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In my other haunt, over at The Federalist, I’ve been writing about “Silicon Valley,” the laughingest comedy on TV. I’m talking about Mike Judge, the creator of “Silicon Valley,” and Peter Thiel, the mysterious prophet-billionaire. Well, I’ve got more things to say! I’m moving here from writing on spectacles in the direction of political philosophy–to put some suggestions to that secret teaching I have made into my title.
Everyone knows, the biggest new enterprises are in Silicon Valley. The names of America’s founder-CEOs, princes of our technological future, are household names. But who are these people? Almost nobody knows, although we all vaguely expect that, if there’s any future, that’s where it is going to be made. Views of the future abound at the movies, on TV, and in books, and they are almost always depressive, if not apocalyptic. How about the people by whom the future is supposed to come? Who will give us a good look at them? There’s hardly anything to mention on that subject, let alone something worth mentioning. There’s no Tom Wolfe novel about Silicon Valley.
The best we have, and it’s nothing to sneeze at, is Mike Judge’s comedy show. This is cultural criticism of progress in the service of progress. That’s almost all-American. He deserves our attention, because he’s onto serious stuff about science, mystery, and comedy. He deserves our praise, too, because he does his job well–his comedy makes the dwellers of Silicon Valley seem at home there. He shows their strengths and weaknesses clearly enough for human types to emerge. You get a sense of what these people believe and, partly, how come. This is not merely a man good at telling stories laughing at the vanities and unwisdom of dudes who are too busy with technology to notice human beings. It’s a sustained attempt to show the obstacles faced by imprudent minds. Well, why are they imprudent? Because they believe in progress. Well, what’s wrong with that? Well, let me explain!
Mike Judge wants to show you the relationship between technology, the future, and progress in Silicon Valley. I know people like novelty in stories as much as in technology, so I recommend watching the show after reading this essay and, meanwhile, I’ll refrain from spoiling any surprises. Instead, I’ll offer some startling insights, because I want to show that Mike Judge might save America! Sure, he has once again come up with something new and hilarious, but he’s also doing a public service, showing you what’s in America’s blind spot. And just think about how strange this is just by itself: Americans are a people obsessed with the future, and yet the source of that future is their blind spot!
Comedy is the source of our justice
There is more than a little that’s questionable about technology, but it takes a rare poetic gift to question it. What comes to us by that gift is a comedy intended to save us from a fanatical belief in progress. The worship of people like Steve Jobs will be ridiculed at its root–its root is the complacent optimism that the future will make itself come into being, without us going to any trouble. Instead, Judge creates a new social situation: Tech geniuses are ridiculed as nerds, which may be termed the view from the locker room–but the rest of us, who are comparatively jocks, are also ridiculed because we do not know how to deal with Silicon Valley–what part of America it really is and what part it really plays in how America works. Everyone’s coming in for some bewilderment in this attempt to reorganize America in a more reasonable way. What’s more, this avoids the ugliness of partisanship: By our laughter, we admit the truth of what we see, surprising as it is to see it emerge!
Somewhere in there lies in waiting a philosophical problem and the proud claim that comedy is not just fun, but also an insight into being human. The accidents an author introduces into his story mimic the relationship of chance to science in our world. After all, isn’t technological innovation all about making the implausible, not to say impossible, seem like it’s inevitable? So’s the persuasion of a comedy, which needs both a comedic conceit that shocks us and tight plotting–plausibility, if not necessity. Isn’t that how our capitalism makes yesterday’s fantasies into tomorrow’s necessities? The problem we face here is obvious in our science: Sure, once you’ve proved something, it’s obvious, it makes sense, and it’s taken for granted. It can be proved again and again in every classroom across the fruited plains, if kids are still studying the sciences these days. But this removes from novelty its mystery and thus deceives us about how scientific progress really happens.
For comedy, removing the mystery is a big problem: People don’t much enjoy repetition of jokes or movies… So comic poets have a reason to show you the comic failures of people who try to rationalize the production of new things, to streamline the future so to speak, and to own its sources. I suggest that the rest of us should pay attention for our own reasons: How quickly after miracles of tech turn into daily habits do we begin to bore of them and search incessantly for new ones!
To face up to the mystery instead would be to acknowledge that in science and poetry alike, however many inventions come, however many great scientific discoveries, you have no idea what the next big thing is going to be or who will figure it out or when. It also means, you always have to try to come up with something new–the mood of openness to surprises and the searching attitude that leads to discovery turn out to have something in common: Wonder. This is not to say that work is not a serious thing–but it is slightly closer to the comic view of invention and surprise than it is to the moralistic view that takes order to be self-sustaining and thus turns into something really tyrannic. Making fun of presumptuous people and institutions whose self-importance goes beyond their merit is really the way to prepare for improvements and innovations. Things and people have to leave room for new things–and there is a claim to justice inherent in the structure that makes worthwhile innovation possible.
The religion of success worship unmasked
That brings us to Silicon Valley, the place. The corporations there, and the American press, in a more or less diffuse way, are insanely trying to build a town on a mystery–to say they know at least where innovation will happen–to create a religion. Silicon Valley the show is an attack on the attempt to build that religion. That’s needful because America suffers from a new kind of success worship. People always find it hard to argue with success, but now we’re facing a worse danger implicit in the belief in progress. Progress has to start somewhere—wherever it does, that place is really in the future compared to the rest of the world. Well, there are social consequences to that implicit hierarchy: Success worship is advancing into a new phase–anticipated worship of success as yet unachieved.
If nobody outside the place can judge what’s happening inside, how do you know if the changes taking place are really progress? Twitter and facebook are new: Are they progress? Snapchat—is that progress? Billions of people bring these things into their lives—billions of dollars are bet on the success of these businesses. Is that the proof of progress, or merely the consequence of assuming progress has occurred? The comic poet wants a way to escape that kind of conformism, so he gives us a hero who actually comes up with something new that he cannot quite control. It turns out, nobody knows how to deal with him and few care about the opportunity to make progress happen. If you find the social situation plausible, this is pretty worrisome stuff…
You can dismiss this criticism as mere story, but there are amounts of money beyond your imagination not used for anything because the tech-genius businesses who own the money have no ideas they want to pursue. And there are other enormous fortunes, though not comparable, wasted on crooks and cons who sucker supposedly savvy people who prove to be too foolish to look closely at the claim to prestige by way of progress. On the one hand, there are the genius people who cannot find anything worth buying–on the other, there are people trying to buy stuff they’re too stupid to know does not exist. Either way, the future is in crisis.
“Silicon Valley“ is about trying to make something new and about who the people are who might invent new things. The strangest thing about the show is that it exists in the first place. In our times, the interesting things about America tend to be things that don’t happen. Every day, people make a living trying to explain why things can’t happen and why there’s no real future to work at. Partisan quarrels tend to be about who’s to blame for the fact that the future isn’t happening. Problems become more intractable and events more removed from our grasp in the telling than they are in reality. Well, here’s one exception to this tendency–“Silicon Valley“ bears this all-American burden with a sense of irony and shows that you can still get something done, at least in stories. But someone has to translate the savvy of the comic poet into worthwhile innovation for things to get better in America.