Parody and paranoia
How ‘Silicon Valley’ and ‘The Circle’ explore high tech and low motives
If it hadn’t happened in real life, the HBO comedy “Silicon Valley” surely would have invented Juicero. Pitched as “Keurig for juice,” the WiFi-enabled product collected over $120 million in venture capital with the promise that tech-savvy health nuts would shell out $400 for the hardware and $5 to $8 for disposable, precut “produce packs.”
But in mid-April, Juicero turned into a folly for the ages, after two Bloomberg reporters discovered that they could get close to the promised eight ounces of juice simply by squeezing a produce pack for 90 seconds. Social media was abuzz with Juicero jokes when Alec Berg, a frequent writer and director on “Silicon Valley,” called to discuss the reallife quirks and anxieties the show so scrupulously reflects.
“In general, venture capitalists don’t know the difference, going in, between a $10 billion idea and something that’s going to blow out in three months,” Berg says. “But Juicero has raised hundreds of millions of dollars, so there is a sweet, delicious irony to the idea that there’s a version of the Juicero machine that’s free, and it’s called ‘your hands.’ ”
Less than a week after “Silicon Valley” premiered its fourth season, “The Circle,” starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, hit theaters nationwide. Based on Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel about the diabolical corporate culture at a Facebook-like tech behemoth, “The Circle” would seem to have little in common with “Silicon Valley,” save for a corporate campus that resembles one of those state-of-the-art, candy-colored playgrounds for engineers and “visionaries.” One is an affectionate parody of Valley excess, the other a Snowden-era updating of '70s paranoid thrillers such as “The Conversation” and “The Parallax View.” Yet each captures the tenor of uncertain and rapidly changing times, as the Valley’s vaunted ideals are getting squeezed like so much handpressed juice.
Consider one of President Trump’s early legislative victories, a rollback of privacy protections for Internet users. Under the new law, Internet providers such as Comcast and AT&T will have an easier time collecting and selling the browser histories and app usage of its subscribers.
For many, including the protesters who raised $200,000 to buy the private data of members of Congress — which is not possible, incidentally — the involuntary giveaway of personal information seemed like the Information Superhighway in reverse. Instead of users having a window on the world, the world would have a window onto us. This perverse twist on “transparency” is a core theme of “The Circle.”
“I think Silicon Valley has roots in social justice and disruption and democratic” principles, says James Ponsoldt, director of “The Circle.” “I think that’s the perception, anyway. The snag for most, I think, is that if someone wants to send something to outer space or map the mind or give away free apps, that’s all well and good. But why does our data have to be acquired, stored and, in some cases, potentially monetized? The simplest answer is, to sell to us and make us better consumers, but there’s many more paranoid answers, too.”
In “The Circle,” Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is initially thrilled to get a job in customer service at the eponymous company, which its co-founder, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), has promoted as a limitless provider of hightech solutions to the planet’s most vexing problems. With his casual dress and stirring corporate oratories, Bailey is not unlike Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) on “Silicon Valley,” a messianic Steve Jobs type with the values of an Industrial Age robber baron. After some coercion, Mae agrees to make herself fully “transparent,” allowing her every waking moment to be broadcast to millions of “Circlers” worldwide.
It might sound like an oppressive and invasive experience — and, spoiler alert, it is — but Mae’s experiment is an extreme version of a trade-off that many make on social media every day: In exchange for community and the dopamine rush of likes and retweets, we give away information about ourselves for free. “My hope would be that people will come out of [the film] and ask themselves how they are living their lives, if they’re intentional and thoughtful about what they share, if they’re even aware of what information they’re giving away for free,” Ponsoldt says. “The reality is that most people I know don’t even really care.”
Despite all evidence to the contrary, Ponsoldt insists that he and his film are not technophobic, and so does Berg with “Silicon Valley,” which jabs mercilessly at the Valley’s capitalist hypocrisies but roots for its underdog characters to find a toehold in the industry. The tension on “Silicon Valley” arises from the push-and-pull between Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch), who wants to change the world with a “revolutionary” compression engine, and CEOs such as Belson and Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky), who literally want to put his dream in a box.
Even for a show renowned for its verisimilitude, the fourth season of “Silicon Valley” hits reality in stride. The newly appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, has released a plan to undo “net neutrality” regulations, a move that would give Internet providers more power to control the flow of information, at the expense of a more open Internet. Having failed to turn his compression engine into viable platform, Hendricks pivots to the moonshot idea of a “new Internet” that would be totally decentralized, working around the sorts of corporate gatekeepers the FCC plans to reward.
Berg talks about Richard’s “pie-in-the-sky” idea with such enthusiasm, it sounds as though the technology actually exists. “There is a world where, if this works correctly, no one would ever have to pay data fees again because no one would need a cell,” Berg says. “Every phone would talk to every other phone, so you’d pay nothing for data, and the entire Internet would just come through a massive mutual network of everyone’s devices.”
“Government control and net neutrality and corporate greed and who controls what and the NSA — all of those things play into it,” Berg says. “There is this ‘freedom frontier’ of taking everything out of the hands of our corporate overlords that seems like Richard’s ethos.”
If “The Circle” and “Silicon Valley” have anything in common, it’s the concern that turtleneck-wearing idealists such as Eamon Bailey and Gavin Belson have fallen short of their ideals, and real disruption is necessary, whether it’s as personal as Mae paddling a kayak to the middle of the San Francisco Bay or the large-scale fantasy of Richard blowing up the Internet as we know it and starting again. But Berg is quick to emphasize the genuine optimism that’s as evident in “Silicon Valley” as the sarcastic barbs.
“The reality is that this is a show about dreamers, underdogs and people who are trying to do something that can bring a lot of positive change to the world. If we’re saying the business is [expletive], then our guys wanting to thrive in that business becomes an empty goal.”
John Boyega and Emma Watson in “The Circle,” which also stars Tom Hanks as the co-founder of a tech behemoth. In the movie, Watson plays a new hire who allows her every moment to be broadcast.
TOP: Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt in “The Circle.” ABOVE: T.J. Miller and Josh Brener in HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” Both the movie, a thriller, and the series, an affectionate parody that recently started its fourth season, explore the rapidly changing tech world.