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2014 columns, Technology

Silicon Valley will eat itself

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

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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.

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