #whitehousegate matters

A few days after the release of the budget, in which the Coalition government announced it was spreading the burden by increasing university fees, cutting school funding, and cutting welfare for young people comes a story that confirms what many already suspect to be the nature of opportunity: it’s much easier to come by if you’re born into privilege. Read more »

theartofasking_image

Julia Tulloh

Living on fans: The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

Rather than enticing people to pay for music through marketing campaigns and radio play, Amanda Palmer is interested in connecting with her fans, becoming friends with them, and creating a system of exchange within the community that is formed. This means that art is not often payed for with money. Read more »

womeninclothes-600

Carody Culver

Closet Concerns: Women in Clothes

Women in Clothes wants to tell a more inclusive story, to reveal the pleasures, hang-ups and complexities that reside in the simple act of dressing ourselves, and to remind us that we don’t perform our style rituals in a vacuum. Read more »

4285342-3x4-700x933

Kylie Maslen

The Harp in the South and other stories I wasn’t taught at school

The classics I studied at school were certainly great works, but how relevant are these books to young Australians? Yes, they were valuable to study as examples of technical skill. But they were all by men, all white and all dead. Read more »

theartofasking_image

Julia Tulloh

Living on fans: The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

Rather than enticing people to pay for music through marketing campaigns and radio play, Amanda Palmer is interested in connecting with her fans, becoming friends with them, and creating a system of exchange within the community that is formed. This means that art is not often payed for with money. Read more »

Taypic

Julia Tulloh

Lovers, haters, and TaySway’s 1989

TaySway is a polariser: haters really hate her. The issue for many feminists and critics is that they simply don’t like Taylor’s version of authenticity, which happens to be embodied by a blonde, white, straight, American women from a reasonably privileged background. Read more »

15115828030_526f79c515_z

Julia Tulloh

The celebrity spokesperson phenomenon

What should we expect celebrity advocates to deliver? Emma Watson is not a full-time activist, but if she inspires young people to take an interest in gender equality, is that not a good thing? Read more »

Screen-Shot-2014-10-01-at-11.22.21-AM

Matilda Dixon-Smith

Can too many parts destroy an adaptation? The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

It’s a relief to feel the weight of fidelity lift off an adaptation film, as Mockingjay: Part 1 becomes a meta-exploration of fame, franchise and future. Read more »

Maps to the Stars

Rochelle Siemieonwicz

Monsters in Los Angeles: Maps to the Stars and Nightcrawler

Both Maps to the Stars and Nightcrawler are peopled by monsters who may look human, but are actually spiritually deformed and morally repugnant creatures of the most loathsome kind. The suggestion implicit in each of these thrillingly creepy stories is that these ‘freaks’ are born out of and adapted to the hellish spiritual landscape of LA. Read more »

WinterSleep-2-poster-450

Rochelle Siemienowicz

A matter of time: very long films

It’s a fatal moment for any film lover: that instant when you look away from the screen and check your watch, holding it up to the light to judge how much time is left before you can escape. A wince of pain as you realise there are still 40 minutes to go. Read more »

IMG_0086

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Pictures of pictures: Monument Valley and the rise of the in-game photographer

Presenting screencapturing a game as a form of camera-free ‘photography’ gives rise to a conceptual issue. If the ‘photographer’ is moving through, and capturing, a world created entirely by others, then who exactly should take the credit for any images created? Read more »

IMG_4309

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Patrons and gamemakers in the shadow of Gamergate

There is a lot to unpack about Gamergate, and a great deal more that isn’t at all worth taking seriously, but what the patronage pseudo-controversy has drawn attention to is the fact that there are potentially huge issues with moving to a model of monetary transactions in which our payments are increasingly networked and ‘social’. Read more »

ST_Ello_600

Connor Tomas O'Brien

The Rise of the High-Minded Startup

Ello’s manifesto is the key to understanding its relative success, and how it has managed to sign up hundreds of thousands of users despite offering a wafer-thin feature set. Read more »

00page

Danielle Binks

Disability or superpower? Deaf identity in YA

In September this year, American author and illustrator Cece Bell released a graphic memoir, El Deafo, about losing her hearing at the age of four. El Deafo details Bell’s middle-grade life and deaf experiences: she wears a clunky hearing aid, ‘The Phonic Ear’; struggles to learn to … Read more »

Anne of Green Gables

Danielle Binks

Books that take you there: YA literary tourism

How has literary tourism taken on new dimensions and greater capitalism, thanks to youth literature – both old and new, book and film? Read more »

9781863956925

Danielle Binks

Mean girls, bullies and private school privilege: Alice Pung’s Laurinda

Alice Pung’s Laurinda is hard-edged satire cloaked in contemporary YA: exploring class dynamics, everyday racism and bullying. Read more »

3827910256_89135334f0_z

Chad Parkhill

Who killed Amanda Palmer fandom?

Fans and consumers tend to avoid music made by people whose actions disagree with their moral compasses, and, conversely, to reward those whose actions align with them. But are they right to do so? Read more »

Taypic

Julia Tulloh

Lovers, haters, and TaySway’s 1989

TaySway is a polariser: haters really hate her. The issue for many feminists and critics is that they simply don’t like Taylor’s version of authenticity, which happens to be embodied by a blonde, white, straight, American women from a reasonably privileged background. Read more »

augie-march-havens-dumb-300x194

Sean Watson

Literal metaphors: Augie March’s Havens Dumb

Glenn Richards’ style of songwriting, which is heavily informed by poetry and history, is what has made Augie March’s work so distinctive. Australian indie music has a long association with literary allusions, but Augie March have never seemed merely referential. Read more »

Marry Me - Season Pilot

Stephanie Van Schilt

Happy Hangovers and False Starts: Happy Endings and Marry Me

Binging rarely ends well. Binge eating is how unwanted food babies happen. Binge drinking is how inhibitions and memories are erased. Binge-watching a TV show can take over your life. Which is exactly what happened a few years ago when I fell in love with Happy Endings. … Read more »

thecode_main-620x349

Stephanie Van Schilt

An obligation to be kind? Australian TV critics and The Code

When Margaret Pomeranz recently spoke out about the obligation of local film critics to support the Australian film industry, she generated an interesting conversation in the critical community. Are critics who discuss the small screen in the public sphere obligated to be critically kind in their local coverage? Read more »

bojack-horseman-exclusive-trailer-debut_bghe

Stephanie Van Schilt

Jerks, antiheroes and failed adulthood in You’re The Worst and BoJack Horseman

In addition to both being really funny, two new US comedies – You’re The Worst and BoJack Horseman – speak to a widely-held fear about what, exactly, constitutes ‘adulthood’. Read more »