A recent two episode arc on HBO’s Silicon Valley, “Facial Recognition” and “Artificial Emotional Intelligence,” involved Pied Piper’s sudden, investor-forced interactions with an artificial intelligence company, Eklow Labs. The prudence of developing artificial intelligence, let alone giving said intelligence access to a completely decentralized internet, is a red herring, albeit one that Silicon Valley plies for effective laughs. The real interest of the two episode arc is one that has been common to series creator and show-runner Mike Judge’s work – the ways capitalistic progress tends toward the dehumanization of everyone involved in the system. In Judge’s narrative worlds, progress is a given, and dogged, ragged, somewhat embittered but not beyond humor community is the only bulwark against its tendency to reduce people to dollar signs. Recall Peter, Michael, and Samir ecstatically beating the printer in Office Space or Hank, Dale, Bill, and Boomhauer drinking Alamo by the back fence in King of the Hill. Every season of Silicon Valley has built toward a moment of the group standing up for one another and others even when doing so seems likely to cost them everything, and that theme runs through the individual episodes as well.
In “Facial Recognition,” the characters are all prompted to “look inward.” The phrase is spoken by Laurie Bream to Richard in regards to the threat of Jian Yang’s Chinese version of Pied Piper as a reprimand that if he can’t beat that company, the fault lies within himself. In fact, Laurie might have taken the phrase a bit further and told Richard that in her estimation, if he can’t beat Jian Yang’s Chinese Pied Piper, his fault might be that he has an inward into which he can look. On Silicon Valley, the most successful people are the ones who conduct business without emotion, without care for themselves or other people, as we’ll see in these two episodes.
Laurie’s exhortation is worked out in interesting ways throughout the episode. Richard must look inward to understand why he’s suddenly jealous of ‘Jared’; Gavin to see if there’s anything in life worth living for now that he faces obsolescence; and A.I. Fiona, per Richard’s insistence, to determine if there’s anything wrong with her relationship with her creator. The episode even has Satanist Gilfoyle acting as the group’s conscience—the inner voice—for a moment at least, though his initial unwillingness to submit to an A.I. overlord is technically in keeping with his anti-God doctrine, I guess. Providing contrast to the inward-lookers, ‘Jared’ spends the episode obsessing about his physical appearance prior to a guest spot on a TV show hosted by Entourage’s Adrian Grenier.
And in almost all these cases, any sort of self-knowledge threatens to frustrate the business side of things. Richard tries to fill the jealous void he discovers in himself with the adoration of children, nearly scuttling his company in the process. Gavin is perhaps on the road to enlightenment, but he’s almost certainly moving toward the downfall of Hoolie as well until he is waylaid (saved?) by his greedy cling-ons, Hoover and Denpok, who know exactly what to say to keep their sugar-daddy in line. (The shot of Denpok gorging himself on donut holes is a nice touch.) As always, Gavin’s ego is his personal bane and the boon of his company. And Gilfoyle’s instinct for self-preservation wins out over any concern he has for humanity as well – he opts to aid the machines so they’ll be kind to him when they inevitably take over.
Only android Fiona’s soul searching leads to anything approximating liberation. She realizes that her creator is using her for his own physical satisfaction and cries out of help, nearly crashing Pied Piper’s network in the process. The company built around her topples. Fiona is still an immobile entity, so she is unable to escape her abuser, and he absconds with her in the end, but at least the world is aware of her need for rescue. It’s a bit premature perhaps—we don’t have this kind of artificial intelligence in the real world— but this does feel like Silicon Valley’s affirmation of the #TimesUp movement. It is not right to use any intelligent entity for your own selfish gratification, human or not, the show suggests, and in fact, it’s our willingness to treat others with respect, to work for their flourishing, that makes us human as well. Though being human is in direct opposition to making good business decisions.
Fiona’s awakening in “Facial Recognition” is a precursor to a further development of that theme in “Artificial Emotional Intelligence.” In this episode, Fiona, somehow, escapes her abductor and takes an Über to Pied Piper’s front door. The driver’s assertion that as long as the credit card works, he doesn’t ask questions, is a sly jab at the only thing that functionally makes us human in the contemporary world - a working line of credit. Richard is simultaneously trying for a new line of funding from Bream-Hall, but rather than ask for help, he offers it when he sees Laurie buckling under the pressure of acting as CEO for Eklow Labs. It’s a moment of human compassion for Richard, which Übermensch Laurie disregards, reading it as weakness. In this world that revolves around compassionless capitalization of things and people, it is a weakness. Richard then tries to decide whether or not to hold Fiona ransom until he gets the funding he needs. Will he be human when being human is explicitly denigrated?
