Anti-Buzz: HBO’s Silicon Valley

by Andrew Emmott on May 3, 2014

in Anti-Buzz

newface-620x461HBO is currently running the first season of “Silicon Valley”, and now is as good a time as any to “anti-buzz” its depiction of the software engineering industry. It was pointed out to me that for decades television shows have been mangling the professions of cop, lawyer, and doctor en masse, so in as much as “Silicon Valley” gets it wrong, the software engineers of the world should probably remember that they’ll have to get in line to file a complaint. Hollywood exaggerates stereotypes, film at 11.

(Editor’s Note: Dentists too. As far as Hollywood is concerned dentists are either bumbling fools or sadisitc monsters. But that is another story)

Anyway, how I’m going to do this is walk through the pilot episode and categorize the gags as either accurateexaggerated, or gibberish. Let’s go.

In the opening scene we are treated to an expensive party which delivers two gags: Kid Rock is playing at a private party and nobody in attendance cares, and that the man who is celebrating his newly earned investment capital reminds us all that the best part of being a silicon valley start-up is that you get to make the world a better place. Verdict: accurate. Actually, this opening scene had me pretty excited to see the rest because it really nailed some things, namely that the Valley’s lavish spending on social events is often misguided, and that every company under the sun touts that they are making the world a better place. In fact, this joke about “making the world a better place” is one of the show’s recurring themes and it is a pretty accurate statement that tech companies like to spin everything they do as some great humanitarian good.

Next we see “the incubator” which is rather like a hacker hostel. Such living arrangements do exist, so I have to judge accurate, albeit begrudgingly because this is hardly the typical experience. One of the apps discussed in this scene is a “nipple tracker” which is certainly an exaggeration but a solid crack at some of the unfortunate and sexist applications that really do gain traction, such as this one.

Later we see the Hooli bus, (Hooli being the fictitious tech giant looming large in our story). The fact that tech companies arrange bus services for their employees is accurate but the bus itself is an exaggeration, as these companies don’t build and maintain fleets of corporate buses covered in corporate logos with televisions running corporate propaganda, but simply contract bus and shuttle routes from other companies.

Next, our protagonist encounters the brogrammers, who vacillate between exaggeration and gibberish.

The “brogrammer” began sort of as an inside joke in Silicon Valley, an exaggeration of the tendency among some engineers to pathologically eschew typical nerd culture. The brogrammers in this show are bullies and complete jocks, which is absolute gibberish, but to the show’s credit they are also depicted as competent, if not excellent, engineers. What is true is that not all engineers are socially awkward nerds, but it is too bad that the only alternative we see is the thuggish jock.

The two titans of the show are Hooli founder Gavin Belson and eccentric investment capitalist Peter Gregory, both men from whom our protagonist aspires to secure investment capital from. Gavin is a megalomaniac, and as such, is largely gibberish. The more human Peter Gregory is still, at best, an exaggeration. The subtleties of Gregory’s awkwardness play as much more real, (and funny), than the typical nerd stereotypes. A defining trait of Gregory is that he absolutely hates the idea of engineers wasting time and money in college, to the point of cartoonish exaggeration. However, this schism between those who value academics and those who don’t is a very real one, and it is good of the show to depict the anti-academic point of view, even if it is a bit farcical.

Our protagonist’s exciting new technology is not something I can judge, as the show keeps it vague enough to avoid scrutiny, but tangible enough to feel exciting.

The high point of the show, for me, comes with a disappointing caveat. The somewhat famous “fleventy-five” joke, where an angry programmer insists that he has his hexadecimal times table memorized, and demands “ask me what 9 times F is! It’s fleventy-five!” This earned the biggest laugh from me. Until I punched 9 times F into a hexadecimal calculator and got 87. It’s nitpicky, but it is disappointing that the joke was so poorly researched. When I can’t tell whether or not this show wants to depict engineers as human beings are as jokes, flubbing the nerdiest joke in the show makes me feel like the writers are more interested in going back to the programmers-are-fat-dweebs well.

silicon valley

The low point of the show, for me, (and many others, I think), is the “flocks of five” gag perpetrated by Gavin Belson, who observes that programmer social groups are always “a tall skinny white guy, short skinny Asian guy, fat guy with a ponytail, some guy with crazy facial hair, and then an East Indian guy. It’s like they trade guys until they all have the right group.” This is gibberish, not only for its obviously over-specific claim, but for how it brings this show’s depiction of software engineers front and center: they’re all just a bunch sexless, awkward nerds. For a show that so aptly lampoons the industry in some moments, it does itself a huge disservice by latching onto the computer nerd stereotype wholesale. Rather than produce a show that engineers could relate to, the show too often goes for the easy laughs: engineers never interact with women, have no fashion sense, don’t care about what they put in their bodies, and are timid and wimpy. (All of which are true of some engineers some of the time, sure). This depiction is designed to make every non-engineer feel more at peace with the fact that money and power are flowing into Silicon Valley at a prodigious rate. The worst thing about this is that women are not present in the engineering ranks at all. Even while the industry, (and classrooms), still skew male, one of the real virtues of both is that they put an effort into increasing the number of women in the field. The show, however, takes a very old fashioned view of women, which is that they are mysterious and fleeting and non-present, obtaining one is the goal of every geek, and the only way an engineer could ever get one is to become wealthy. This is gibberish, and offensively so.

But I said a few months ago that engineers are the new lawyers, so I guess now it is our turn to suffer the interminable wrath of a jealous Hollywood.

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