Will You Be as Gods?




WE ALL KNOW that Silicon Valley is good. From The New York Times and The New Yorker to this organ, seemingly everyone has heaped praise on the show since its inception. The show’s writing staff has consistently captured — and skewered — the wizardry and horror of our most prestigious, frustrating, and emblematic industry. Their scripts are given life by uniformly excellent comic character acting, especially that of the show’s core quintet: Thomas Middleditch (who plays Richard Hendricks, fidgety founder of Pied Piper, a company based on his revolutionary compression algorithm), T. J. Miller (Erlich Bachman, bong-water-soaked hacker and hostel owner), Martin Starr (Bertram Gilfoyle, Canadian Satanist coder), Kumail Nanjiani (Dinesh Chugtai, coder and self-styled Pakistani Denzel), and Zach Woods (Donald “Jared” Dunn, orphan-turned-business-manager). [1] Pleasure after pleasure, plaudit upon plaudit; you won’t find a quibble about Silicon Valley’s merit from me.

Many of these commendations could be considered first-pass hagiography of showrunner Mike Judge, who continues to build a case as the best large-format satirist of the past 30 years. The New York Times calls him “The Bard of Suck,” which is a slightly oblique and relatively tactful way of calling him the Shakespeare of Mindnumbing Bullshit. We find that Judge has a particular genius for portraying and diagnosing the absurdity of the contemporary United States. Even when his work fails in the moment, it’s celebrated belatedly as soothsaying — as when Tom Rothman, the former Twentieth Century Fox Film Group president who under-marketed and stalled the release of Judge’s Idiocracy (2006), called the movie “one of the great documentaries of our era,” implying an anticipation of our MAGA moment.

“Documentary” is handy hyperbole for Judge’s work — a term neither arbitrarily nor capriciously chosen. The criticism tells us that Silicon Valley’s success derives to a significant extent from its verisimilitude, the believability of its representation of the tech world depicted. The show’s writers attend trade shows and junkets, interview CEOs, and generally do their homework. The math is well researched and painstakingly represented — one can read a paper, formatted, no doubt in LaTeX, formalizing optimal tip-to-tip efficiency — and in the inevitable event of accuracy-trolling, consultants rush to the show’s defense. We also read that truth is stranger than fiction, that some stories are too outlandish to pass for competent joke-telling. In a particularly memorable passage in his New Yorker take, Andrew Marantz describes the fallout of a meeting between the Valley writing staff and the director of Google X, Astro Teller (no joke):

Teller ended the meeting by standing up in a huff, but his attempt at a dramatic exit was marred by the fact that he was wearing Rollerblades. He wobbled to the door in silence. “Then there was this awkward moment of him fumbling with his I.D. badge, trying to get the door to open,” [writer Carrie] Kemper said. “It felt like it lasted an hour. We were all trying not to laugh. Even while it was happening, I knew we were all thinking the same thing: Can we use this?” In the end, the joke was deemed “too hacky to use on the show.”

If anything, we’re led to believe that Silicon Valley is a satire deriving from a kind of under-caricaturing. Where typical caricatures depend on simplification and exaggeration, the Valley’s representations are only apparent exaggerations. So important is truth to life that the ludicrousness of life cannot be depicted in full.

Silicon Valley’s emphasis on plausibility squares uneasily with an observation that one finds in various corners of the internet — that the show’s writers rely on improbable, felicitous resolutions to narrative tension. David Holmes put the issue most vividly when he called radio-on-internet sometime-billionaire schmuck Russ Hanneman the second season’s douche ex machina. Recall that Hanneman alights from nowhere, Limp Bizkit’s “Nookie” blaring from his orange McLaren, and offers Richard a way out of the seemingly inevitable sale of Pied Piper to the show’s villain, Gavin Belson (played by Matt Ross, with a sometimes Elon Musk-y hairdo). We can find a sprinkling of similar observations with the flavor of complaint, as when Reddit commenter Stereotypy grouses, “[Pied Piper] exists solely from far-fetched coincidences and ridiculous deus-ex-machina nonsense.”

