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Wednesday
Apr162014

Is Mike Judge's 'Silicon Valley' the End of Startup Mania?

This post originally appeared in RushkoffMail. Subscribe here.  

I've always credited 'Beavis & Butt-head' creator Mike Judge for bringing down MTV.

The simple cartoon, originally a short segment on late-night Liquid Television, consisted mostly of two teenage boys watching rock videos, making commentary about them, and then rejecting them: "this sucks, change it.” For me, the show was armchair media criticism - a lesson in deconstructing television. Where a rock video used to be able to lure a teenage boy with sexual imagery, it was a whole lot harder to fall into the spell with Beavis shouting “nice set!” No, it may not have been the sophisticated analysis of McLuhan, but it was at least as alienating an effect as Bertolt Brecht.

And MTV’s ratings went down, along with the ability of the network to pass off advertising as programming.

After watching Judge’s latest effort, a live-action tech industry satire on HBO called 'Silicon Valley,' I began to wonder if he might deflate another value-challenged culture as effectively as he took down MTV. It’s a buddy show along the lines of Entourage, except the lead is a geeky, horny developer instead of a handsome, horny movie star. But the potential brilliance of the series lies in Judge’s only slight exaggerations of the hypocrisy underlying the digital startup landscape: these are people claiming to be saving the world, when they’re really just the latest generation of desperate yuppies chasing capital and, in turn, reinforcing Wall Street’s monopoly over our society. Digital business is revolutionary only in the way it camouflages business as usual.

And while I’m pondering all this, the NASDAQ stock exchange has its worst decline since 2011 or maybe before, led down by the poster children of Silicon Valley excess: Facebook, Twitter, Tesla. Coincidence? Not really. For while there may be no direct cause and effect between the airing of a TV show and the immediate slide of the valuation of the companies satires, there is a sea change occurring.

It was significant enough for Silicon Valley hero billionaire Elon Musk, founder of Paypal and Tesla, to immediately criticize the program: “I really feel like Mike Judge has never been to Burning Man, which is Silicon Valley. If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it.” That Musk would credit Silicon Valley for Burning Man is kind of like crediting the Conquistadors for Quetzalcoatl - but that’s besides the point. What’s interesting is that he doth protest too much, which just underscores for me how important public perception is to an economic model based on hype.

Anyway, I’ll be glad to see the hype fade, as it has before, leaving those who truly love the possibilities of digital technology to keep on developing it - without the pressures of venture capital firms and their requirement to achieve spectacular results instead of good, sustainable ones.

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