Technology + Comedy = Machiavelli

 

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.

There are 18 comments.

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  1. Brian Clendinen Member
    Brian Clendinen
    @BrianClendinen

    Weird, I love the show for completely different reasons. To me Silicon Valley and Halt and Catch Fire are a new TV genera. Drama about corporate America. As someone who has worked in corporate America there have been some good and decent movies about the subject but no TV shows until recently. There is plenty of drama and high stress in these environments but because the creative types are clueless and never have worked with the higher levels of people they just don’t see a story their because they don’t have any experience in it.

    That is even why I liked House of Lies even though it was less realistic and more about personal drama. The free market creates so much stress and drama in real life so I don’t really get why everyone has over looked it. There are so many great stories when it comes to business in America it really should as many stories on the Big Screen and Small screen as their are super hero and procedural cop drama.

    • #1
  2. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    I agree about stories about businesses or corporations.

    But this one has something special to center it–there’s a Peter Thiel character crucial to the first season; & at the beginning of the fourth season, the Thiel notion about progress vs. making money comes back–& choosing to take control of one’s ideas to be free. If you think about what the wunderkind is thinking about in that episode, you’ll see my point.

    • #2
  3. Brian Clendinen Member
    Brian Clendinen
    @BrianClendinen

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    I agree about stories about businesses or corporations.

    But this one has something special to center it–there’s a Peter Thiel character crucial to the first season; & at the beginning of the fourth season, the Thiel notion about progress vs. making money comes back–& choosing to take control of one’s ideas to be free. If you think about what the wunderkind is thinking about in that episode, you’ll see my point.

    Yes I due like how it goes to show that these highly successful people are not great human beings and give up a lot for their success. This is an extremely accurate picture because to be successful in this industry you have to be an above average narcissist, have OCD personality traits, and a little crazy to be willing to spend so much time. I have worked with engineers, and its a pretty accurate portrait of many.  The main exception is  they put a lot more of creative type personalities into the characters to make them more interesting. Most of these types are boring people and not interesting because they are so obsessed with only one or two things. Not that there are smart coders and engineers that have the crazy obsessive creative person type personality. They have found a high correlation between people who are good coders are also good musicians.

    • #3
  4. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Coder-musicians? Damn near Platonic!

    • #4
  5. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    There have been many scenes in Silicon Valley where I have to pause from laughing so hard.

    • #5
  6. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Yeah, it’s just unbeatable for laughs!

    • #6
  7. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Mr. Judge–& whoever else is among the writers was involved in this–also does a great mockery of sexposition, too.–Doesn’t sexposition sound like it would be some writhing young singer’s latest ado?–So after the technique of showing naked people discuss parts of the plot that have to be narrated was made so laughable by Game of thrones, the question was, who would come up with the best mockery of it?

    Well, in yet another show of the basic superiority of comedy to drama, Silicon Valley has creates its own version of this technique, one which involves no nudity. Men talking in a vulgar way about sex explain important intellectual or moral problems. Like the algorithm at the end of season 1 or the question of freedom in invention in the beginning of season 4.

    Mr. Judge shows himself in his own strange grandeur in this way. He connects knowledge seriously with desire while comically showing the even more serious thought that there is an incongruity between intellectual exertion and eroticism. Unlike the respectable view, they really are deeply connected; unlike the common-sensical view, that connection has a specific limit.

    This also shows that comedy works in two ways. One has to do with the fact that we are curious–we’re looking to be shocked by ugly truths. But we’re curious not merely in a gossipy way–we’re also curious in the theoretical mode of trying to discover the true reach of our powers.

    • #7
  8. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Things have gone a little too far with the general assumption that Silicon Valley is and will continue to be the main source for ‘defining the future.’  Fracking did not come from SV, neither did containerization of freight, the global impact of which has been enormous.  The companies that built out the commercial Internet structure in the 1990s (PSI, UUNET, ANS, etc) were not Silicon Valley companies. And neither Microsoft nor Amazon is headquartered in SV.

    There are a lot of exciting and high-potential things being developed in SV (along with a certain amount of ridiculousness), but there is also plenty of entrepreneurial talent in the rest of the country.  I’m happy to see that Steve Case (founder of AOL, among other things) has an initiative called Rise of the Rest to help encourage and support venture activity in places beyond SV, especially in the Midwest.

    • #8
  9. Retail Lawyer Member
    Retail Lawyer
    @RetailLawyer

    I watched it through the first 6 episodes and then cut the cable and have not gotten access to it.  I’m looking forward to it someday.  The garage door episode was so funny that it was an exhausting workout just watching it.  Its especially fun because I live in Silicon Valley.  The local free “Daily Bugler” or whatever it is ran a full page article on the last episode.  I think the show is so good its dangerous!

    Mike Judge is some kind of genius, I think.  I was a big fan of Beavis & Butthead.  Has anybody ever tried writing a Beavis & Butthead dialog?  Its an interesting exercise.  I just can’t gear down to that level of stupidity.  It takes genius!

    A date took me to see the Beavis & Butthead movie for my birthday.  I really embarrassed her by laughing too hard.  I might have needed help out of the theater.

