How Ayn Rand's Thinking Has a Powerful Influence on One of HBO's Biggest Hit Shows
Two weeks ago, “Silicon Valley” aired a scene that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since. Though it rather unforgettably features two horses engaged in the very loud, wet, and physical act of mating, that’s not exactly what ended up staying with me about it. Instead, it’s the conversation happening between the owner of the mare, a tech company CEO, and his irritating employee, who just happens to be that same company’s founder. Over the past two seasons, “Silicon Valley” has told the story of how awkward-but-brilliant programmer Richard (Thomas Middleditch) created a game-changing data compression algorithm and made it, with fits and starts, into its own company. But at the end of season two, the board of directors in the company he created fired him, wholesale, because he was a pretty shoddy CEO. And in his place they installed Jack (Stephen Tobolowsky), a non-coding business savant a generation older than Richard and his core group of founding employees. (Richard gets to stay on as head of tech.)
Within the span of just one episode (“Two In A Box”), Jack neatly dismantles Richard’s vision—going so far, in a “Monty Python”-esque farcical move, to “pivot” the company from user-facing machine-learning cloud-computing algorithm to B2B, security-focused, literal “metal fucking box.” Richard watches the sales team’s soft-focus promotional video for said metal box—“a rhetorical example of a bad idea”—with waves of disbelief washing over his face, and then in a fit of rage, leaps out of the conference room and into his car, to find Jack wherever he is.
That leads us to the horse-fucking. Jack has paid $150,000 for his mare to be covered by this thoroughbred stallion, and as he watches over the two horses sealing the deal, Richard emerges on the scene. With the backdrop of urgent neighing and gushing fluid, both distracting and carnal, Richard tells Jack that he believes this is a product that can both help the world and make a billion dollars. Jack responds, with the sweetest tones of dulcet encouragement: “Richard, I don’t think you understand what the product is. The product isn’t the platform. And the product isn’t your algorithm. And it’s not even your software. Do you know what Pied Piper’s product is, Richard?”
Richard, torn between encouragement and frustration, thinks he knows the answer. “Is it me?” he stammers, pointing to his chest, just above his heart.
Jack practically yelps. “Oh God no. How could it possibly be you? You got fired! Pied Piper’s product is its stock! And whatever makes the value of that stock go up? That is what we are going to make.”
The moment is, quite possibly, the most distilled critique of tech, capitalism, and the American way that I’ve seen—a combination of brutal physical comedy, as Middleditch and Toblowsky are conversing next to a real pair of mating horses, and unvarnished, clear-eyed awareness of how idiotic the type of capitalism we live in truly is, all the way down to its core. Adam McKay’s Oscar-winning “The Big Short” laid bare corporate human recklessness and the greed of playing markets like video games; Judge’s slacker comedy “Office Space” revealed the moral bankruptcy at the core of any regional manager’s bureaucracy. “Silicon Valley” marries the two with the particular brand of do-gooding, disrupting, one-percenter technobabble that has profound effects on our lives from an insular system in a rarefied community with bizarre, meaningless rules.
It was not obvious, at first, that this was what “Silicon Valley” was going to be. Unlike “Veep,” the show’s sister comedy on HBO, “Silicon Valley” is not purely satire. “Veep”’s delivery is joke-driven and cutting, an array of sharp zingers and takedowns deployed one after another, usually from one character to another. “Silicon Valley” is sharp, but its critiques are by and large embedded in the structure of the show. In last week’s episode, for example, “Meinertzhagen’s Haversack,” the protagonists embark on an elaborate plan to circumvent Jack’s authority. But in the final scene, Richard trips over a hose and scatters his top-secret, to-be-shredded plans in plain view of the entire office. This is less a punchline and more a gut-punch; it is not the characters that are funny, it is that all of humanity’s efforts boil down to nothing.
Which is why it’s taken me, at least, all the way to the third season to fully appreciate the dysfunctional atmosphere of the show’s rendition of the tech scene, which is where the show almost entirely derives its humor. From the animated opening credits that depict a San Francisco overrun with logos—which a Bay Area resident would tell you is not so different from what has really happened to that city—to the banal, khakis-and-polos-based wardrobe of the leads, “Silicon Valley” is steeped in its target’s culture. In “Veep,” you get the impression that though all the leads hate themselves, they force themselves through the motions of politics, either because they’re narcissists or masochists. In “Silicon Valley,” the leads are just embracing the madness.
And upon closer examination, especially if you’re not in a tech-adjacent industry, the circus of Silicon Valley really does seem like madness: Surface-level progressive values about identity combined with a ruthless opposition to labor laws and inconvenient community ordinances. Tech billionaires have actually drunk the Kool-aid in believing that creating cell phone apps makes the world a better place; mid-level programmers really did mourn Steve Jobs as if he was a fallen god. The tech industry is so insular and airless that its “thought leaders” are high on their own supply of hot air (produced largely through TED talks, natch).
Given how much is theorized about libertarian values taking hold on real-life Silicon Valley—with arguments both for and against the influence of the original thinkfluencer, Ayn Rand—it is intriguing that Mike Judge, the creator and co-showrunner of “Silicon Valley,” is widely believed to be either conservative or libertarian. (The important thing, as these articles suggest, is that he is not just another Hollywood Liberal.) He has not described himself as either on the record, but in an oft-cited sit-down interview with InfoWars, the site reports:
Judge told Alex Jones that his parents raised him to be a liberal but he doesn’t feel comfortable describing himself as a Democrat or a Republican because the two extremes of partisanship resemble a “religion”. Judge added that he had become “interested in smaller government kind of thinking” since he began building his own projects and was getting “penalized left and right” by the system as a result.
