Harlequins in spandex and a can-can line of stilt walkers blocked Google’s commuter buses in Oakland this week, and it wasn’t a scene from HBO’s new tech industry send-up, "Silicon Valley." Nor was a less playful protest the following day, when one anti-gentrifier reportedly vomited on the windshield of Yahoo’s employee bus.
This is the challenge Mike Judge, the sitcom’s creator, is up against. Successful satire exaggerates what’s already ridiculous on a grand scale. While popular culture seems ready for a take-down of the Palo Alto set, true tales from the tech culture wars are already well beyond the atmosphere of the absurd.
The greed! The pretentiousness! The sexism! The libertarian naivete!
Trailers for "Silicon Valley," which premieres Sunday (April 6), tease the adventures of six young, disheveled male programmers stumbling up the ladder of the money-saturated world of speculatively useful apps and algorithms.
You know, like "The Social Network," but with fewer monologues and more slapstick. Nerds drink beer, drop IT Department attitude on girls who don’t get code and attend over-the-top parties where Kid Rock is the ignored entertainer and Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt (playing himself) is the star.
"You can’t call it satire when you are showing it like it is."
If anyone’s going to shout, "The CEO isn’t wearing a hoodie!" it’s Judge, the guy behind the cubicle drone comedy "Office Space," as well as "Idiocracy," a fairy tale foretelling capitalism’s endgame. (Also, "Beavis and Butthead" and "King of the Hill.")
Judge — who was a Silicon Valley engineer in the 1980s — is soft on defining his latest endeavor. "You can’t call it satire when you are showing it like it is," he told Peter Kafka at a Re/code tech conference in Santa Monica. Unwittingly, his creative team came up with a fictional app referenced on the show — one that allows a user to surreptitiously gawk at women’s breasts — only to learn that its analog exists in real life.
"You don’t have to make this stuff up, it’s already ridiculous," said Kara Swisher, noted industry commentator and co-CEO of Re/code, a tech news site she co-founded with her team from Dow Jones' AllThingsD. [Re/code is an NBCUniversal News Group partner.]
"It’s a perfect industry for ‘disruption,’ as they say in Silicon Valley," Swisher, who has a cameo as her suffer-no-fools self in an upcoming "Silicon Valley" episode, told NBC News.
"You know what will be interesting to see? If regular people not obsessed with the tech industry like the show. That’s the criteria. It’s got to be funny."
Whether "Silicon Valley" soars or flops, however, doesn't matter. It’s the attempt that’s notable — the first serious, fully-financed mockery of our digital overlords. And there’s plenty to mock.
From former Facebook president Sean Parker's $10 million "Game of Thrones"–themed wedding, to the industry-wide embrace of Steve Jobs' "cruel is cool" to the WiFi-enabled Google buses with blackout windows that block decrepit Muni transit buses from taxpayer-funded bus shelters — obliviousness has defined the technocrati.
"Mark Zuckerberg can call Barack Obama and the next thing is, he’s invited to the White House. That’s clout.That’s power."
But the most bizarre may be the tech overlords who respond wide-eyed and defensive to any accusation that they’ve abused the power, privacy and economic control we’ve surrendered for the convenience of their apps, algorithms and gadgets.
"That feeling of powerless, of being outsiders — that’s deeply felt in tech culture and it crashes against the shoals of reality," Owen Thomas, editor-in-chief at tech news site ReadWrite, told NBC News. Thomas, who's been called everything from the "Al Qaeda of Silicon Valley" to the "Perez Hilton of Silicon Valley" in his 17 years uncovering Big Tech’s back story, said this current crop of boy kings no longer sees an accurate reflection in the mirror.
"Geeks are no longer outsiders, they’re the power players," he said. "Mark Zuckerberg can call Barack Obama and the next thing is, he’s invited to the White House. That’s clout. That’s power."
Until now, Silicon Valley has enjoyed unquestioned respect and tolerance from both the political class and from popular culture, and thus from society as a whole. A handful of Web shorts, such as the Onion’s TED Talks takedowns and Funny or Die’s "iSteve," Jobs biopic, are a start.
But mainstream comedic movies, such as "The Internship," have been respectful of companies like Google, which carefully stage-managed the filming on its corporate campus. Reality shows such as Bravo’s "Start Ups: Silicon Valley" and Amazon’s "Betas" made with the full cooperation of Silicon Valley are analogous to those gung-ho action movies made with the direct cooperation of U.S. Armed Forces, from Frank Capra’s "Why We Fight" series to "Battleship" — cheesy, reinforcing of "the dominant paradigm," as they say in board rooms.
"Silicon Valley" — and the slew of similar satire that is bound to follow — open the floodgates of disrespect of the Masters of the Universe of Silicon Valley, sequels to version 1.0 lampooned by Tom Wolfe in the 1980s.
Once people start saying and thinking that you ain't got nothing on, you've arrived. Yet it's also the beginning of your end.