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Silicon Valley: authentic in the best and worst ways

I’ve been hearing about the new HBO show Silicon Valley (Episode 1) for a while now. I’m fans of Thomas Middleditch and Kumail Nanjiani, who have talked about it on podcasts. But I also saw the trailer for the show get some attention and mixed reactions from people I follow online. Most notably, some female feminists noticed that the only recognizable woman shown was a stripper…

 

Felicia Day also commented similarly:

I am sad one of the main characters isn’t a woman.

I will still be totally watching this. But yeah.

(Though remember this for the above links.)

But I was and still am excited to see a hopefully true-to-life depiction of tech culture, programming, and nerddome. Just like Felicia, I can appreciate something for its positive qualities while objecting to the negative. What are those positive qualities?

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The show did its research, I think. It references prominent tech leaders like Elon Musk, Eric Schmidt, and “Steve”. The trailer linked above leads with an astute joke on this common point about the difference between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

The show’s descriptions of developing technology aren’t extremely dumbed down. Middleditch’s character gets an investment offer for two algorithms he wrote:

The first compresses data an incredible amount. The details of this aren’t explained in any detail, and I doubt they will be. But it’s nice to see a show take a chance on picking a real programming task and choosing to explain its grander purpose without grossly oversimplifying.

The second algorithm is a searching technique that can look through compressed files. I myself am not intimately familiar with this: it could be commonly done or laughably ridiculous. But the idea is very interesting for someone who took a class on data compression.

Normally, files are compressed to save space at the cost of not being able to be used as quickly. A file in compressed state often isn’t useable: a “zipped” image’s bits don’t look like that image until it’s “unzipped” (decompressed). The combination of a special compression that can also be quickly searched is intriguing to me, even if it’s fiction. So Silicon Valley gets a win in my book for pretty authentic computing.

The different cultures portrayed in the show are good parodies or homages to real start-up and Google environments. The show starts at a lavishly expensive party, showing the benefits of being bought by a large company. The gang lives and works in the same messy house, hanging out in the evenings and being casual. “Hooli”, the fictional tech company, has a building that is the antithesis of Office Space’s. Silly-looking devices and products at Hooli reinforce the “cool company” vibe, which feels shallow. Impractical or faddish techniques like bicycle meetings or spiritual advisors are highlighted.

An advertisement for Hooli presents a company vision of meaningless appeals to a global perspective. Some of the CEO’s comments become prophetic in this vein when he mentions a commitment to “social justice”, which the show fails to promote in some areas.

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The character interactions and writing are also good at points. Middleditch’s character approaches and pitches his website to a venture capitalist, and the VC expresses the predictable annoyance from being worn down by this extremely common and frequent request. Ah, and the reason these two characters meet is because the VC gives a ridiculous TED talk about how everyone should drop out of college, satirizing the predictable pace and sometimes untenable conclusions of presentations under that banner. The show is smart and funny in these moments.

A talk between friends at the house about whether to take a buyout or start a company is conversed over ramen. Middleditch’s character has panic attacks while fielding offers for his algorithms, a common trait of the pressured, thoughtful introvert. Nothing seemed too far out of character: even the bullies were “brogrammers”, a real cultural phenomenon in tech.

Unfortunately, the accurate representations and witty commentary seen in so much of the show are lost on other subjects of the industry. Topics that could have been progressive and influential were missed marks, where show creators fell into the same traps the worst of the tech industry does. This is where “authenticity” becomes “oversight”.

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There’s a scene, around 16:00 in the YouTube video of the first episode, where the missed opportunity of the show so far is epitomized to the point where I grimaced. The CEO of Hooli is looking out his window, talking with his spiritual advisor, pondering why groups of programmers always number five. And how they always have individuals with five separate traits: tall white guy, short Asian guy, fat guy with ponytail, crazy facial hair guy, and an east Indian guy.

How the creators of the show didn’t see their own underlying presumption of maleness in the tech world and in the show right there and then I just don’t know.

There appears to be one woman in an important role, not counting the secretary to the aforementioned CEO. She is either a partner or assistant to the VC that Middleditch’s character will sell to. She is caring, knowledgeable, and assertive, from her brief time on screen.

But that’s all we see for major women’s representation. Instead we get a pot shot of male stereotype endorsement with the mention of a joke program that finds female erect nipples near you. For what purpose doesn’t lead down very productive paths.

It seems to be that the ethnic diversity on the show is aimed towards the predictable, known trends. Asians and Indians (though Kumail is Pakistani) are into technology and computing, so surely they belong. There seemed less thought to other people of color.

This is the negative side to the “authenticity”, the mirroring of too many people in the industry that miss (or worse, fight against) the simple benefit of diversity along many dimensions.

I’m going to keep watching the show, if I can. I shared many positives I found and enjoyed with it, but the lack of women is a glaring omission that really concerns me. I would love to get some kind of response to this issue, some assurance that things may change and improve if the show continues. I would love to see an authentic show about tech geeks that didn’t fall prey to the same issues that plague so much of tech and television culture.

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Now I want to hedge my criticism in response to predictable objection for just a moment. Not every show needs representation of every conceivable group and their individual challenges. I am not calling for an extreme warping of the intent of the show or its direction. These are strawmen that I am not presenting with my post.

But what a cast like Silicon Valley’s does is maintain the status quo in the tech industry. Men see themselves represented and ask no questions. Women don’t, and are less attracted to watch or participate. This cycle is toxic if we value diversity, different perspectives and values, or products and development that white men don’t think of so readily.

So even if it were the case that software development was entirely a male-driven field (it’s not), it would be good for the culture to be thwarted in a small way, especially in fiction. A show like this could be a beacon, a model, for how we could view the future and invite those different from us. It could humorously tackle new territory, address tired stereotypes.

My disclaimer ends with one more caveat: I’ve only seen one episode. Things could get substantially better (or worse) as the show goes on. But a reasonable hope I have would be for a season two in which a majority-female group with a product enters the cast, written in a non-stereotypical and illuminating way.

Like so many geek programmers writing the Next Big Thing: one can hope.

Edit: Middleditch was on the podcast If I Were You and struggled to think of 2 women’s names from the show. I think that’s unfortunate.

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