Start-up Costs: ‘Silicon Valley,’ ‘Halt and Catch Fire,’ and How Microserfdom Ate the World

Mario Zucca

Douglas Coupland’s novel Microserfs is about the spiritual yearnings and time-frittering activities of youngish coders immersed in the drudgery of the software-development process, and how those activities become an expression of those yearnings. It was published 20 years ago this month, which as far as I’m aware makes it the earliest significant stab by a fiction writer at the Great North American Tech-Company/Start-up Novel. It predates Po Bronson’s The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest, Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, Dave Eggers’s The Circle, numerous other neuroman-à-clefs, score-settling pseudomemoirs and murder-dot-com whodunits,1 as well as tech-sector TV shows like Silicon Valley and Halt and Catch Fire, serials that pick up where the novels leave off.

Coupland’s evocation of the inner lives of programmers turning entrepreneur in mid-’90s Redmond and Palo Alto should, in theory, enjoy the reputational equivalent of what marketers call first-mover advantage. But I’m not sure it does. Nobody’s talked about it much in the last two decades. Coupland’s most famous book is still his first one, which named a generation (or two) and made Coupland (b. 1961) the most visible and visibly reluctant spokesman for his peer group pre–Kurt Cobain. Universal Pictures bought the film rights to Microserfs two years after it was published, and IMDb insists a low-budget movie did get made in 2011, but there’s no trace of it elsewhere on the Internet.2 Nor did it become a Fox TV show, despite a mention in Wired that one was in the works. Maybe the overall bagginess of the book’s epistolary narrative stymied potential screenwriters; maybe adapting a book whose first and arguably most important section is about the office culture of a nonfictional household-name software company then run by one of the richest men in America presented insurmountable legal challenges. Had the TV show taken place among the cubicles of “GloboCom” and featured characters speaking in reverent tones of their omniscient CEO “Gil Yates,” something would probably have been lost. As it stands, the only extant Microserfs adaptation I know of is the abridged audiobook, read by Friends star (and soon-to-be Windows 95 shill) Matthew Perry. I have it on cassette tape; it is maybe the most ’90s object I have ever owned, a curio as totemic as a lock of Alanis Morissette’s hair preserved in a flannel-swaddled vial of Crystal Pepsi.

Microserfs is written as a series of entries from the PowerBook journal of a 26-year-old named Daniel, who when the story begins is making $26,000 a year as a “bug checker” in Building Seven3 of Microsoft’s Redmond campus, living in a $235-a-month group house with other Microsoft employees, and dealing with anxieties professional and existential: 

[F]ear of not producing enough; fear of not finding a little white-with-red-printing stock option envelope in the pigeonhole; fear of losing the sensation of actually making something anymore; fear about the slow erosion of perks within the company; fear that the growth years will never return again; fear that the bottom line is the only thing that really drives the process; fear of disposability…

He has trouble sleeping and maintaining relationships and struggles with a sense of alienation from the physical world. “I feel like my body is a station wagon in which I drive my brain around,” he writes, “like a suburban mother taking the kids to hockey practice.” There’s a case to be made that this — the disconnect between the mental and the physical as experienced by members of a caste of golden-handcuffed knowledge workers, and the possibility of greater harmony between car and driver, consciousness-wise — is the book’s real subject, rather than Microsoft or “tech” or start-up-house life. When Daniel and most of his housemates leave Washington and Microsoft for Silicon Valley to work on a Next Big Thing hatched by their programming-genius coworker Michael, the move precipitates a kind of spring thaw within the crew. Everyone renegotiates their relationship with their body in one way or another: characters take up shiatsu massage, come out of the closet, come to grips with childhood eating disorders, dress experimentally, grow their hair out, fuck and procreate, and work up the courage to meet their Net-chat crushes offline. The post-corporate work environment becomes a context in which these former brains-in-a-jar learn to feel the sun on their skin again — while building a revolutionary new software application called Oop!, which allows users to do object-oriented programming by manipulating Lego-like bricks and seems to anticipate Minecraft more than a little bit.

Microserfs was fiction grounded in embedded reporting; it began its life as a magazine story for Wired. More than one outlet had offered to send Coupland to Redmond, ostensibly to write about its burgeoning population of Gen-X-aged techies. “They really just wanted me to spy on Bill Gates and write about that,” Coupland told an interviewer in 1994. “I said that I wouldn’t do it … I got Wired and John Battelle to write it into the contract that I was to write a piece about Microsoft and not Bill Gates.” Speaking to the New York Times that same year, he described his sojourn among the code-monkeys as “a ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ kind of observation. What do they put in their glove compartments? What snack foods do they eat? What posters are on their bedroom walls?” Wired ran Coupland’s first Microsoft piece — which would become the opening chapter of the novel — in its January 1994 issue. Coupland himself appears on the cover, fronting a quintet of serious-faced men and women presumably representing Generation Microsoft. He’s wearing a yellow spandex cycling shirt and a few days’ worth of stubble and looks a little like a bike messenger who’s been asked to stand in for a celebrity. The background is blue sky and everyone’s looking off into the middle distance; it’s like a Leninist Sears portrait.

