An interesting article on the relationship between Silicon Valley the HBO show and Silicon Valley the ecosystem recently went up on the New Yorker‘s “culture desk”. It probes the fine line dividing the satirist and the satirized, at a time when internet callout culture demands strict attention to minute detail:
When you’re writing a show about nothing, or a movie about cubicle culture, it’s easy to collect realistic details. But if you want to know how a non-compete clause would be structured, or what kind of car a typical brogrammer would drive, or whether Richard’s firing would trigger an afternoon of malaise or a personal crisis, then you need to do your homework. TV writers have long consulted experts — a doctor to demonstrate how to hold a defibrillator, a military officer to make sure the uniforms are the right color. In the past, these consultants were often akin to fact-checkers, brought in near the end of the writing process to make sure that nothing looked glaringly wrong. These days, TV is taken more seriously, and everyone’s a critic with access to Twitter and Wikipedia. “You can’t fool audiences with unrealistic schlock anymore,” Jay Carson told me. Carson was the press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign in 2008; he then served as the Chief Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles. In 2011, his friend Beau Willimon hired him as a political consultant on “House of Cards.” “I helped us pass a smell test, both with D.C. insiders and the general audience,” he said. “Even during the five years I was there, the audience got more sophisticated every season.”
Bold emphasis mine. One hears enough about the revolving door shared by DC staffers and lobbyists. Moving from a PR job in Washington to one in Hollywood is a less discussed phenomenon, equally noteworthy as it filters backdoor Beltway propaganda into American popular culture, which is then beamed across the world. Consider House of Cards, a big hit here in China, or even a show like Veep, whose last episode centered around a meeting between the Presidents of the US and the PRC. The actor portraying the latter is a dead ringer for Xi Jinping, incidentally.
I digress, but it’s relevant as Veep airs immediately after Silicon Valley in HBO’s Sunday primetime block (following Game of Thrones), and a similar kind of insider-informed workplace farce is going on in each. Here’s the money quote from the New Yorker article:
Roger McNamee, who has been a successful tech investor since the late eighties, told me, “When I first met Mike [Judge], I asked him, ‘What’s the gestalt you’re going for with this?’ His answer was, ‘I think Silicon Valley is immersed in a titanic battle between the hippie value system of the Steve Jobs generation and the Ayn Randian libertarian values of the Peter Thiel generation.’ I had never articulated it that well myself, and I lived it!” McNamee recently wound down his most recent venture fund, which he co-founded with Bono; he now spends most of his time touring the country with his two jam bands, Moonalice and Doobie Decibel System. He continued, “Some of us actually, as naïve as it sounds, came here to make the world a better place. And we did not succeed. We made some things better, we made some things worse, and in the meantime the libertarians took over, and they do not give a damn about right or wrong. They are here to make money.”
(Pause to absorb the name “Doobie Decibel System”.) The whole thing’s worth a read if you’re interested in the libertarian separatism being preached in SV these days by Thiel and his acolytes, including more than a few sitting on the alt-right.
me pretty much
My takeaway from this article has been awe at Mike Judge’s powers of cultural prediction and influence. On a personal level, as someone born and raised in Texas and sucked into metal and punk scenes from an early age, Judge basically defined 90% of my teen pop culture between his animated series Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill. His 1999 cult hit Office Space probably psychologically inoculated me against ever getting a cubicle job, and his 2006 film Idiocracy, which I’ve not yet seen, seems to be the reality in many parts of America today.
So I read this New Yorker article and started to re-watch Office Space before bed last night, and I had a deja vu moment during the scene where the main character is trying to dodge his boss, Lumbergh, to avoid getting weekend overtime. I realized that it reminded me of that scene in The Matrix where Neo’s trying to dodge the agents. As usual, the internet was way ahead of me with this mashup: “Neo Hides from Lumbergh”
After a quick IMDb I discovered that Office Space and The Matrix were released about a month apart, in February and March 1999, respectively. The theme of radical escape from cubicle life would be recapitulated in October of that year in Fight Club. No wonder so many of my generation (I turned 13 in 1999) refuse to get real jobs, spend most of our time and money fitting into sub-cultural fringes, and secretly believe all of reality is a rigged computer game!
New Yorker again:
The show’s signature gag, from the first season, was a minute-long montage of startup founders pledging to “make the world a better place through Paxos algorithms for consensus protocols,” or to “make the world a better place through canonical data models to communicate between endpoints.” […] [Silicon Valley writer/producer Chris] Tarver said, “I’ve been told that, at some of the big companies, the P.R. departments have ordered their employees to stop saying ‘We’re making the world a better place,’ specifically because we have made fun of that phrase so mercilessly. So I guess, at the very least, we’re making the world a better place by making these people stop saying they’re making the world a better place.”
Hats off to Mike Judge, whose cultural radar is so finely tuned that today he programs his subject matter instead of simply predicting what it’ll do next.