Silicon Valley is Mike Judge and Alec Berg’s biting comedy about the American tech industry, now in its fourth season. Every week, we’ll be taking one idea, scene, or joke and explain how it ties to the real Silicon Valley and speaks to an issue at the heart of the industry and its ever-lasting goal to change the world — and make boatloads of money in the process.
Spoilers ahead for the first episode of season 4, “Success Failure.”
HBO’s tech industry comedy Silicon Valley has always walked a fine line. On one level, it’s a commentary about Silicon Valley as a place — the out-of-touch investors and evangelists, the scrappy nerds, and the ludicrous amounts of money flying around. But on another level, it’s just a straightforward modern-day comedy, following a group of young (mostly white) men who are trying to find success and hitting one outrageous roadblock after another. That’s why it can simultaneously induce a cringe from actual tech workers and a laugh from everyone else.
Occasionally, though, the show hits on something deeper and more connected to its source material. In last night’s season four premiere, main character Richard Hendriks walks away from his company Pied Piper, which barely survived a crisis last season around inflated user numbers that left it cash-strapped and struggling. Richard, who’s not feeling the team’s recent pivot to video chat, is lusting after the next big thing — and he wants to have the biggest impact possible. It’s not because he wants to help people, necessarily, but because he’s always felt that his product, the “revolutionary compression algorithm” we’ve heard so much about, could be the secret to something bigger and better.
What Richard comes up with is a “new internet.” (He confesses his dream to the brash, expletive-loving investor Ross Hanneman, an incredible caricature of a ‘90s internet billionaire.) Richard doesn’t know how a “new internet” would work, or even what it would look like. He just knows that a decentralized network connecting everyone’s mobile phones around the world just might be the perfect way to deploy his algorithm at the grandest possible scale.
Richard’s dream will be familiar to anybody who’s ever spent time reading or writing about bitcoin, or really any technology that tries to replace an existing paradigm with another one. It’s a core philosophy of the Bay Area: disrupting an old industry to replace it with a faster, cheaper, and more efficient one. We’ve seen it before with Amazon and online shopping, or Facebook and media consumption. We romanticize the founders of these companies because we recognize that on some level, technology has, more or less, made our lives better.
But lately there’s been a lull in disruption. Smartphones are now ubiquitous in the developed world, and big-money ideas are harder to come by. Instead, we get “innovations” like Juicero, which sells a $400 juicer and produce packs that are just as easily squeezed by hand, and Apple subtracting the headphone jack from the most recent iPhone. The situation has created ripe ground for satirists and performance artists, like the group that fake-launched an “Uber for dog poop” and a “Tinder for child adoption” to trick the tech press.
You can also see the innovation malaise in the dreams and desires of the industry’s most powerful. Take Elon Musk, who — despite his impressive and improbable track record — is still focused on ideas that seem to be decades (or centuries) from being realized. He wants to eliminate fossil fuels, turn humans into AI-powered cyborgs, and colonize Mars.
At Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg has a team led by former DARPA director Regina Dugan developing devices that to let you type with your thoughts — and hear with your skin. It’s still not clear if the promised benefits of any these technologies will materialize in our lifetimes, or even our children’s. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence and virtual reality, two technologies that have come and gone out of style numerous times in the last three decades, remain inaccessible to most consumers.
Disruption and innovation will continue at a pace (and in directions) we cannot predict. But what’s clear from watching Mike Judge and Alec Berg’s new direction on Silicon Valley is there’s an old guard now, and it’s large and slow-moving. In the show, the old guard is represented by soulless mega-corporation Hooli. In real life, it’s the big five: Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft.
There might be a Richard Hendriks out there right now, in a cramped ranch-style home in Palo Alto worth $3 million, trying to upend an industry and change the world. But it’s not clear what he’d even be working on. “A new internet” sounds like a dumb idea, but it’s not that farfetched when you take stock of what’s actually being worked on in the real Silicon Valley.