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HBO’s Silicon Valley Understands That the World Has Changed, But Tech Culture Hasn’t

At my first real job as a writer, I coped with my bratty, unprofessional bosses and co-workers by writing a cartoon about how bratty and unprofessional they were. My behavior itself was bratty and unprofessional, and at any other time and place, I would've been fired. But this was San Francisco during the early days of the dot-com boom. Most of us had gone from enduring tedious corporate jobs to playing ping-pong and sipping espresso with fellow youngsters in office lofts overnight. A spirit of optimism and possibility and raw greed ruled the land, and that spirit not only tolerated abuse from naysayers but faintly enjoyed the attention. Instead of being fired, I was promoted.

My two bosses at Suck.com had just pulled off a similar feat. After months of anonymously lampooning the gassy gurus of the internet gold rush (and urging others to "Sell out early, and often") on their daily website, created while working production jobs at HotWired, they revealed their identities and were promptly rewarded with seed money from Wired. So for five bratty, unprofessional years, they played the bitter eye-rollers at the sock hop, jeering at the popular kids all the while knowing they'd happily make out with the homecoming queen.

This is a high-wire act often favored during tech bubbles: We fancied ourselves renegades, rejecting the path well trodden by the herd, but we were never above accepting the lucre therein. Against a backdrop of buzz words and obscenely expensive launch parties and former IT guys partying like rock stars, we were alternately envious and disgusted, egocentric and self-loathing. We knew lots of people who would get rich for reasons as stupid as registering the right domain name, and people who would go broke for reasons as stupid as getting hired by the wrong company at the wrong time. We stayed late at the office and savored the excitement and tried to feel grateful and often felt ungrateful in spite of ourselves.

Almost twenty years later, the internet has finally fulfilled the promise — commercially, intellectually, socially – that the starry-eyed futurists and venture capitalists and internet gurus predicted (and we made fun of) way back when. Whereas "surfing on the web" used to mean sifting through hardcore porn and bestiality forums to land at a half-broken, cluttered webzine plagued by primitive, seizure-inducing java ads, today the term "information superhighway" no longer feels like hyperbole. The stunning range of facts and images and high-def videos at our fingertips, the lightning-fast pocket-size devices we use to access it all — these things we imagined and doubted are now taken for granted as mundane features of modern life.

Everything in the world has changed, in other words, except for tech culture itself, which still retains the brattiness, the lack of professionalism, the bloviating, and the raw greed that it had back then. Or at least that's the portrait painted by Mike Judge's new HBO comedy Silicon Valley. His characters — programmers, innovators, soft-spoken nerds, and champion sweet-talkers — demonstrate varying degrees of skepticism and hope and ambition, but mostly they're human beings who've touched down on a strange landscape far outside of their comfort zones, characterized by long work days and unreal levels of stress. The dream, of course, is that their labor will pay off, transforming them into tech billionaires, people who, as Judge put it at a recent event, "are introverted and socially awkward and no one is saying no to them."

This mix of avarice and unfettered ego and juvenile acting-out, so well known to anyone who's stepped foot in a tech start-up or a new media loft over the past two decades, is the heart and soul of Judge's comedy. (Which New York magazine's Kevin Roose says is "too nice" to the nefarious culture of the modern-day tech industry.) Rather than romanticizing the upward trajectory of the young programmer, Judge underscores the arbitrary and immediately dubious nature of this self-congratulatory microcosm. "I got seven words for you," gushes the young CEO of a start-up called Goolibit at a lavish party in the show's first scene. "I love Goolibit integrated multi-platform functionality! Woo hoo!" We can immediately picture this guy's awkwardness and eccentricities multiplying by the millisecond, thanks to his newfound power.

The end point of this process is embodied in Hooli founder Gavin Belson, whose self-consciousness and egomaniacal nature have only been exacerbated by years spent in the company of sycophantic handlers, spiritual advisors, and paid underlings. But then, coddling makes it possible to look straight into the camera, as Belson does, Steve Jobs–style, and say solemnly, "Because if we can make your audio and video files smaller, we can make your cancer smaller, and hunger smaller, and AIDS." 

Such grandiosity is repellent to soft-spoken programmer Richard and his friends, who share an open disdain for Gavin Belson right up until the point that he offers to purchase Richard's software for millions of dollars. The offer throws Richard and his fellow programmers into chaos. Can they run a friendlier kind of company, or will they become just as laughable and bizarre as the moguls in their midst? Can Richard get rich and change the world at the same time? 

Judge presents a community of fatted calves where the basest urges, the greediest, most backstabbing behaviors, and the most blindly competitive, least humanistic tendencies are rationalized away at every turn. Or, as Belson's spiritual guide puts it, "In the hands of the enlightened, hate can be a tool for great change." Richard's fast-talking partner Erlich puts it a little differently in an upcoming episode: "If you're not an asshole, it creates this kind of asshole vacuum, and that void is filled by other assholes."

What's most surprising about Judge's comedy, though, is how well he captures the free-floating uncertainty and self-doubt of those who live inside such speculative bubbles. It's hard to avoid feeling at once glamoured and suspicious, seduced and repelled. This is a key part of the electric yet smarmy energy of The Social Network, in particular those scenes where Justin Timberlake's Sean Parker orders glowing chartreuse cocktails and unloads a barrel of witty banter and big ideas on Mark Zuckerberg, hinting at endless wealth and glamour but actually beckoning in a new era of ruthlessness and isolation. 

But then, even during the first tech boom of the '90s, the idealistic refrigerator-magnet poetry spewed by internet gurus had a strange way of conjuring emptiness and despair. In navigating the pristine office lofts and flawlessly designed coffee bars of San Francisco’s South Park, it was hard to keep longing at bay. Longing is, after all, the domain of the very spoiled.

Suck.com was a relatively small venture, but its founders didn't manage to sell out as often as they might've liked. Instead, Wired sold Suck.com to Lycos, then Lycos bundled the site with Automatic Media. (Remember Feed Mag?) By then, though, the ad market had fallen apart, and the two founders, once snickering, conspiratorial compadres, rarely spoke. The rest of us scattered to the wind, most in search of the next fortune that never came.

Fortunes, it turns out, aren't so common as they once seemed. Eventually we had to go out and get straight jobs again (poor babies!), jobs that were less likely to include making fun of our bosses and co-workers. Content — that old term for anything you could stuff onto a website and get people to look at — was no longer king. Those of us in the content business found ourselves working for less and less.

Recently, content has made a comeback and been deemed worth paying for again. But no one talks about "selling out" anymore, since it's obviously the primary, unstated goal of every venture. And even though the billionaire gurus still speak in reverent tones about changing the world, most people share the same cynical lens we embraced back in 1995. It's clear now that today's most exciting, innovative, friendly-seeming tech companies are tomorrow's megacorporations, prone to gobbling up all originality and innovation and spewing out something far more predictable and disappointing. Even Ted Talks now feel about as inspiring and unique as infomercials. No matter how great your idea might be, your trajectory is clear: One minute you're happily hiding out on Hoth, and the next minute you're toiling away on the Death Star.

This is the ominous, inevitable future that adds an air of suspense and dread to Silicon Valley. Richard and his friends might be determined to do things differently, but how many other plucky start-ups have abandoned their ideals along the path to a big payoff before them? You never really know what you're made of until the homecoming queen comes calling.

Photo: HBO