Getting shafted the Silicon Valley way
We review season 3, episode 2 of HBO's tech satire
Recap If there was one standout moment from the latest episode of tech satire Silicon Valley it would have to be when our eponymous hero finds out he is being shafted by his new CEO while in the background a thoroughbred horse is literally shafted by a white stallion.
Subtle? No. Hilarious? Yes. And so our favorite valley TV show continues apace.
At the end of the previous episode, Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) begrudgingly accepts that he has to step aside as CEO of his own company, and instead focus on source code and toolchains as CTO, after ownership of the biz changed hands.
But with depressingly inevitability, what first appears to be the smart choice soon turns into something much worse.
The boys are excited to walk into their new office. The fact it happens to look like every other mindless valley corporation that they have been valiantly fighting against is pushed out their minds as they revel in the space, their new massive monitors, and the "separate professionally catered micro-kitchen".
In another characteristically sharp/blunt commentary, coder Dinesh is excited when the in-house chef makes watermelon jelly by taking the flesh of a watermelon, turning it into jelly and then placing back in the exact same shape on top of the original watermelon skin. It perfectly encapsulates the enormous energy, effort and expense expended in the valley to create a new version of the same thing. One that's cool, at least for a while.
As the season increasingly moves from mocking startup culture to taking potshots at the ethos and philosophy of larger corporates, it makes you realize just how rich Silicon Valley is in material.
We have the pseudo-academic mindfarts of execs lampooned in the "Conjoined Triangles of Success" framed on the wall of new CEO Jack Barker. Barker came up with the revolutionary theory himself and as Richard and the rest of the team are soon to discover, it basically comprises of making engineering subservient to whatever the sales team can sell.
And that sales team arrives, fully formed and unexpectedly in Pied Piper's offices endlessly introducing themselves before making a comment and informing the CTO that his entire revolution in technology is going to be boiled down to shifting boxes to enterprises.
The brutal realism of business realities is perfectly captured as the sales team's desire to make easy sales drives the entire business. Before you can say "change the world", a promotional video is on the screen in the conference room asking viewers to "think inside the box" and the Pied Piper product – complete with new logo – is a server that promises to keep all of your data safe, secure and walled off from the outside world.
It is the entire opposite of what the technology was designed to do. Richard's dream was to pull the world's information on to everyone's phone no matter where they are thanks to his extraordinary compression technology. His company is going to make another metal box.
And thanks to the conjoined triangles, the path seems inevitable because the enormous sums of money being spent on offices and catering and pointless gadgetry make it essential for the company to make sales and do it now.
The new CEO outlines his business model
There may still be a salvation, however. The now discarded competing Nucleus team over at corporate monster Hooli – thrown on the scrapheap to safeguard CEO Gavin Belson's job – have a sudden insight into how to improve their own compression software, bringing competition back to Pied Piper.
In another sharp/blunt observation of the real world, the team came up with the idea while being forced to work on bending their own company's search algorithm to pull embarrassing information off the front page of its own website.
Belson is unhappy at how a search for his own name brings up articles about the Nucleus failure. "Why are we allowing our own technology to dredge up our painful past?" – a past that happened mere days ago – he asks his engineering team.
"Are you suggesting we alter the fundamental neutrality of the Hooli search algorithm?" queries one of the team. "That's a clear violation of the public trust."
It's a firm nod in the direction of Google which has of course been under investigation by regulators in the US and Europe for amending results in the corporation's favor (do a Google/Bing comparison search on Google execs, you'll be amazed at the difference).
And so the problem moves to Nucleus where the departing employees are told that if they want their severance packages they need to spend their last two weeks at the company removing mention of their own efforts from the Hooli search engine.
"So we're going to alter the search algorithm?" asks a confused engineer.
"Of course not, that would be unethical," says a suit.
"So what are we supposed to do? Promote other website to outrank the bad Nucleus news?" proposes another. The question is left unanswered. And indeed are many questions about the behaviors of our favorite tech companies.
It makes you wonder how far Silicon Valley is willing to go in satirizing tech. Can we expect to see takedowns of the highly unusual lobbying that goes on in political circles within California and increasingly Washington DC?
Will the series dig into the ever-evolving but still opaque privacy policies of social media (cough, cough Facebook)? Will some of the unadulterated dysfunction of Twitter creep in? What about the cloying, unquestioning relationship between the tech media and the companies they are supposed to be covering?
There's plenty of material to work with. How dark with the series go? It may not matter. Even if producer Mike Judge doesn't go for these targets, we'll still have the horses' willies to enjoy. ®