HBO's Silicon Valley has been the best at poking fun and skewering the ideologies, practices, and inflated egos of its titular industry for four years now. Of course, it helps that the people out in the real world contribute so easily to satire – so much of what happens in the Bay Area seems stranger than fiction – and the show's writers extensively research what goes into the episodes, including sitting down with the heads of the tech giants.
The comedy series wrapped up its fourth season on Sunday, with a finale that restored the status quo. And as interesting and funny the journey of people involved in Pied Pier is, it's the jabs, nods and winks at real-world events that drive so much of the humour within. That's why we decided to take a look at the entire season, and pick out the most insightful moments that put the tech industry in the spotlight. With that, a spoiler alert.
"Shazam for food" showed the love for buzzwords
Silicon Valley S04E03: Intellectual Property
Silicon Valley's humour can be lowbrow at times, and the joke in the third episode can be easily deemed as racially insensitive, even as it's partially drawn on Erlich (T.J. Miller) being stoned all the time. Jian Yang (Jimmy O. Yang) pitches him an app for octopus recipes, but Erlich hears Oculus and thinks it's something to do with VR. Making fun of an immigrant's accent is far from classy; thankfully, what the show does with it is much more intelligent.
It's only at a meeting with potential investors that Erlich realises Jian Yang is pitching a seafood recipe app, and he manages to save face by thinking on his feet. He spins the latter's words and calls it 'SeeFood', and explains it as a Shazam for food, in that the app can identify what the food is with your phone's camera. That the app doesn't exist is a jab at the kind of vapourware VC firms are ready to take in, simply because they hear a buzzword.
The apps that results from such ideas either tend to be quite different from the one that was pitched, or fail to get any long-term traction with users. In SeeFood's case, Silicon Valley goes with the former, delivering an app that can tell you whether something is a hot dog or not. That's nothing close to its initial grand vision, and that's what the writers are poking fun at. That it later gets sold to Periscope to help filter out 'dick pics' is just cherry on the cake.
The on-demand economy is changing our cities
Silicon Valley S04E03: Intellectual Property
A much smaller yet as funny jab that appeared in the same episode was the location of a conversation that took place between Richard (Thomas Middleditch) and Monica (Amanda Crew): a supermarket. Richard wonders if he's crazy on chasing his new idea – a fully decentralised Internet – and Monica says she's not one to judge. Then, she adds: "I mean, you do realise I’m literally the only person in this entire grocery store who’s actually buying stuff for myself.”
The episode then cuts to shots of other people at the store, who are all clad in the garb of on-demand start-ups such as Task Rabbit, Postmates, and Instacart. This isn't just a San Francisco thing, where the fictional HBO show is set. You can walk into any big grocery store in Mumbai, New Delhi, or Bengaluru, and you'll inevitably find people from Grofers, and other workers, picking up orders.
A similar thing is happening on the streets too. It's not as easy to spot since not all cars are mandated to have the Uber or Ola logo, but look closely and you can see phones stuck to the windshield, with either the respective app or Google Maps open. Silicon Valley's larger point is that our need for convenience is changing the public places as we've come to know them.
The hard labour behind artificial intelligence
Silicon Valley S04E04: Teambuilding Exercise
Needing to come up with a working demo for Jian Yang and his Shazam for food app pitch, Erlich talked to Big Head's Stanford students to categorise and label pictures of food from the Internet as an assignment. The students were too clever to fall for Erlich's ploy, and pitched their own food-based app to the same VC firm that gave $200,000 to SeeFood.
The segment – apart from showing Erlich's stupidity – pointed at the hard labour that's required for artificial intelligence apps to get up and running. While companies might show off only the tech expertise at big splashy events, neural nets require a lot of training. And for the initial period, it's down to humans to point out what the computer is looking at, and differentiate between a human and monkey face.
Without proper training, the Google Photos algorithm labelled an African-American's face as a gorilla. Google most likely had to hire someone to train it not to make the same error going forward. And in the case of Silicon Valley, it fell to Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) - who accepted Erlich's monetary offer – to scrub pictures of penises after the app gets sold to Periscope.
Silicon Valley elite's want to live forever
Silicon Valley S04E05: The Blood Boy
In the season's fifth episode, Richard visits Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) at his lavish home to pitch his idea of a decentralised Internet. Also present at the meeting is Bryce (Graham Rogers), a jock – who later turns out to be secretly writing a tell-all about the Hooli CEO – donating his blood to Gavin, and gives the episode its name.
The practice is known as parabiosis, or young blood transfusion, which involves transfusing the blood of younger, healthier people into an older person to slow down aging. Although studies have shown that there isn't any evidence to support such lofty claims, it hasn't stopped start-ups such as Ambrosia from already offering them to rich people in the US, charging $8,000 (about Rs. 5,16,000) for a one-time transfusion.
While the HBO episode used the dubious practice to create an obstacle in Richard's plans and push Gavin on a new path (Bryce secretly consumes marijuana and sugary snacks), it also served as a perfect skewer of the Silicon Valley elite's desire to live forever. The New Yorker published a featured on exactly that earlier this year, where it talks about the science and the philosophical ramifications.
The nightmare of patent trolls
Silicon Valley S04E07: The Patent Troll
After the Pied Piper team's new space-saving app makes it to the top 500 in the Hooli app store, Richard is contacted by a retired attorney, who claims that their app infringes on a patent he own: "storage of media files on a network." After Richard decides to be nice and visit the man in person, he's surprised to find out that the old man is a 'patent troll', who uses broad patents to get licensing fees from musicians and tech companies.
This is a big problem for companies at all levels in the US, where a lax patent granting system has led to easy windfall for patent trolls. John Oliver discussed the issue at length in a Last Week Tonight segment two years ago, which brought out the various problems: vague definitions for software patents, in combination with a sympathetic judge and jury in the Eastern Texas city of Marshall. It got to a point where Samsung spent a million dollars to create an outdoor ice skating rink in front of the courthouse.
Instead of getting Richard to do the logical thing of settling, the HBO show made him fight back. But in trying to save the company $20,000 which the patent troll asked for, Pied Piper incurs a bill of $22,000 from their lawyer in drafting the failed joint litigation. Along the way, the old Pied Piper music recognition app came to Richard's rescue, which pointed out how popular music riffs are routinely plagiarised by the industry.
An ode to the Galaxy Note 7
Silicon Valley S04E09: Hooli-Con and Silicon Valley S04E10: Server Error
With server costs ballooning, Richard decides to use people's phones to store corporate data. To do so, Pied Pier puts up a stall at Hooli-Con, and uses that as a disguise to distribute Wi-Fi pineapples across the floor. That way, Hooli-Con attendees would log in for free Wi-Fi, and the Pied Piper space-saving app would be unwittingly installed on their phones. Richard described it as "forced adoption via aggressive guerrilla marketing". Um, sure.
After the new Hooli CEO Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky) instructs everyone in the audience to put on free VR goggles under their seat – like Samsung did at MWC 2016, which led to this infamous Zuckerberg photo – their phones start to blow up. It was a reference to Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 debacle from last year, and if the parallel wasn't enough, Barker directly mentioned it in a Hooli board meeting in the season finale.
The HBO show brought together the tech industry's worst nightmare (exploding devices) and marred it with a technology that's seen more hype than most things (virtual reality). It even had a Palmer Luckey-type VR guy in Keenan Feldspar (Haley Joel Osment), and Richard's hatred of him and his product - "VR is just a fad," he said – pushed things in an interesting direction.