by Joanne McNeil
Binge Watch: How Silicon Valley Lifestyles Are Being Portrayed on Screens Large and Small
A number of recent films and television shows have been set in the tech industry. And regularly, I notice these projects can’t seem to decide: What’s the problem with Silicon Valley, anyway?
One might draw a straight line from a character like Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko to jobs lost and houses foreclosed upon, but the consequences of “disruption” can be trickier to distill into lines as visceral and powerful as “greed is good.”
I was thinking about this when I watched part of Super Pumped on a plane earlier this year. As it happens, American Airlines is one of the only places one can watch it. The series about Travis Kalanick’s hijinks at Uber debuted in 2022, but Showtime has already purged all episodes from its streaming catalog ahead of the network’s merger with Paramount Plus. It was entertaining enough, but from the first episode the show seemed bored with its lead, a one-note chucklehead. Here’s a guy who once joked about getting “boob-er” from the ladies; attempts to humanize him were bound to be difficult. There are listless scenes with the women in his life, his mother and his Salinger-quoting girlfriend (she’s got a rich inner life, see), who respond to Travis with loving eye-rolls. The Apple TV+ WeWork series WeCrashed, also released last year, was similarly weighed down, full of inert depictions of Adam and Rebekah Neumann’s courtship and marriage. One could imagine the words “Rebekah is Adam’s rock” written on a post-it note in the writers’ room.
Startups like Uber and WeWork emerged in the wake of the Great Recession, while companies like Facebook/Meta and Google ballooned in the same period. We are now past what has been a decade-long “tech boom,” and instead of a collapse, the end is the very opposite: The industry’s power has become entrenched and normalized. Daily life around the world has transformed because of these companies, but with their intention to scale now complete, this power appears invisible. All of this makes for difficult subject matter to dramatize.
While the tech milieu contains many great stories that would lend themselves to adaptation, rarely in these stories is the founder the main character. Apart from maybe Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos whose life was tragically cut short in 2020, or Jack Dorsey (someone Jeremy Strong has cited as inspiration for his performance on Succession) and a handful of others, these guys—and they’re mostly guys—aren’t very interesting. The founders centered by Super Pumped and WeCrashed might live outlandishly, but not in ways that are complex or surprising. The real Kalanick and Neumann—serial entrepreneurs both, and already on to their next companies—have no character arcs to speak of. What could be material for a happy ending—their ousters—isn’t, because they were forced out of Uber and WeWork, respectively, by investors who felt their behavior jeopardized company profitability. Kalanick and Neumann took the fall so the “disruption” could continue apace.
The Social Network (2010), about the founding of Facebook, had a decidedly unhappy ending: Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly hitting refresh on his computer, still the “CEO, bitch.” The film recognized the territory it mined was only the beginning. David Fincher’s scathingly shot scenes of frat culture from Harvard to Menlo Park kept the mood unmistakably cynical. The script, however, couldn’t decide on its target. Collecting the Golden Globe for best screenplay, Aaron Sorkin even declared his admiration for the guy. “I want to say to Mark Zuckerberg, if you’re watching tonight,” he said in his speech, “you turned out to be a great entrepreneur, a visionary and an incredible altruist.”
Then again, just like Patrick Bateman and his friends weren’t top brass at the banks, the unpleasant characters in tech can be middle managers or entry level staff, too. Last fall, I was fascinated to come across “Day in the Life” TikToks posted by workers at major tech companies, including the widely circulated “Day in the Life as a Product Manager @ Meta.” In this video, a twenty-three year old working in Menlo Park narrates, “I always journal in the morning” over an image of her “to do” list with three items written on it: work, workout and “vibe.” It might seem like typical TikTok fare—the clipped, affectless voice; the “vibing”—except that the vibes are being had at a company that, among other atrocities, enabled the genocide of Rohingya Muslims.
But it wasn’t Facebook itself that made the video rage-bait on other platforms. A number of users sharing and commenting on the video were appalled that the person posting—hanging out on the Facebook rooftop and indulging in endless free snacks—didn’t appear to be working much. A few weeks later in November, Meta announced a massive round of layoffs. The video went viral again out of schadenfreude from what appeared to be other tech workers. A post that month on Blind—the anonymous messaging app popular in Silicon Valley—inquired whether the young women in the video had been cut. (First response: “No she’s in ads, will prob never be laid off.”) But a staffer at Google, who shared a similar “Day in the Life” clip at the Los Angeles office (touring the “nap room” and “Harry Potter conference room”), would later share “A Day in My Life Getting Laid Off at Google.”
Watching the clips of young staff at tech companies, I was reminded of Kimi (2022), a rare film to nail the culture of the tech sector. The lead character, a programmer at a big tech company played by Zoë Kravitz, is sympathetic but typical of a young tech worker, living a cosseted life in a luxurious apartment. She rarely leaves this apartment, but when she must—in an indelible scene—she encounters a “Stop the Sweeps” protest. People are carrying “Housing for All” posters—a detail that underscores both the gentrification companies like the one she works for have accelerated and the hardships outside her window that she had been sheltered from while working from home.
And that brings me back to the question: What’s the problem with Silicon Valley? The problem is—well, where does one begin? It’s a problem of scale. It’s the problem of surveillance and data harvesting. It’s years of lobbying and regulatory capture, from global to municipal levels. It’s that these companies can make colossal profits with extraordinarily lean staff, which means that layoffs tend to crater the customer service and moderation teams that make these terrible products slightly less terrible. Then, there’s the “disruption” of other industries and infrastructures, resulting in new practices that range from annoying (I can’t finish watching the show I caught on a plane, even on the Showtime app itself) to reckless (underfunding public transit because of false promises made by private companies like Uber). All of this might have been easier to sense back when The Social Network was released, when “500 million users” was shocking enough to include in marketing copy for the film. Now about a third of the globe’s population has a Facebook account.
The youngest adults, who reach voting age in 2023, have no personal memory of the privacy an individual could take for granted before the Great Recession—the start of this particular tech boom. The staff who posted those “Day in the Life” TikToks are probably too young to remember the privacy that individuals could expect in their daily life before 9/11. As the impact of the tech industry grows harder to see, depicting the true costs of disruption feels more crucial than ever.