Before it was a showcase for Oscar Isaac’s Travolta turn, the deus ex machina was — is — an ancient concept of literary theory. Aristotle gave the classic account in Part XV of his Poetics:

Thus a person of a given character should speak or act in a given way, by the rule either of necessity or of probability; just as this event should follow that by necessary or probable sequence. It is therefore evident that the unraveling of the plot, no less than the complication, must arise out of the plot itself, it must not be brought about by the Deus ex Machina […] for to the gods we ascribe the power of seeing all things.

Aristotle describes, in effect, the narrative principle of realism based on verisimilitude. The dei ex machinis that the Redditors identify indicate a failure of internal logic, a violation of plausibility. Have the haters found the fatal error in Silicon Valley’s design?

This is where things get interesting.

Over the course of Silicon Valley’s four seasons, the deus ex machina is so consistently invoked — from the founding circumstance of Richard not knowing the true value of his algorithm, to Jared’s search for an unknown pivot opportunity, to Gavin’s purchase of Dinesh’s snake-bitten Piper Chat — as to become a narrative principle itself, and one particularly well suited to the show’s aims. Any doubts that the dei constitute a design and not a series of accidents were put to rest in the recent fourth season finale, when the Valley took the principle to its furthest extent and its self-reflexive limit in what could reasonably be called a deus ex frigia. After Richard completes a tour-de-fucking-up — downloading a client’s data to Gilfoyle’s server, cutting the server from the internet, and strewing it across the Stanford campus — Richard and crew learn that, in fact, the data they were tasked with saving has not been lost. As an unintended consequence of hacking Jian-Yang’s smart fridge[2] the server — named for the Satanist Anton LaVey — auto-saved itself on a network of similar devices:

Gilfoyle: Anton died so we could live.
Jared: Like Jesus.
Gilfoyle: … oh fuck.

We might note here a torquing of the tech industry’s modus operandi: whereas in the classic deus ex machina the god descends on a machine — the term described the mechanism whereby an actor appeared onstage, generating the denouement — in Silicon Valley, machines emanate from would-be gods. This Wildean inversion has greater depth than might initially appear, and I’ll return to it shortly. But there’s a more fundamental point to make about the show’s satire, indicating the completeness of Silicon Valley’s patterning and intelligence.

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We can observe similar patterning at the start of Judge’s career in Beavis and Butt-Head, a slack show about slackers who took such stupid pleasure in stupid television that the allegory was insistent to the point of the viewer’s humiliation. Judge’s King of the Hill was an excessively “normal” show modeled on a typical family sitcom and depicting an excessively “normal” American family, such that the profound weirdness of both genre and subject matter was made manifest. But the obvious predecessor to Silicon Valley is 1999’s Office Space. The brilliance of Office Space was its foundation in synecdoche — this one set of cubicles constraining Ron Livingston could stand in for the whole ethos of managerial-yuppie ennui. It’s the acidic distillation of so many decades of white-collar Taylorization. Portraying the high-’90s, though, Office Space is decidedly tech-phobic (“PC load letter? The fuck does that mean?!” says programmer Michael Bolton). It’s a biting Modern Times–style joke on Y2K hysteria.

Silicon Valley is of a different time and after different game, depicting not an ethos so much as an industry that spawns an ethos — just as much or more than it produces commodities and information. This requires a bigger canvas; the show works not by concentration but by sprawl, appropriate to tech campuses and the landscape of the Bay Area more generally (instantiated in the animated copter shot that serves as the title sequence), and requiring a formally extensive mode — episode-by-episode, season-by-season television — to match. The scholars who want to establish the parallel between the Victorian triple-decker novel and New Golden Age television are on to something: the very bigness (even bagginess) of Bleak House lets us see the range of mid-19th-century London’s social life; the same can be said of The Wire’s portrayal of the networks of Baltimore. Silicon Valley is in this tradition, but its rule-governed web of relations befits the tech industry’s obsession with systems (operating and otherwise).