    • #9
  10. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    David Foster (View Comment):
    Things have gone a little too far with the general assumption that Silicon Valley is and will continue to be the main source for ‘defining the future.’ Fracking did not come from SV, neither did containerization of freight, the global impact of which has been enormous. The companies that built out the commercial Internet structure in the 1990s (PSI, UUNET, ANS, etc) were not Silicon Valley companies. And neither Microsoft nor Amazon is headquartered in SV.

    There are a lot of exciting and high-potential things being developed in SV (along with a certain amount of ridiculousness), but there is also plenty of entrepreneurial talent in the rest of the country. I’m happy to see that Steve Case (founder of AOL, among other things) has an initiative called Rise of the Rest to help encourage and support venture activity in places beyond SV, especially in the Midwest.

    I agree. Demographer Joel Kotkin, who’s a kind of liberal, talks about the contrast between the New heartland, where things are made, & the Coastal periphery, where there’s way more speculation & financial wizardry, but nothing is made. There’s a future in thinking through that contrast–part of it, is figuring out what kind of innovation would be good for the New heartland!

    • #10
  11. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Retail Lawyer (View Comment):
    I watched it through the first 6 episodes and then cut the cable and have not gotten access to it. I’m looking forward to it someday. The garage door episode was so funny that it was an exhausting workout just watching it. Its especially fun because I live in Silicon Valley. The local free “Daily Bugler” or whatever it is ran a full page article on the last episode. I think the show is so good its dangerous!

    Mike Judge is some kind of genius, I think. I was a big fan of Beavis & Butthead. Has anybody ever tried writing a Beavis & Butthead dialog? Its an interesting exercise. I just can’t gear down to that level of stupidity. It takes genius!

    A date took me to see the Beavis & Butthead movie for my birthday. I really embarrassed her by laughing too hard. I might have needed help out of the theater.

    He really is something. He manages to bring a kind of insane vulgarity to Silicon Valley talk, too, & it’s just as hysterical.

    • #11
  12. J.D. Snapp Coolidge
    J.D. Snapp
    @JulieSnapp

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Retail Lawyer (View Comment):
    I watched it through the first 6 episodes and then cut the cable and have not gotten access to it. I’m looking forward to it someday. The garage door episode was so funny that it was an exhausting workout just watching it. Its especially fun because I live in Silicon Valley. The local free “Daily Bugler” or whatever it is ran a full page article on the last episode. I think the show is so good its dangerous!

    Mike Judge is some kind of genius, I think. I was a big fan of Beavis & Butthead. Has anybody ever tried writing a Beavis & Butthead dialog? Its an interesting exercise. I just can’t gear down to that level of stupidity. It takes genius!

    A date took me to see the Beavis & Butthead movie for my birthday. I really embarrassed her by laughing too hard. I might have needed help out of the theater.

    He really is something. He manages to bring a kind of insane vulgarity to Silicon Valley talk, too, & it’s just as hysterical.

    I’ve watched the show and really enjoyed it, but I don’t think what he’s doing is altogether new. His software engineer characters are pretty par for the course as far as software engineers go (at least the ones I know). :) Most of us are a little vulgar, hopelessly lost when it comes to business world politics and money, and in some cases, too smart for our own good.

    • #12
  13. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Well, sure, but just compare SV with Office space, his early foray into tech madness.

    • #13
  14. J.D. Snapp Coolidge
    J.D. Snapp
    @JulieSnapp

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Well, sure, but just compare SV with Office space, his early foray into tech madness.

    What I mean is, he isn’t inventing new character tropes out of his brain. He probably just knows some software engineers.

    • #14
  15. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    The genius of invention is making a story that resembles the world in an uncanny way. If one starts inventing out of one’s brain–what will come out cannot resemble the world! One cannot talk about Silicon Valley without ‘probably just know[ing] some software engineers.’

    But the LaVeyan Satanist? That’s stock in trade? That Jared character, though not a programmer?

    • #15
  16. J.D. Snapp Coolidge
    J.D. Snapp
    @JulieSnapp

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    The genius of invention is making a story that resembles the world in an uncanny way. If one starts inventing out of one’s brain–what will come out cannot resemble the world! One cannot talk about Silicon Valley without ‘probably just know[ing] some software engineers.’

    But the LaVeyan Satanist? That’s stock in trade? That Jared character, though not a programmer?

    The LaVeyan Satanist is the edgy smart-guy archetype; not always a Satanist, and not always genuinely intelligent, sometimes an edgelord atheist, but every IT department/development office I’ve ever known has had one.

    Jared is the epitome of the snivelling, business-oriented, functional guy. While Judge’s portrayal goes a little over-the-top with Jared as a past abuse victim, the way he interacts with the development staff is how many functional “guys” interact with us. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone come apologize to me for needing changes made to their stuff despite me never having been angry/crabby about it before. This is a relationship that’s pretty common between functional and technical people, though some technical people give real cause for it happening.

    • #16
  17. J.D. Snapp Coolidge
    J.D. Snapp
    @JulieSnapp

    The reason I like the show so much is that he’s created characters I can identify with.

    • #17
  18. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Well, there’s more to the portrayal than that. The LaVeyan is one view of what radical individual autonomy would mean. It makes sense that it would fit in the milieu.

    Anyway, if you like to see a more suspicious view of things & somewhat systematic, you can read my notes on the early episodes of the show, starting here.

    • #18

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