The Helpless Masochism of Mike Judge's "Silicon Valley"

A close look at Mike Judge's new sitcom about the tech world, "Silicon Valley."

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Complex Original

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When Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley debuts on HBO tonight, it will land a righteous blow against an industry that has had it coming for a long time.

There has been no shortage of ridicule for the tech world, of course, from academics like Evgeny Morozov to the stalker-ish rubbernecking of Valleywag. But these rhetorical inventions have a way of turning into background noise, skeptics who can articulate all the problems with Google Glass and computerized forks but still fail to speak to the yearning for progress and self-betterment that draws people to Utopian technologies in the first place.

And the sternest critics must still admit that their critiques of hoodie-wearing engineers are written on Macbook Airs and published over Wifi, sipping $4 Americanos and hate-streaming Future Islands on Spotify. Even the most popular criticism of tech excess makes the basic concession of existing in a digital medium that would not exist without the very thing it presumes to condemn. And though it is hard to explain exactly how and why, the most intimate and incisive critiques must always be products of love. To hate the way something gets used in the world is to make an implicit claim for the much abused virtue in the thing itself. 

The plot for Silicon Valley follows a guileless coder whose small company is suddenly given a huge sum of venture capital, hopefully transforming it from bedroom gambit to global institution. 'If we can make audio and video files smaller,' one of the investors says, 'we can make cancer smaller.'

Loving attachment has always been the backdrop of Mike Judge’s comedies. Even the stupidest and most immoral moments of Beavis and Butthead slapstick had an affection for ingenious stupidity turned loose in the world. The engine of comedy in Judge’s work is never the reckless or offensive act itself, but how the world in which those acts take place is incapable of responding to it without becoming even stupider. The purity of human life is always in question in Judge’s work, and the humor comes from the tension between those who can’t accept the lowly predestination of their primate brains and those who take huge pleasure in it.

In a profile for Wired, Judge recalled his own early-adult days working for a tech startup in the late 80s, which served for inspiration of his newest diorama of stupidity. “It really felt like a cult,” he said. “The people I met were like Stepford Wives. They were true believers in something and I don’t know what it was.”

The plot for Silicon Valley follows a guileless coder whose small company is suddenly given a huge sum of venture capital, hopefully transforming it from bedroom gambit to global institution. “If we can make audio and video files smaller,” one of the investors says, “we can make cancer smaller.”

Logical fallacies combined with limitless optimism have always been the biggest target on the tech industry’s back, and jokes like these convey a kind of wisdom that feels comfortingly familiar and unchallenging. Rather than impart new knowledge, it frames an old and discomforting idea in a way that makes it easier to accept. Incoherence becomes a force of nature. For some this is the danger of euphemistic comedies about the world’s most broken bits. “The funniest parts of Silicon Valley might be techies trying to change the world and failing,” Kevin Roose writes in New York. “But the scariest parts are the ways in which they’re succeeding.”

The ways in which Silicon Valley has succeeded in changing the world has less to do with the existential incompetence of humans than it does with structures that allow the incompetent to swell to such grotesque proportions.

Perhaps this is why it’s been so easy for so many to like Silicon Valley. It pacifies our growing unease with technology by assuring us that those in charge of the huge stores of money from which these problems flow are aware of the issues. Even Judge seems conscious of the absurdity of his role as both a dramatist and boss of dozens of unionized laborers. “I started out making these little cartoons, working on my own,” he told Wired, “and suddenly I’m in charge of 60 people. I don’t like telling people what to do. But I do really like building something and making it work.”

The irony of satires like Silicon Valley is that they ensure that “building something” must always come along with being in charge of dozens or hundreds or thousands of people. It’s not real until it happens on a scale big enough to justify bosses. Yet, the more we laugh at shows like Silicon Valley, the more we signal that we are willing to remain where we are, seated members of an audience ready to cheerlead whatever new invention claims to speak our truths so we won’t have to risk it on our own.

Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry,, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.

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