After a 17-month hiatus, the sixth season of HBO’s Silicon Valley premieres on Sunday night in the US. The show, at the very top of its game after an uneven run, drops its viewers into a setting that’s painfully familiar to tech chieftains these days: Capitol Hill.
“These people up here, you want to rein them in, but you can’t,” says Richard Hendricks, founder of the fictional start-up Pied Piper. The character, played by Thomas Middleditch, is seated between representatives from Amazon.com, Facebook and Google. “These companies are kings, and they rule over kingdoms far larger than any nation in human history. They won. We lost!”
The scene is hilarious: Middleditch channels his innate talent for sweaty, awkward tenacity. It’s also an immediate relief, because you would think, coming into its final season, that Silicon Valley has a serious problem shared by all Trump-era satire — today’s reality outpaces and overwhelms any conceivable fiction.
Since the previous season ended, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey has tweeted about taking a 10-day silent vipassana meditation retreat; the ousted CEO of WeWork acknowledged receiving guidance from a brand of ancient Jewish mysticism; and Oculus founder Palmer Luckey started a company, valued at US$1-billion, that makes robot-killing robots. That’s not even counting the latest from Big Tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg, writhing in public to evade responsibility for mitigating the negative impacts of their technologies.
Based on three new episodes of Silicon Valley made available to journalists last week, the show has breathed new life into its tech-bubble caricature. If you’re a fan of the programme who’s sensitive to mild spoilers, you might want to stop reading, but if you’re like me and haven’t been following the show for years, the writing for the new episodes is worth analysing. It offers a valuable diagnosis of why it’s so difficult for tech companies to do the right thing.
‘Democratic decentralised Internet’
After Hendricks makes his clumsily impassioned speech to congress, in which he vows to create a “democratic decentralised Internet” where users have total control over their own data, temptation visits him and his colleagues, taking them down a dark path.
A rogue Pied Piper developer confesses he is recording everything customers say into their computer microphones — not to sell ads but to improve the quality of the product. (It’s a story line ripped from headlines about Amazon, Apple and Google sending voice assistant recordings to workers for review.) Hendricks is outraged by the ethical breach but fuelled by enmity and revenge, ends up inadvertently turning the developer’s hack into a successful product.
Other members of Hendrick’s ragtag crew also end up making moral compromises, motivated by greed, sycophancy, their obligation to rank-and-file employees and pedestrian concerns like how close their office is to the boss’s. Ultimately, the kind of purity expressed by Hendricks to the US senate proves simply too exhausting to maintain. “Forget all the bullshit about making the world a better place!” one character finally exclaims. “The most valuable companies in this valley were built and run by savages who cheat to win!”
Don’t worry; none of this is overly earnest. In the premiere, there are killer gags about a Lime scooter, a wearable chair and the exact meaning of the company name Amazon. The new episodes are all smart and on point. Maybe it’s just what we need in these fractious times — a good laugh, and toward the end of the first episode, a concise diagnosis of what ails us: “This is the cost of working with humans, Richard. They suck.” — Reported by Brad Stone, (c) 2019 Bloomberg LP