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HBO’s Silicon Valley underlines the importance of the tech industry bullshit artist

HBO’s Silicon Valley underlines the importance of the tech industry bullshit artist


A lesson in selling products that do not exist

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Photo: HBO

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 everlasting goal to change the world — and make boatloads of money in the process.

Spoilers ahead for the sixth episode of season 4, “Customer Support.”

When Silicon Valley creators Mike Judge and Alex Berg set out to satirize the tech industry, they knew they would need a bloviating, self-indulgent moron that would be emblematic of a certain type of Bay Area entrepreneur.

Under all the grand mission statements and platitudes about changing the world, the tech industry still runs on cash, and promises of more cash to come. That requires people who are often capable of lying, or even going so far as to believe their own bullshit. That’s why T.J. Miller’s Erlich Bachman has been a fixture on Silicon Valley since day one, despite not having any material impact on Richard’s dreams of building a revolutionary product. From his delusional sense of self to his scummy and exploitative tech incubator to his astounding ability to sell nonsense to smart people with money, Bachman as an idea is as much a part of Silicon Valley’s lifeblood as Apple, Facebook, and Google.

Bachman is the premier bullshit artist of ‘Silicon Valley’

In “Customer Support,” we get a fresh reminder of why Miller’s character has been so integral to the show’s overarching belief that modern technology is equal parts ambitious and ludicrous. Richard is attempting to build out his idea of a “new internet” — effectively a peer-to-peer network built off smartphones — by selling businesses on a data storage solution that could save them millions. The only problem: like so many of Richard’s dreams, he hasn’t quite been able to realize it yet. The product doesn’t exist, and yet the team still has to try and sell it to get the funds they so desperately need.

That’s where Bachman comes in, and more specifically where his particular con man philosophy shines. While Richard spends much of “Customer Support” keeping Bachman’s sexist and moronic impulses at bay, he still on some level recognizes that the whole exercise really is a game of make-believe. He has to convince businesses that his compression algorithm can function the way he thinks it can, without any research or even experience to support the claim. In other words, he has to bullshit. (Bachman’s skills are even further highlighted later in the episode, when he convinces Palmer Luckey-like virtual reality whiz kid Keenan Feldspar to choose Laurie and Monica as potential investors.)

This type of scenario has played out countless times in the real tech industry, where either out of a good faith, hidden desperation, or blind hope, someone sells a room of intelligent people on an idea that isn’t quite there yet. There’s the numerous now-defunct startups that promised to simplify our lives with “all-in-one” credit cards that didn’t work all that well. Better yet, remember mobile payments nightmare Clinkle that ended up crashing and burning in an attempt to invent a new way to pay with your phone?

Even products that functioned as intended, like social networks and chat apps, vacuumed up millions in VC funding only to fail at maintaining the meteoric growth necessary to survive as free software in the App Store. (See: Airtime, Formspring, Meerkat, Secret, Yik Yak.)

Where does ‘Silicon Valley’ go without Bachman?

What’s so interesting about this particular plot point on Silicon Valley is that it happens to dovetail neatly with some intriguing real-life news: Miller won’t be returning for the renewed season 5 of Silicon Valley. HBO described the departure as a “mutual agreement,” and many speculate Miller is just gearing up for a more serious movie career given his new comedy special and a string of voice acting gigs in big-name productions.

Yet it still raises an interesting question about the future of the show. I’m sure Judge, Berg, and their writers will concoct an excellent and fitting departure for Bachman in the season 5 premiere, in the same way they deftly handled the death of actor Christopher Evan Welch, who played VC Peter Gregory. But what’s a bit of satire on the bullshit in Silicon Valley without its premier bullshit artist?

Perhaps Bighead’s newfound skills pretending to be a Stanford CS professor will have prepared him to inherit the mantle? Or maybe Gilfoyle, with his empathy-devoid deadpan personality, will step up to be the anti-Bachman — the fresh dose of no-bullshit attitude the Pied Piper crew needs to finally break through. Because I think we can all agree that while Dinesh played the part well, he didn’t have what it takes to bullshit his way to the top.