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'Silicon Valley' Ridicules—and Explains—the Industry's Shallow Utopianism

Mike Judge's new HBO show is a scathing look at how the tech industry's world-saving sausage gets made.

Brian Merchant

Brian Merchant

Watch the first episode of Mike Judge's Silicon Valley above.

Silicon Valley is probably the world's chief exporter of lazy utopian ideals: the institutions of old must be disrupted, evil must not be done, and everyone must have access to good data, information, and apps. Mostly apps.

The industry's penchant for self-aggrandizement has been the subject of ample criticism and satire already—see George Packer's New Yorker takedown, the Onion's TED-skewering Onion Talks, and Valleywag, the Gawker blog dedicated to taking the piss out of the tech world. But Silicon Valley, Mike Judge's new HBO show about a ragtag new startup, might be the first pop culture product to astutely critique how the self-avowed world-changing sausage actually gets made. It's also funny as hell.

The show, which focuses on a hapless group of idealistic programmers who suddenly find their website in the midst of a bidding war between industry giants, has received near-universal acclaim, and deservedly so (it's got a 94% 'fresh' rating on Rotten Tomatoes, to employ the kind of techie buzzword the show might skewer). There are plenty of laugh-out-loud jokes, like the doctor who hits up his patients for investment capital and a boorish Sean Parker stand-in whose mere existence is a running gag.

But the best bits come when the show is lampooning the world-saving halo that the Valley wraps itself in. There's a character, clearly based in part on super-libertarian seasteader Peter Thiel, who preaches that college is a corrupt institution that should be replaced with self-reliance in a too-close-to-home TED Talk. “Go work at Burger King, go into the woods and forage for nuts and berries, do not go back to college,” he says. The Hoolie CEO keeps a spiritual adviser on hand to affirm his stereotypical generalizations as epiphanies. And the MD-cum-app hocker finishes his pitch for panic attack-detecting software with the requisite "we could really make the world a better place."

In 'Silicon Valley', there's no need for higher education, apps will save lives, and new software platforms are inherently game-changing philanthropic ventures. Sound familiar?

The best distillation of the show's false utopia-shattering mission statement comes just moments into the pilot. Kid Rock is playing in front of a disinterested crowd at a tech party (and is "the poorest person" there, as one of the entrepreneurs notes), and a newly super-rich startup owner takes the mic and delivers a speech to scattered applause and disinterest.

"A few days ago, when we were sitting down with Barack Obama, I turned to these guys and said, okay, we're making a lot of money, and yes, we're disrupting digital media," he says. "But most importantly, we're making the world a better place. Through elegant heirarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility. So here's to many more nights, just like this one. So take it away—my good friend, Kid Rock." 

It's funny, because the line itself lands right in the nexus between ridiculous and bitingly accurate. It reveals the moral component of their work as a crude afterthought, a vessel that enables them to mingle with the rich and powerful—they kind of believe it because everybody else kind of seems to, too. 

But it's the way the crowd responds to the techno-drivel that delivers the scene into the realm of three-dimensional satire: The other coders, entrepreneurs, and programmers in the crowd offer some half-assed applause, roll their eyes, and call the CEO a dick. Yet they're all there, obligatorily gathered around, because they're envious, too. They want to serve liquid shrimp at wild parties and to be able to call Kid Rock a friend, even if he obviously despises them. Even if the whole thing is just hollow and onerous. Google's Eric Schmidt reportedly agreed to appear in that first scene because, he said, "I've been to that party."

That's the true brilliance of Silicon Valley. It puts the audience in the shoes of the bewildered, offended, and maybe slightly jealous crowd. The utopias the characters are spouting off about are clearly ludicrous, but they've made these men very wealthy, and the unindoctrinated can't help but want a piece. So they get with the program. Though many of its characters are caricatures played for laughs, the key protagonists are empathetic, even when they're unlikable. Watching them navigate and adopt the ideals, alternatively vapid and poisonous, of their already successful peers is one of the pilot's strongest suits.

The main character, Richard, who accidentally invents a revolutionary algorithm, is shy, confused, and has little moral vision—one minute he claims to want to be like a Viking taking over the world, the next he's saying they should eschew bravado altogether—but he's not a terrible person. He has, as he says, probably been kicked around a lot growing up.

Just about every character on the show is socially awkward, and considers themselves an 'outsider' to use the parlance of startups. Utopianism is their common language—Viking invasion and empire-building might prove too rapacious-sounding for angel investors, and they're better than the bullies who pushed them around, anyway, so these put upon individuals (who are mostly white men) instead adopt a dialect of aggressive beneficence. 

So the show both skewers the lofty, poorly realized visions of the tech elites, and offers a satirical demonstration about how the up-and-comers get suckered by them. The best scene of the pilot comes when Richard is toasting his new start-up, and searching for a maxim that hasn't already been used up by another corporation. After his call to avoid the lame world-changing rhetoric and sloganeering that befalls other companies, he exhorts his crew to "think different," before realizing that was Apple. 

As he struggles to avoid platitudes of companies past, we're treated to a glimpse of how their founders may have stumbled into adopting their corny, empty utopianism—and it's pretty clear that Richard and his confounded start-up bros will too.