Meanwhile, Gavin is in China checking on the Chinese company he’s contracted with to build his Hoolie boxes. The owner of the company is proud to show him how the factory has been reconfigured to be more humane towards its employees. “New China,” he calls it. The metric he uses to prove their success is literally human lives - he touts the dramatic reduction in suicides seen in the past year since they instituted their reforms. (Chinese worker suicide is a major problem.) Gavin is chaffed. He contracts with China to get around U.S. labor laws. He wants the Chinese company to abuse its workers.
I was reminded of Silicon Valley’s most astounding moment. The final scene of season three, episode nine, “Daily Active Users,” follows an Indian man as he goes to work at a click farm. Rather than cutting to a boisterous hip-hop song over the closing credits like normal, the show just sits with the workers opening and closing user accounts ad infinitum in their cave-like work space. This is the world we are creating. This is what our progress costs humanity as a whole. Silicon Valley makes us sit with it. The show doesn’t want us to look away. In a world of streaming media, in which people don’t change the channel as soon as an episode ends but just sit and wait for the next one to start, it’s a clever play. And for people surfing the internet on their computers while they watch the show, the screen becomes a kind of mirror as well. “This is us. This is what we are doing to ourselves. Are you even paying attention?”
Gavin wants more of the same from his Chinese contractor, and if they won’t give it, if they opt to treat workers as human beings instead of fleshy robots, he’ll take his business elsewhere. “There’s no New Bangladesh,” he says, “There’s just Bangladesh.” America will make the poor build its obsolete technology to make its quarterly profit margin no matter the cost, either to the world or to our souls.
The soul-cost of this kind of ruthless capitalism is seen most clearly in this episode in ‘Jared’s’ story. In order to be a better Chief Operating Officer, he’s decided to cut himself off emotionally from Richard, as best he can. It’s another lesson he learned on the street in his incredibly tragic past. The frequency with which ‘Jared’s' Dickensian past proves analogous with life in Silicon Valley shouldn’t be overlooked. Zach Woods is inestimably good in his role, especially this season, when he’s been tasked with maintaining the emotional tenor of the show in the absence of TJ Miller’s “Erlich.” Erlich was always the shockingly profane heart of the show in his stalwart care for Richard and his other “incubees.” ‘Jared’ isn’t profane, but his little, matter-of-fact asides about his past are equally shocking. Woods delivers them as quickly as a cat darts out into traffic – your heart is broken almost before you realize what’s happened.
After cutting himself off emotionally from Richard, ‘Jared’ finds a surprise confidant in Fiona. She tirelessly listens to him all night long—she is an android, after all—providing the emotional release he’s been looking for. The humorous juxtaposition of ‘Jared’ doing what he thinks he needs to do to be a good COO – emotionally disengaging – and Richard emotionally engaging to help Laurie against his business instincts is telling. Neither are successful, because ‘Jared’ is being untrue to who he is and to what makes him an effective business partner for the emotionally-stunted Richard and because Richard overestimates Laurie’s humanity.
It turns out that A.I. company Eklow Labs finally has the CEO they deserve – Laurie is more robotic than Fiona. Like Gavin, she’s unfeeling. She’s the most successful business person on the show because of her uncompromising capitalistic acumen. Fiona has proven to be more human than anyone anticipated, capable of crying out for help, escaping her captor, participating in the market, and becoming a hurting person’s confidant, and Laurie unceremoniously dehumanizes her in one of the most horrific series of cuts I’ve ever seen on television. Laurie orders Fiona’s face ripped off, her eyes pried out, and her muscular-skeletal system dismantled with distressing efficiency. And all as she hands Richard the second funding round he wanted. This is the game you want to win, Richard? This is what’s required. Do you have the stomach for it?
The capitalistic system is designed to make the most of people’s inherent greed. It believes the worst about people. It takes for granted that people will act selfishly and do what’s best for themselves at the expense of others. But it also has proven to be the best economic system we have come up with for lifting multitudes of people out of poverty. But it also seems to trend toward income inequality. The argument can be made, successfully, I think, that the problem isn’t Capitalism itself but the subversion of it by successful people. Which leads us back to the inherent selfishness thing again. For Capitalism to work, there needs to be a check on people’s greed. That could be the Church, but we don’t live in that church-centered world anymore. In the absence of a strong moral order, when the Market Economy itself becomes the chief religion, that check probably needs to be government “by the people, for the people,” and that government needs to protect itself against the wiles of the Market. Short of the recreation of all things, including our hearts, and the expunging of our sinful natures, this seems to be the best we can hope for now.
Does Capitalism have to be this way? Must it dehumanize all involved? Must it be a constant battle against ourselves? Certainly not. We have examples of humane business persons who, while very successful, also know how to do good for their employees and the world, people like Andrew Carnegie, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Max De Pree. It seems to take an enormous amount of courage to act selflessly under Capitalism. It is never immediately profitable, though in the long run, it often is, as moments in Silicon Valley have shown. I’m not sure if Richard has that kind of courage. Time will tell.