Silicon Valley Recap: The Price of Dignity

Silicon Valley

The Patent Troll
Season 4 Episode 7
Editor’s Rating *****
Martin Starr as Bertram Gilfoyle. Photo: HBO/HBO

Bertram Gilfoyle has always been my spirit animal. In this week’s Silicon Valley, he and I bonded over our shared hatred of humanized technology. The tech in question is a $14,000 refrigerator Jian-Yang buys to replace Erlich’s now-deceased appliance. The fridge has a friendly male voice that has vocal tics like “oh,” “ahh,” and “umm.” “The tics make it seem more human,” Dinesh tells Gilfoyle.

“Humans are shit,” Gilfoyle replies. “This is addressing problems that don’t exist. It’s solutionism at its worst. We are dumbing down machines that are inherently superior.”

I agree! Despite being in tech for 30 years now, I am a shockingly analog person. For example, I do not use voice-activated anything. This means I’ve never talked to Siri and I damn sure won’t be inviting Alexa into my house. Because even when she’s not being addressed, you know Alexa is listening to you. She’s probably collecting all sorts of blackmail material on you right now, and she’ll sell it to the highest bidder while you sleep. Alexa started recording you dancing naked to “Oops, I Did It Again” the second you requested she play the song — and she, Siri, and Scarlett Johansson are watching it and laughing at your male shortcomings.

Granted, an ominous amount of data collection is already happening while you’re surfing the net or using apps and social media (see why I keep telling you to read those software licensing agreements?), but like Gilfoyle, I object to the patently fake human characterization that often accompanies it. It gives users a false sense of security, pairing the tech with a soothing, friendly voice so you’ll give software access to control your house, your car, sexytime with your partner, and a whole slew of other things that can easily be manipulated by an outside force. The first iteration of Skynet isn’t going to sound like Ahnuld; it’s gonna coo like Mae West.

On its fringes, Silicon Valley has run a clever thread of this type of paranoia throughout the series, most recently in the guise of Mia, Dinesh’s hacker girlfriend who is currently in federal prison. Just last week, the show played on the fear of personal data being seen by unwanted individuals. Prior seasons have also mined this vein: In “Daily Active Users,” a concerned consumer says, “The problem is Terminator,” in regard to Pied Piper’s neural net possibilities. And more than once, Gavin Belson has tried to use someone’s Hooli searches against them.

So, Jian-Yang’s talking fridge is not just a parody of Amazon Dot, it’s a sly continuation of the show’s warnings about giving too much of your freedom to technology. The fridge is always listening, and will offer to order whatever food it hears someone say, even if that person were not addressing the fridge. When Gilfoyle curses it out, the fridge replies “Aww, is somebody having a bad day?”

Personally, I found this appliance beyond creepy — imagine if your Craftmatic adjustable bed started offering assistance — so I fully endorsed Gilfoyle’s desire to defeat it. It will take the entire episode, Gilfoyle’s trusty server Anton, and enough power to black out Hacker Hostel, but Gilfoyle eventually emerges victorious. He replaces the fridge’s giant information screen with a mime making obscene gestures. He should have just hit the thing with a hammer, but that wouldn’t be a programmer’s style.

Before all that fridge drama occurs, there’s a bit of medical soap opera to wade through. Richard is back at his wisecracking doctor’s office, and to be honest, I’m not sure why he keeps going to this guy. Is this the only doctor covered by Richard’s Obamacare plan? When Richard comes in to be tested for STDs, the doc says, “But seriously, what brings you in today?”

“I had sex with a female,” Richard says shyly, referring to his unprotected, dismal dalliance with Don Melcher’s wife. “Don’t forget about Don Melcher, too!” I yelled at the TV.

The doctor offers some really bad advice about STDs before telling Richard he’s shrinking due to a calcium imbalance that can be reversed with supplements. At my last physical, my doctor told me I was shrinking, too, but he attributed that to an irreversible thing called old age. Perhaps Richard and I should consider changing our primary care physicians.

Richard’s streak of good luck is also shrinking. As soon as the beta of Pied Piper: The Next Generation breaks into Hooli’s top 500 apps, a guy named Stuart Burke contacts Richard about possible patent infringement. Jared offers to send a cease-and-desist letter, but since Stuart lives in nearby Mountain View, Richard offers to visit him in person. “He’s probably a kid in a garage writing code just like us,” Richard says. Stuart Burke is something far worse, however. He’s a lawyer.

