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Valley chaos beats ordered workers paradise

Mark Lawson

Whenever I am assured in all seriousness that capitalism can be swept aside because there are proven alternatives to the market, and there are people who believe this, I respond that of course the Berlin Wall never fell and those on the Eastern side of the wall are happy to be there.
     Bad ideas like socialism are hard to get rid of, but perhaps this is in part because capitalism is undoubtedly a messy business, and this creative chaos, in which the weak or simply unwary can be trampled on, is no-where better illustrated than in the half hour US comedy series Silicon Valley.
      Renewed for a fourth season to air this year, this series continues the general theme of movies such as Steve Jobs and The Founder (about McDonald’s Ray Croc) that the very successful capitalists can be demanding, difficult if not impossible to deal with, highly eccentric and certainly not nice guys. But they can also be inspired, give the consumers what they want, and remake society as standardised fast food restaurants, the internet connected PC and mobile phone have done. Along the way, they create vast wealth for themselves and others.
       Silicon Valley adds an extra dimension to this in that it pokes fun at the inhabitants of famous valley, where a young, socially challenged but talented programmer Richard Hendrix (played by Canadian actor Thomas Middleditch) founds the tech start up Pied Piper.
        Hendrix is a nice guy who wants to change the world with his new method of compressing data, but to do this he has to deal with a succession of wonderfully mad billionaires, colleagues whose loyalty does not extend beyond keeping their stock options, contemporaries who shamelessly steal his ideas, and the many pitfalls of the capitalist system itself.
        At the end of the first series Richard is strongly advised not to take any of the lucrative first round funding offers from the many venture capitalist firms that infest the valley, on the grounds that Pied Piper would be unable to live up to the valuation for the inevitable next round of funding when the initial capital has been used up. Instead, he should take a more modest offer. This is excellent real-world advice, which he follows.
        In the second series, he talks about using the company’s own servers to earn revenue to be abruptly contradicted by the company’s completely self-absorbed billionaire backer Russ Hanneman (Chris Diamantopoulos). Hanneman points out that if the company earns revenue that gives analysts something to work on, and limits it’s potential to investors. Why does he think Amazon took so long to turn a profit (the company now has a slim profit margin), but is still worth billions of dollars?  
         In series three, when has been demoted to chief technical officer of his own company, Richard confronts the new CEO, Jack Barker (veteran actor Stephen Tobolowsky) about a complete change of business model, and is asked what he thinks is the company’s main product. The obvious answer of software is wrong.
“It’s the stock” (that is, the company shares) he is told.
        Any survivor of Australia’s spec mining sector, incidentally, will probably give the same answer. Sure, the company may devise software or find usable mineral deposits, but the interesting part is how much it’s shares will be worth in a few months, and that means packaging the company to be attractive to other investors.
         Then there is the use of technology. In another episode, reservations Richard may have about becoming involved in compressing data for a major pornography site are overcome by the others pointing out that about 30 per cent of all internet traffic involves pornography in some form (a reasonable figure, as far as I know). In fact, as the characters also note, pornography has driven all changes in information technology, starting with printing – one of the earliest publications was a piece of pornography – and photography.
         Despite all that, there are few women in the series because there are few women programmers. When the Pied Piper team is about to display their product at a fictional tech show, the representative of the company’s venture capitalist backer (a women) reminds the boys that the proportion of women will increase from the usual 3 per cent to 13 per cent.
         “Meat market!” says one character.
          In another scene, two women in an otherwise all-male meeting are pointedly introduced and then thrown together. It is assumed that they will want to friends because they are women, although both women show irritation over this. 
          There is much else to make fun of in Silicon Valley. In one episode, the characters attend a baptism for the cult of LaVeyan Satanism, a real cult which has a following in California. The satanic priest intones a ritual about embracing all evil and the works of Satan and so on. At the end, sounding much like a Anglican minister, he thanks everyone for coming and reminds them that they can get their parking tickets endorsed at reception.
           In another episode, a venture capitalist is blackmailed into hearing a pitch for a new app with the threat that her colleagues would be told she smoked cigarettes out of the office. As one character observes (while coughing from smoking pot), “after all, no one ever died from bad heroin, right?”
           Socialism would replace the creative drive and eccentricity of this dog-eat-dog capitalism with ordered party meetings, presumably taking due note of the needs of the less fortunate and the interests of the workers. What they would get is an ossified society which the workers would happily abandon for the money-making chaos of Silicon Valley. If nothing else, the valley is a lot more fun than any worker’s paradise.                   

Mark Lawson is a freelance journalist and author. markslawson@optusnet.com.au