TV goes full nerdy, fleshing out the tech world

The tech worker, newly fleshed out on shows like 'Halt and Catch Fire,' is having a moment

Chris Vognar and Robert Wilonsky discuss the TV series Halt and Catch Fire.

Shall we play a game?

(Y/N)?

Y

IF Y THEN: Jog your memory. Circle back through every TV show you've ever watched, picture every movie you've ever seen, remember every book you've ever read — consider the totality of your consumption of popular culture. Now describe as many strains of computer nerds as you've encountered in those books, TV shows and movies. Don't think hard. I'm not expecting integrated multiplatform functionality! Just think of every character you've ever come across in the arts who has anything meaningful to do with computers.

Simple.

Oh, curveball: Leave out the high-waisted-pants-up-to-the-shoulders caricature. (As Mike Judge, creator of HBO's "Silicon Valley," recently told me, that type is a cheat, "a return to the '50s nerd.") And disregard the hacker prototype: My nod to Matthew Broderick and "War Games" ("Shall we play a game?") covered that. Also, don't include the socially constipated ("Pirates of Silicon Valley," "The Big Bang Theory") or the barely rendered, be it reality TV-based (Bravo's "Start-Ups: Silicon Valley") or reality-inspired ("Jobs"). And definitely don't include the techie-hipster wunderkind ("24," "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," every action film made since 1998) who can decrypt Pentagon secrets and reorient satellites with a flurry of keystrokes.

All right, pencils down.

You should be left with …

Probably, not much.

As vastly as once-sleepy Silicon Valley transformed itself, as profoundly as its innovations, daydreams and forward-thinking executives have upended every aspect of contemporary society — from privacy to inequality, political influence to job security — pop culture's portrayal of that technology kingdom, its billionaire kings and its forerunners barely budged from the image of the socially crippled computer engineer.

For decades.

Until recently.

This spring, just watching TV on Sunday nights, from "Mad Men" to "Veep," "Silicon Valley" (which concludes its first season Sunday) to the new AMC drama "Halt and Catch Fire" (which begins its first season Sunday), is becoming something of a lesson in how pop culture's view of tech culture has evolved, even developing some nuance and a few degrees of complexity.

On those shows alone, the developer archetype has been expanded to include: the businessman developer who hates writing software code; the software engineer who prefers coding but hates business; the tough-guy programmer; the inspirational cult-leader corporate guru; the frat-boy developer; the sellout; the savant; the naive genius; and the billionaire who claims he is changing the world but equates wealth and self-importance with gravitas. On "Silicon Valley," a character asks, "What would Steve do?" His friend replies, sincerely, "Jobs or Wozniak?"

It's no minor distinction.

On "Mad Men," one of my favorite storylines this season has involved the installation of an IBM System/360 mainframe computer, a gigantic blinking block that has become the show's most potent metaphor for change. It is so large and imposing that management had to remove the company lounge to install it, signaling the end of the casual workday. Few know what the computer does or why it is there, but it hums incessantly and seems to herald the end of a visceral, gut-based business climate and the beginning of a more analytics-based culture of passive aggression and data-led objectivity. The execs who pushed for the IBM (characters who were only recently introduced and show no discernible soul or loyalty) use the silver beast's hermetic, bloodless lair to plot. There are no computer nerds in sight.

Only a tease of tech types to come.

Keep that image in your head when you watch the first episode of "Halt and Catch Fire": Within 30 seconds, Joe MacMillan, a cocky former IBM executive (played by Lee Pace), is driving his Porsche through Austin, Texas, when he plows into an armadillo slowly, telegraphically, crossing the street. It might as well be named Don Draper. It's 1983. Look out for progress. Twenty minutes into that pilot, our brash computer designer with the nice car runs into someone else slow on the uptake, Gordon Clark, an engineer with marital and money problems (Scoot McNairy). Both work at a Texas computer firm, but only Joe sees beyond the Silicon Prairie: He knows he can exploit flaws in IBM PCs by reverse-engineering, by hacking. He persuades Gordon to help him build better, faster and cheaper personal computers.

When they go on a sales call, the designer, whose messianic, inspirational gurulike pronouncements suggest a tech world we'll know decades later, can't contain his vision. He finds himself proselytizing to businessmen: IBM has cornered the PC market, but it's not the future, he says. Innovation is the future.

He asks then: "Are you ready to be more?"

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