The sprawl of “Silicon Valley,” as pictured in the animated copter shot that serves as the show’s title sequence.

Hence the brilliance of the deus ex machina. Aristotle disliked the way that the plot device broke internal logic and appealed to a higher one; the world of men and the domain of the gods are mutually affecting but fundamentally distinct. The situation is similar in the Valley, where the industry itself — its rules of the game — replaces Olympia. If the deus ex machina in Silicon Valley is a failure, it’s only a failure from an individual’s limited point of view. In fact, it’s the very definition of success in the tech industry’s terms. Bolts from the blue that solve intractable problems — the exceptions to logic — are a regularity within the industry: an understood feature, a generally predicted even if specifically unpredictable bug. The twin paradoxes of coincidence-by-design and failure-as-success dovetail in the Valley, where start-ups pray for angel investors and Beckett’s “fail better” has become the mantra of choice[3] Each credulity-straining happenstance, each mistake from the perspective of a Richard or a Gavin, is an indication of the social-industrial system of the Valley and the narrative system of the Valley.

Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) manipulating and extending the tech industry’s mantra “fail better,” a line from Samuel Beckett’s “Worstward Ho” (1983). “Failure = Success” is fully consistent with the illogic of the deus ex machina.

The deus ex machina is the most subtle and sophisticated way in which Silicon Valley takes the piss out of individual genius of all kinds. Richard coddles his algorithm, prioritizing its uniqueness and excellence; Gavin fetishizes CEO charisma; Dinesh and Gilfoyle squabble principally about whose coding skills are superior. Even those who care little for their own genius nevertheless prize it in others: Jared Dunn serves his captain Hendricks; Hoover, the delightful head of Hooli security, loves Gavin with a purity anyone would envy. The commonality here, obviously, is that all of these talent-obsessives are male. Willy Staley puts the point well when he writes that Valley’s Valley is “lousy with man-children who seem to want nothing more than the ability to prolong adolescence, theirs and ours alike, and have the means and the license and the asinine product ideas to do so.”

Many of the women of the show, few as they are, point up this particular failing. Monica Hall (Amanda Crew) and Laurie Bream (Suzanne Cryer), the show’s most multidimensional female characters, have succeeded in starting their own VC, and not because Laurie’s a fucking ninja. Rather, they demonstrate a superior knowledge of the system’s functioning, likely because they resist the cult of individual (male) genius. Even minor characters like coder Carla Walton (Alice Wetterlund) and Code/Rag blogger C. J. Cantwell (Annie Sertich) have a picture of the Valley’s industrial mechanism, and further display strategies for living with and even countering its gendered labor hierarchy and the uneasy sociality it engenders. Silicon Valley shows that, in the tech industry, as in William Goldman’s Hollywood, nobody knows anything (even if they know a great deal). But even if they don’t have a grasp of how the Valley works, these blinkered boys nonetheless benefit from the machinations that turn human limitations and mistakes into profits for the system.

Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch) is the important exception to the man-child rule. The brilliant and socially graceless founder of Raviga Capital Management, the VC firm that takes a shot on Pied Piper, Gregory might be construed as following in the tradition of Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory, displaying a brilliance and social awkwardness that might lead some to argue for an Autism Spectrum diagnosis. Regardless of his DSM profile, though, Peter serves a plot-immanent purpose of being the tech ideal: the system embodied, the man and the machine synthesized.

In the clip above, the Astrofile guys are surely competent executives, but because they focus so narrowly on the task at hand — procuring the $15 million dollars — they grow frustrated with Peter’s mumbling. But they eat crow after discovering that Peter sees the whole: not just that of the Valley but of global capitalism. As though made to order, Peter’s explanation begins with the evocation of coincidence: “Amusing coincidence that two of the three countries that provide the world’s sesame seeds have such large cicada populations.” The apparently adventitious occurrence is evidence of a higher logic to which Peter alone is privy. It’s no surprise that he continues to be invoked as a kind of oracle, having already identified the principles of the peer-to-peer internet that has been Richard’s current pot o’ gold, and that the garage containing his notes is essentially the show’s sanctum sanctorum.

