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‘Silicon Valley’ Exits With Serious Points About Big Tech

Joe Nocera

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The sixth and final season of the HBO comedy show “Silicon Valley” — which concluded, sadly, on Sunday — begins with a speech.

Richard Hendricks, the chief executive officer of Pied Piper, the internet company he started five seasons earlier, is testifying before a Senate committee alongside executives from Facebook, Google, Amazon and, of course, Hooli, run by Hendricks’s archnemesis Gavin Belson. The hearing is about data privacy.

When it’s Hendricks’s turn to speak, he gets up from his seat on the panel and starts pacing (“I just think better on my feet”), grabbing a bulky microphone box so the senators can hear him. Thomas Middleditch, who plays Hendricks, is a master of physical comedy, and the image of him walking back and forth with a big microphone box under his arm is hilarious. But what he’s saying isn’t remotely comical:

These people up here — you want to rein them in. But you can’t. Facebook owns 80% of mobile social traffic. Google owns 92% of search. And Amazon Web Services is bigger than their next four competitors combined. … They track our every move. They monitor every moment in our lives. And they exploit our data for profit. You can ask them all the questions you want, but they’re not going to change. They don’t have to. These companies are kings and they rule over kingdoms far larger than any nation in human history. They won. We lost.

For the previous five seasons, “Silicon Valley,” which was created by Mike Judge — the same man who gave us “Beavis and Butt-Head” and “Office Space” — had gleefully skewered the inanities and pretensions of the tech industry. Who can forget Judge’s eccentric venture capitalist Peter Gregory (said to be based on Peter Thiel) inspecting the sesame seeds on the burger buns arrayed on his desk (all bought from Burger King) and realizing that a  shortage of said seeds was on the horizon — and that he could make a killing in the sesame seed market?

Or the time the pompous stoner Erlich Bachman, whose house is “incubating” Pied Piper, goes to a private dinner claiming to be a “pescapescatarian” — “one who eats solely fish who eat other fish” — and all the other tech execs decide they want to be pescapescatarians, too.

Or, in perhaps the single greatest line in the entire series, the ruthless, platitude-happy Belson, warning of a coming “datageddon,” tells his executives that Hooli’s compression algorithm has to beat Pied Piper’s. After all, he explains, “I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do.”(1)

But as Hendricks’s speech suggests, this season felt a little different. Having mocked everything from companies that viewed revenue as a distraction to billionaires comparing their treatment to Holocaust victims, “Silicon Valley” seemed this season to turn its attention to more pressing matters. The short, seven-episode final season had its share of gags and funny lines, but it also seemed to me that Judge and his fellow showrunner, Alec Berg, wanted to point out not just what was inane and pretentious about tech culture but what was wrong with it.

In the second episode for instance, Hendricks finds out that a contractor is using an internet game he created to collect data from Pied Piper’s customers — something the CEO has vowed his company would never do. When he tries to get rid of the contractor by collecting some of the conversations he has taped, the man instead plays them for his board — who are impressed with his gaming software’s ability to mine data.

In the next episode, a sleazy billionaire offers Hendricks $1 billion for Pied Piper. Why? Because he wants to use it to sell data he will collect from the company’s customers.  Hendricks turns him down, intent on creating a “new, democratic, decentralized internet” where the bad behavior of Big Tech “will be impossible.” That, he believes, is the only viable workaround to such problems as monopoly behavior and privacy violations. (The billionaire then buys the contractor’s gaming company.)

But the high point of the season comes in the fifth episode, when Belson, who has been tossed out of Hooli (Pied Piper bought it), realizes that he can create a new persona by promoting ethics in the tech industry. “Tethics,” he calls it. Pretty soon he has every tech titan in the valley signing on to his “tethics pledge” and contributing money that will allow Belson to build the “Belson Institute of Tethics.”

It turns out that every banal line in the tethics pledge was plagiarized from the mission statements of Applebee’s, Starbucks and other companies. Thus do Judge and Berg dispense with the hollow promises of Facebook and others to do better whenever they are called out on some new example of, well, untethical behavior. As Odie Henderson, a coder-turned-critic who recapped “Silicon Valley” for Vulture, put it recently, “Tech goodness is a naive fantasy.”

Needless to say, the crew at Pied Piper fail spectacularly in its attempt to create a new democratic internet. In the final episode, filmed partly as a documentary a decade in the future, Hendricks, now the Gavin Belson professor of ethics in technology at Stanford, is asked whether he thinks Pied Piper made the world a better place.

“I think we did OK,” he says wistfully. Judge and Berg, on the other hand, did better than that. For six too-brief seasons, they did indeed succeed in making the world a better place.

(1) Mocking the phrase “making the world a better place” was a “Silicon Valley” preoccupation. See here, for instance.

To contact the author of this story: Joe Nocera at jnocera3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."

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