The best example of this scorched-earth cynicism, to the politically minded viewer, is not his seminal MTV classic “Beavis And Butt-Head” or the cult hit “Office Space”; it’s the 2006 film “Idiocracy,” which is back on people’s brains following Donald Trump’s rise to the top of the Republican party. It’s a comedy Judge thought of, he tells the Verge, while waiting in line for the spinning teacups at Disneyland. Two women in dispute over their place in line engaged in a no-holds-barred, “cussing” argument in front of their children. He wondered if the future would not be more progressive, Ã la Stanley Kubrick’s sleek “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but less. What follows is a story where, one thousand years into the future, only the stupidest people have chosen to reproduce, thus populating the planet with increasing levels of idiocy. To quote Matt Nowak at Gizmodo:
What’s so wrong with this thinking? Unlike other films that satirize the media and the soul-crushing consequences of sensationalized entertainment … “Idiocracy” lays the blame at the feet of an undeserved target (the poor) while implicitly advocating a terrible solution (eugenics). The movie’s underlying premise is a fundamentally dangerous and backwards way to understand the world.
I wouldn’t go so far as Nowak does, but Judge’s vision is unsettling for its breathtaking lack of idealism—its lack of investment in the future of the human race, really. Rather than use idiocy as a call for greater understanding, awareness, or compassion, Judge is content with unleashing cynicism without obvious recourse. “Office Space”’s solution is literally to burn it all down (via carefully cheating it, in the process); “Idiocracy” presents a world where it already is burnt down, more or less.
Which is to say—whether or not Mike Judge is a libertarian, he does appear to have created a libertarian body of work. Except that instead of government intervention, his bugbear is mindless corporate bureaucracy; not exactly Ayn Rand, but echoing her vilifications of mediocrity and communitarianism. In “Office Space,” Judge himself played the chain restaurant manager who demanded more “flair” from Jennifer Aniston’s character; the reflexive response that, well actually, “the Nazis had pieces of flair that they made the Jews wear,” is probably the most kneejerk anti-establishment statement in history (and also very funny). “Beavis And Butt-Head” is essentially a show about two idiot teenagers mocking the very institution that puts them on the air, via shit-talking music videos and making long allusions to the word “fire.”
The individual is always in conflict with the institution, and in this case, the institution can be government regulation—witness “Silicon Valley”’s ongoing plot about how San Francisco housing laws make it very difficult to evict a freeloader—but is much more often the wheels of the capitalist machine, which tend to satisfy the individual self-interest of one guy all the way at the top and leaves pretty much everyone else in the dust. In “Silicon Valley,” an original idea—the beautiful algorithm for Richard’s company, Pied Piper—is constantly under assault by rapacious investors, billionaires in pursuit of an iota of authentic vision.
Yes, of course: A strict Randian interpretation would argue that Judge’s vilified corporate culture isn’t the unadulterated laissez-faire capitalism that Rand so stridently argued for as morally just. But given how rapacious (and Rand-studying) a company like Uber is, for example, that interpretation holds less water. For what it’s worth, “Silicon Valley” also pokes fun at the Howard Roark-esque individualists tortured by the brilliance of their own vision; Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) is a pitch-perfect parody of the modern-day Roark, right down to the nonsensical philosophy, narcissism, and performed heavy burden of “innovation.” In “Atlas Shrugged,” the top industrialists of the nation, fatigued by the labor of making tons of money providing infrastructure to everyone else, leave the nation entirely to seclude themselves somewhere in the mountains. “Silicon Valley” is a farce of that same plot; the “innovators” that run an important technological infrastructure seclude themselves to a specific part of the world to brood over their many woes. Rand wrings her hands at their absence from our world; Judge’s “Silicon Valley,” meanwhile, revels in how idiotic they are, when they are all condensed to just one spot.
Judge’s ethos—developed over time, borrowing from libertarianism and anarchism and the purely id sense of what makes his friends laugh—is perfect for the idiocy of the tech industry. The show observes this entire scene, from Silicon Valley’s most progressive elements to its most conservative, with an equally jaundiced eye; this is why I can write a piece lauding the way “Silicon Valley” entered the conversation about women in tech, and the Federalist can write a piece, as if this is a good thing, calling it “HBO’s Most Subversively Conservative Show.” It’s sort of both, because it’s sort of neither. It’s mostly just cynical, about other people and also ourselves.
And if “Veep”’s cynicism is a call to arms—because after all, those elected officials are paid through our tax dollars—“Silicon Valley”’s cynicism is the kind of lie-down-on-the-floor-in-despair comedy of the pawns who are at the mercy of an industry they have no voice in. It doesn’t matter how much users complain, there’s always another Facebook redesign around the corner.
In the best of Judge’s work, he’s been able to capture how the most disaffected of us really speak and feel, whether that was the office drone exploding in anger at the copier/printer, the waitress at the TGI Friday’s encouraged to produce more “flair,” or the slacker teenage boys talking shit about music videos all day. The protagonists of Judge’s work are smarter than their positions require, but still hapless. And there’s a certain kind of compassion for the neediest there, one that Rand never could produce in her blinding understanding of human selfishness. Whatever Judge’s brand of cynicism roots its politics in, on those days where you feel the semi-anarchic rage of being just another cog in the machine, it is helpful to know that someone out there really and truly gets it.