9:03 PM CDT, May 27, 2014
Shall we play a game?
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.
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.
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?"
He says cryptically: "Computers aren't the thing. They're the thing that gets us to the thing."
(More blank stares.)
As pregnant with historical foreshadowing as that first episode is — the Internet is predicted at least twice, and I suspect it pained AMC to have that Porsche hit a regionally-correct-yet-metaphorically-weak armadillo (a turtle would been so much more on point) — it does introduce us to at least two tech types that pop culture never really acknowledged: the businessman designer and the frustrated engineer with a life (minus a pocket protractor). That milieu is a product of experience: When Christopher Cantwell, who created the show with Christopher Rogers, was still a child in Elgin, his father moved their family to Texas for a job in computers.
"Halt" is not unlike "Silicon Valley" this way. It keeps its roots in reality, not quick characterizations or thumbnail sketches of complex professions. Cantwell's father grew up in Chicago and became a computer salesman at UCCEL Corp, a data processing and software company in Dallas. The family moved to Texas in 1982. Said Cantwell: "Two months after he (retired, in 2000), IBM bought the company, and IBM was always nipping at its heels. My father's life felt like a personification of the kind of character trajectory that we wanted to see. He would go out on sales calls with an engineer whose job was to explain to the clients in layman's terms the nuts of bolts of what they were selling. And listening to his stories, I loved how the personalities involved with the computer culture could not be more different. Yet these people worked as teams. That informed everything about 'Halt and Catch Fire.'"
It's this rich and little-depicted sweet spot where "Silicon Valley" also exists: A tech culture both ambitious and habitually staid — earnest one moment, aggressive and bullying the next. In one of the funniest (and subtlest) moments on Judge's show, Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), a tech gazillionaire with ego to spare, asks his smart-room to "Play John Lennon's 'Imagine.'" And the digital voice replies: "Cuing John Wayne in a mansion."
That, too, comes from experience.
Before "Silicon Valley," before Judge created "Beavis and Butt-Head," "King of the Hill" and "Office Space," he was a computer engineer in the 1980s. He worked for a Southern California military contractor and programmed systems for F-18 fighter jets; then he moved to Northern California and worked for a Silicon Valley startup, not far from where Google stands today. He programmed the interface cards for early hi-res terminals.
Not sexy stuff.
"Computer culture, for me then, was such an odd pairing of capitalism and a feeling that everyone had been a hippie and had ideals," Judge said. "Back then, being called a geek was a bad thing. So there was this strain of geek who was macho and built motorcycles and stuff to show they weren't a geek. (Developers) have never been just one thing. But now supermodels call themselves computer nerds. Had I been born 25 years later, I can see myself going the Silicon Valley route. These are guys I would have been friends with."
The Silicon Valley of "Silicon Valley" harbors its share of quiet men, men who can't talk to women and pathologically awkward men (it's mostly populated by men). But also, somewhat satirically, somewhat matter-of-factly, it hosts preening, angel-investor-fueled parties. The most sought-after coders have agents, the mantra is "Innovate or Die," and the busiest engineers take pride in having no outside life. They are also often so confident, "nobody says no to them," Judge said. They're frequently told the brave new world begins where they have pitched their tents. They can also be thoughtful, patient, level-headed and charming.
Not that this is a revelation. As far back as 1981, when Tracy Kidder published "The Soul of a New Machine," a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction account of developers in Massachusetts at the dawn of the computer revolution, he wrote of one engineer: "He would have been the last boy picked in every schoolyard game, the one who threw a ball like a girl. But Alsing is gregarious. He set out some years back to master social gracefulness, and it shows …"
Those real-world characters were influential to the writing of "Halt," its creators say. They're also like version 1.0s of the main characters on "Silicon Valley": modest, ambitious programmers who happen to be tied to a data compression algorithm with huge potential. Indeed, several of the actors, many of whom started out in the Chicago comedy scene, know these types well.
Thomas Middleditch, who plays the show's lead developer, is a veteran of 48-hour-long video game bashes; Kumail Nanjiani, who plays Dinesh, a Pakistani programmer, studied computer science and kept a day job in tech support at the University of Chicago.
T.J. Miller plays Erlich, a blustery businessman/coder who finds himself an investor in that potential blockbuster algorithm, designed by his friend Richard (Middleditch). Miller's own tech experience doesn't go far beyond working at a Radio Shack in Chicago, but, he said, the personalities in the tech industry have become so varied, this hardly matters.
The show's first season has been building to Sunday's finale at TechCrunch Disrupt, a real-life "American Idol" for tech startups that HBO actually re-created on a Hollywood soundstage. The network even invited dozens of actual tech startups to play startups.
"So that whole day of filming was surreal," Miller said. "These real guys would come in looking exactly like the team on the show: four coders and a business guy. After we wrapped, this dude came up to me. He looked like a lacrosse player, not a typical computer guy at all. He's like, 'Hey, I want to pitch you on my new platform.' And I couldn't help it, (the moment) was so weird, that I was like, 'Yeah, pitch me.'
"And he didn't miss a beat: 'OK, so it's a platform that helps get food delivered to you.' I go, 'So, like GrubHub?' And he's like, 'Yes! Like GrubHub. But with table reservations.' And I said, 'Like Open Table?' And he's all, 'But in one website. We have put capital into the domain name and blah blah.' I say, 'I'm not an angel investor, I'm on this show.' He's like, 'We're going to be as big as GrubHub,' and I said, 'Stop saying GrubHub!' But this guy would not stop! So now I'm thinking: 'Holy (expletive), Mike Judge is right! My character exists in the world.'"
The prototypical pop culture computer guy, historically nervous — and if he was a hacker, rebellious ("Halt" features a female variation) — has been transformed by becoming the center of the universe. Pressure, which plays better than social anxiety, has become the prevailing emotion. Influence and power has become the theme: "One of the best ways to write these kind of characters is to look at how a developer's problems led to their innovation," Rogers said, "which is exactly the story at the heart of 'The Social Network'" — how a man's insecurities and need for validation became Facebook.
And power is never enough. Many of the tech leaders on "Silicon Valley" frequently say they are changing the world. In trying to buy Richard's compression algorithm, Belson says: "If we can make audio and video files smaller, we can make cancer smaller, and hunger smaller …" He says this with the spacey certainty of a cult leader, which, indeed, is a short leap to make here.
On a recent episode of "Veep," which often keeps a jaundiced view of the tech world (as well as the rest of the world), Julia Louis-Dreyfus' title character visits Clovis, a Google-like company, where she is instructed not to call the founder "Craig" but "Craaaaig, with sharp 'A.'" In Dave Eggers' eerie recent novel "The Circle," about another cultish, Google-like company, there are signs around the office that remind, in a twee fashion, that "Humans work here." Meanwhile, the company and the developers who founded it are creating a privacy-killing, individual-smothering monolith.
I could go on.
But the nice thing about the deepening of the tech developer as a character is that, like the tech itself, this is just beginning. Layers of meaning are being added as fast as Apple is introducing updated products. And the mine is rich.
"Billionaires who wrote code and now tell people they are changing the world, who justify actions with philanthropy, even they don't exactly know how they got to where they are," Miller said. "They see the future, they won't take no for an answer, and I don't want to hang out them. But maybe I can relate."
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