HBO’s Silicon Valley and the moralization of capital

Christian Patterson
2018-10-02
Underground Mall

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I have been watching HBO’s show Silicon Valley lately. I’d never seen it before, and it’s pretty good. Just a warning, I’m going to briefly describe my opinion on the show’s quality, then quickly transition into analysis.

For one, I’m a much bigger fan of the conventional sitcom “Set up–>punchline–>laugh track” formula, and Silicon Valley is more in the Louie vein of tv dramedies that have 4.5 jokes an episode with long, slow build-ups. Silicon Valley is faster paced than something like Louie or Baskets, but still has that same pace.

The main narrative of the show, and one that is started and restarted in several different ways throughout the series, is the process of launching an app. To be honest, this narrative gets old, because it comes in phases (“We have to find investors! Oh, now we have to launch our beta! Oh, now we have to launch the full app!”) and feels like treading water after awhile.

But what the show does very well is portray some of the depth and idiosyncrasies that come with a world dominated by finance capitalism, a massive private tech sector, and venture capital. From this contextt, the show is able to present “ethical” dilemmas that are pretty narrowly applicable to this specific world.

Because of that context, where capital dominates everything, the show’s ethical systems are perfectly aligned with a capitalist system. This can’t be more clear than with the main ethical dilemma in the first season. Our protagonist Richard and his friends developed an app called Pied Piper. Two people express interest in this app: one is the president of Hooli, the show’s equivalent of Google. The other is a Peter Thiel-esque, private angel investor.

The Google symbol offers Richard $10 million to buy his app. The Peter Thiel symbol offers something like $200,000 in investment, and gives Richard access to resources.

The show immediately moralizes this, as if it’s an obvious situation: taking the capital is the “good” choice and taking the money is the “bad” choice. Nevermind the fact that $10 million is enough money that you could spend the next 2 years making an amazing app, funded by yourself, on your own time, and still have millions of extra money, either in investments or retirement funds. The show doesn’t acknowledge how $10 million could easily be converted into more capital than the small amount of actual capital he receives. In other words, the show treats capital (ie PROPERTY) as fundamentally more “good” than conventional everyday money. Capital is treated as wholly good, even though capital and money share the same currency. The show not only moralizes capital, but it treats capital and money as different and incompatible currencies.

Another example is in season 4, when Erlich is completely broke, and must divest in Pied Piper, in order to pay off money. Richard takes Erlich’s divestment as the biggest personal attack possible. In fact, it might be the only moment in the show when Richard is genuinely personally pissed off at someone, because most of the show’s conflict is based on business disputes rather than personal feuds (and yet, this personal feud is rooted in a business dispute).

On one hand, this is a good creative choice for the show. In the world of Silicon Valley, capital and investment is clearly the class-defining currencies. It’s also a place where capital flows relatively freely (compared to say, if you worked in retail, where capital will never flow to you for any circumstance). Capital, not regular money earned through wages and salaries, is Silicon Valley’s key economic and cultural element.

My issue with the show, however, is their representation of this dynamic of capital is very present in this show. The show displays the moralization of capital very well. BUT, the show doesn’t do anything to show how this impacts anything. It doesn’t even know its moralizing capital. It just does it, because the show is an accurate impression of a world like this. However, it doesn’t do anything more than impress this material condition on to our screen. The show has nothing to say about this dynamic, and almost doesn’t seem aware that this is the dynamic, even though it’s ostensibly what the show is commenting on.

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