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If I’m right that, with the rule-proving exception of Peter Gregory’s sagacity, one of Silicon Valley’s principal intentions is to bring techno-Icari down to earth, ought we not interpret the show on its own terms, skeptical of individual creative genius? We can sing Mike Judge’s praises as The Bard of Suck, but we’d be falling into the very trap that he identifies and be members of the cult of genius that he lampoons. Our collective critical failure would then be among his most subtle and profound successes.

Silicon Valley’s satire works so well because the mirror it holds up reflects both nature (the tech industry) and the hand at work, the team and more generally the entertainment industry that crafts it. In his seminal study Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film and Television, John Thornton Caldwell details the “task velocity, client churn, and employee mobility” that characterizes the gig economy of the contemporary film-and-television world. Silicon Valley operates like Hollywood-in-miniature, and perhaps more profoundly and distressingly, like the contemporary economy of labor in general. Andrew Marantz writes that Jonathan Dotan, the show’s lead technical consultant, “oversees more than two hundred consultants.” He clarifies:

Some work on set with him; a majority are available on an ad-hoc basis. Most are unpaid and uncredited. They include academics, investors, entrepreneurs, and employees at Google, Amazon, Netflix, and several other tech firms. “I might ask a quick, specific question, or we might just riff for a few hours,” Dotan said. Many of the show’s best jokes, if not most, emerge from this ongoing collaborative process. “I send links, tip them off to things I’ve heard, list the mockable buzzwords of the month,” Aileen Lee, a venture capitalist in Palo Alto, told me. “And I’m hardly the only one. For all I know, they have eyes and ears all over the Valley.”

This description of un- and underpaid labor and of the increasingly leaky boundaries between industries will be familiar to twentysomethings (and, distressingly, thirtysomethings and beyond) from the academy to finance, from publishing to film and television.

With this fluidity, porousness, and extension of labor comes contingency. Christopher Evan Welch died of cancer in the middle of season one and had to be replaced; the fix was Suzanne Cryer. T. J. Miller will leave for unknown unknowns; another solution will be found. Are these circumstances any more predictable, any less outlandish than the crises and resolutions in the world of the show? In Silicon Valley’s first season, Emily Nussbaum wrote that, “At its best, the show echoes not only Judge’s cult film Office Space but the late, great Starz sitcom about Los Angeles, Party Down, another portrait of a one-industry town spiked with self-hate.” That is to say, at its best and worst — in its failures that it turns into successes — Silicon Valley looks like the entertainment capital itself. The show works because of its thorough representation of working in — and the workings of — the tech industry. And that representation is given vividness by, among other things, its resonance with the labor conditions and systemic functioning of Hollywood.

As Michael Szalay has shown us, in its rhetoric of “quality,” HBO supports shows that aren’t immediately profitable, taking a chance on a product’s goodness as a kind of angel investor. Let’s not forget that before “business angel” made its way into finance parlance, it was a term for the saving backers of Broadway plays. This little genealogical anecdote may amount to nothing — a mere rhetorical coincidence — but it may also index the strong similarities in logic and practice between entertainment and tech. As the Valley shows us again and again, we refuse to take happy coincidences seriously at our own risk.

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Jordan Brower is a lecturer in History and Literature at Harvard University. His academic writing can be found at https://harvard.academia.edu/JordanBrower.

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[1] Jared is a personal favorite. Has there ever been a better non-character than Ed Chambers?

[2] For its multi-episode latency and high-stakes payoff, this may rival “optimal tip-to-tip efficiency” for the best dick joke in the show.

[3] “Fail better” is Beckettian, or Bighettian. Peripheral character and Richard’s dear friend Nelson “Big Head” Bighetti is an upward-failing idiot savant who could be a minor part in Godot. Is this resonance coincidence-by-design?


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