He’s also a grandfather, an older man who admits he knows nothing about computers. This is a crucial detail we’ll return to later. For now, let’s talk about Stuart Burke’s most knowledgeable subject, lawsuits. Stuart has a picture wall of all the musicians he has sued, including Stevie Wonder who, according to Stuart, “never saw it coming.” Stuart ran a scam where, based on the copyright of an old mariachi song called “Canción De Amores,” he was able to scare musicians into settling for less money than a court battle would incur. It’s how he managed to earn 10 percent of Katrina and the Waves’ 1983 hit “Walking on Sunshine.” (As walking songs go, that’s better than “Walk Like an Egyptian,” but nowhere near as good as “Walk on the Wild Side.”)

Musical lawsuits brought Stuart Burke, Esq., two houses and put his “village idiot” of a grandson through six years at Emerson. When the musical copyrights scam stopped bearing fruit, Stuart started suing tech companies. He hands Richard a $20,000 lawsuit document, which leads him to the second lawyer in this episode, dude-bro attorney Ron LaFlamme.

“He’s a patent troll,” Ron tells Richard. Stuart will sue Richard, and if Richard settles, he’ll move up the Hooli 500 suing companies for more money. “So you’re getting off easy,” Ron assures Richard. “Just pay him the 20 grand.” Ron then compares the patent troll idea to limp biscuit — the frat-boy hazing ritual, not the band. Since I run a respectable recaps business here, you’ll have to go to Urban Dictionary to learn what the ritual is. I will say that when Jian-Yang’s fridge overhears Richard explaining the limp biscuit later, it orders Wheat Thins. The product placement on this show never ceases to amaze me.

While Richard meets with several software companies further up the Hooli 500 in an attempt to form a coalition against Stuart’s trolling, Erlich is receiving a huge finder’s fee from Laurie for bringing Keenan Feldspar and his super-hot virtual-reality tech to Bream/Hall. “This meeting is over,” Laurie says immediately after handing Erlich the check. Since Erlich thought Keenan’s delivery would snare him a job — and since he told everybody he was working there already — he protests. Laurie counters with $10,000 extra, but Erlich won’t budge. Even though he’s obnoxious enough to point out the high concentration of women at Bream/Hall and mansplain the term mansplaining, Laurie changes her mind and hires him. Perhaps it was the shockingly sincere way he utters, “I need this” that earned her sympathy.

The new job also gets Erlich what he thinks is floor seats to Oracle Arena, home of one half of this year’s NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately for out-of-shape Erlich, Ed Chen’s offer is to PLAY basketball at the arena, not watch it. After seeing the chiseled bods of the other VCs, Erlich tries to bail. “It’s okay,” Ed says. “We meet every Tuesday, so see you next week broseph!” Thankfully, a hilarious hoop-related injury relegates Erlich to scoreboard duty.

Jared also benefits from Ed Chen, if only indirectly. Zach Woods’s vocal performance as “Ed Chambers,” his Ed Chen–like alter ego whose douchey attitude gets things done, is a highlight of “The Patent Troll.” And speaking of trolls: After his big anti-patent-troll meeting, Richard takes Stuart’s call. It seems Richard’s coalition screwed him over by preemptively settling with Stuart. Now the price tag for PP:TNG is $300,000. Cue the deus ex machina machine, which generates the idea that Richard’s original Pied Piper prototype was a musical copyright search engine. Using the old app, Richard fakes out Stuart by pretending “Canción de Amores” was ripped off from a country song written seven years prior.

“That’s bullshit,” Stuart says.

“It’s not bullshit, it’s computer science!” Richard yells. I have found my new T-shirt slogan, folks!

Computer-illiterate Stuart folds, and though Richard doesn’t have to pay him $20,000, the victory is Pyrrhic. Ron LaFlamme bills him $22,000 for the legal paperwork for the failed anti-patent coalition. “You can’t put a price on dignity,” Jared says. “Apparently, I just did,” replies Richard. But a win’s a win, no matter how ugly.

Silicon Valley Recap: The Price of Dignity