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The Face in the Computer Screen: Millennial Truisms of Silicon Valley

HBO’s comedy about a beleaguered tech start-up will have most college students asking when the satire starts.

Since its debut in April 2014, HBO’s satire of business in Silicon Valley has quickly turned into a massive success, scooping up Emmy nominations by the handful and becoming a business practice norm in the very region it satirizes.

Centered around a group of luckless coders and business personnel trying to build their space in a malicious tech world, the star series’ comedically fresh take on a niche world has received widespread praise from both critics and audiences. Known not just for its comedic wit, “Silicon Valley” has charmed viewers with its often painfully incisive take on the modern working world.

Creators of the show Mike Judge (“Office Space,” “Beavis and Butt-Head”) and Alec Berg (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) have admitted that its mimetic accuracy is the product of meetings with startups and their own observations of the millennial working world.

Famous for his debut film “Office Space,” Mike Judge is no stranger to finding hilarious details in the seemingly mundane. In “Office Space,” Judge explores themes of work life and the anodyne monotony of the white-collar working world. Partially inspired by his time as an engineer in the tech hub during the 80s, “Silicon Valley” similarly features the endearing portrayal of tech industry workers and witty one-liner’s that made “Office Space” a cult classic. Even as a comedic commentary on the ironies of tech culture though, “Silicon Valley” bases its bizarre world on truth—often reflecting realities about the millennial work force that are as startling in real life as they are in television, though usually much less hilarious.

One of the most commonly encountered ironies in the tech world is companies’ mission to “make the world a better place.” A better place for whom and for what is seemingly secondary. Ethical convolution and the implications of large tech corporations are both seen as ancillary concerns in the whirlwind of the Valley’s competitive atmosphere. In the effort to attain widespread appeal, an altruistic mission statement is often just another tool in the PR tool belt. But as Mike Judge pointed out at a “Silicon Valley” panel at SXSW 2016, there’s an inherent discord between company-sponsored innovation and altruism. In other words, when an institution is making hundreds of millions of dollars in the process, how can it claim to be selfless?

The tendency of tech companies to blow the altruism bugle is frequently demonstrated by the show’s imaginary big-dollar company Hooli, and its inflammatory CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), who also serves as the show’s antagonist. As the Goliath in the show’s David and Goliath dynamic, Hooli exemplifies all the ironies of the specious goodwill practiced by tech company marketers.

In the words of Belson himself, “I don’t know about you people, but I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do.”

Belson’s ass-backwards attitude toward altruism encapsulates the problem: In Silicon Valley, goodwill is just a competitive asset, an image to be crafted and utilized in future endeavors.

The trend toward seeking public approval isn’t limited to the tech world, though. When large companies like Starbucks or Target prominently feature their commitment to organic foods or recycling, they encourage their customers and workforce to involve themselves in the effort. Although these strategies often result in a greater amount of good for the planet, they debase the nature of altruism, in that the goodwill comes as a result of corporate self-styling.

Among the team members at Pied Piper, the sole business mind of the start-up, Jared Dunn (Zach Woods), contrasts this corporate phoniness. Compared to the posturing of Hooli, Dunn epitomizes the earnestness of start-ups. Initially an assistant for Gavin Belson before quitting to join Pied Piper, Woods has described the character he plays, a highly competent, self-sacrificing businessman, as a “corporate drone.”

As the show progresses, Jared becomes the antithesis—a genuinely altruistic tech entrepreneur. Often hilariously, Woods’ character is shown to be selfless in his dedication to Pied Piper, living in the garage for an extended amount of time without anyone noticing and installing various business devices around throughout the incubator that houses them. Through his dedication and business acumen, Jared exemplifies the greatest values of the millennial workforce.

On the other hand, the millennial workforce is not all so morally upstanding. Recurring characters in “Silicon Valley,” Hooli programmers Aly (Aly Mawji) and Jason (Brian Tichnell) appear consistently as minor antagonists. Self-assured and entitled, the Hooli pair represent the worst in millennial work culture. According to a work survey by the popular online freelancing site, approximately 80 percent of the millennial workforce are narcissistically inclined and less open to teamwork.

Pied Piper on the other hand, the start-up created by the show’s frequently vomiting protagonist Richard Hendrix (Thomas Middleditch), represents the redeeming values of the millennial workforce. As the underdog fighting against the fast-rising tidewaters of the corporate world, Pied Piper has encountered dozens of challenges and pitfalls across the three seasons of “Silicon Valley.” Their human follies regularly land them in tight spots, but it’s their imperfections that provide the team with its strength.

Unlike Hooli and other corporate cultures that strive to fabricate an appearance of ethical motivations and engineering competence, Pied Piper highlights the ingenuity that makes the millennial workforce so powerful. In 2014, 60 percent of millennials identified as entrepreneurs, and more than 90 percent recognized entrepreneurialism as a mindset. Today’s workforce is demonstrating the original thought and power of perseverance that “Silicon Valley’s” Pied Piper team so readily represents.

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