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The story inside presents Coupland’s anthropological notes on young Microsoft, right down to the snack-food question — when Michael suffers a professional setback and sequesters himself in his office on page two, Daniel and his gym-rat coworker Todd procure flat food (Kraft Singles, fruit leather) to slide under his door. The ironic thing about the story is that while it’s not the de facto Gates profile Coupland felt other magazines pressuring him to do, it’s certainly about Bill Gates, in that it’s about Microsoft employees for whom the boss is a kind of holy ghost. One of the fauxBarbara Kruger–isms punctuating the hardcover of Coupland’s previous book, Life After God, was, “You are the first generation to be raised without religion”; in Microserfs, those unused belief-muscles find purpose again through faith in Bill. Here’s Daniel, stopping between buildings to consider the mist above the company soccer field: “I had this weird feeling — of how the presence of Bill floats about the Campus, semi-visible, at all times, kind of like the dead grandfather in the Family Circus cartoons. Bill is a moral force, a spectral force, a force that shapes, a force that molds. A force with thick, thick glasses.”

One reason why Microserfs is a strange read that feels epochs and not just decades old today is that its vision of Gates has been superseded in the culture at least twice — first by the image of Gates as a Hank Scorpio–esque corporate shark that emerged from the Senate hearings into the Microsoft–Department of Justice antitrust settlement in the early ’00s, then by Gates’s rebirth as benevolent mega-philanthropist, underwriter of NPR programming, and provider of clean water to the developing world. Another reason is timing. The novel was published in 1995, but Coupland did his reporting (several weeks at Microsoft, and later several more in the Bay Area tech-start-up scene) in 1993 and 1994. Rather than an on-the-ground account of the first tech boom, then, Microserfs is an inadvertent time capsule of the moment just before the explosive growth of the consumer-facing Internet transformed society’s relationship to technology.

In that sense, the story and the subsequent book are thematically consistent with the earliest issues of Wired, which are notable both for their blue-sky, smart-drink futurism and for what they don’t see coming. The magazine was a year old when the Microserfs cover story ran; the “Net Surf” column in that same issue makes note of the growing popularity of something called the “World Wide Web.” It’s described as “a distributed system that presents the user with documents full of hypermedia links to other documents or information systems. Selecting one of these links, the user can then access more information about a particular topic.” Reading an explanation like this in 2015 is not unlike reading the Wikipedia description for water, “a transparent fluid which forms the world’s streams, lakes, oceans and rain, and is the major constituent of the fluids of living things”; the fact that the Web needed describing at all tells you something about the extent to which the future was still being negotiated as Coupland researched and wrote this book. In the old Net Surf columns, the future you’re living in by reading this article on your computer or phone glimmers on the horizon, but long-dead jargon words like finger and telnet and point your gopher are still in everyday use; in Microserfs, Daniel dismisses the whole concept of the “information superhighway” as a manufactured trend. “This highway — is it a joke? You hear so much about it, but really, what is it … The media has gone berserk with Net-this and Net-that. It’s a bit much. The Net is cool, but not that cool.

Microserfs hit stores in 1995, which turned out to be a pretty big year for Net-this and Net-that. Yahoo, Amazon, and Craigslist were founded; Javascript, the MP3 compression standard, cost-per-click and cost-per-impression advertising, the first “wiki” site, and the Internet Explorer browser were introduced. Netscape went public; Bill Gates wrote the infamous “Internet Tidal Wave” memo to Microsoft executives, proclaiming in the course of 5,000-plus words that the Internet was “the most important single development to come along since the IBM PC was introduced in 1981.” Meanwhile, at any time between May and September, you could walk into a multiplex not yet driven out of business by Netflix and watch a futuristic thriller like Hackers or Johnny Mnemonic or Virtuosity or The Net, movies that capitalized on the culture’s tech obsession as if it were a dance craze, spinning (mostly absurd) visions of the (invariably sinister) ways technology would soon pervade our lives. Microserfs isn’t as hysterical as those movies, and its vision of the coming world is much brighter, but in its own way it’s just as wrongheaded and nailed-to-its-context.

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“What is the search for the next great compelling application,” Daniel asks at one point, “but a search for the human identity?” Microserfs argues that the entrepreneurial fantasy of ditching a big corporation to work at a cool start-up with your friends can actually be part of that search — that there’s a way to reinvent work in your own image and according to your own values, that you can find the same transcendence within the sphere of commerce that the slackers in Coupland’s own Generation X4 eschewed McJobs in order to chase. The notion that cutting the corporate cord to work for a start-up often just means busting out of a cubicle in order to shackle oneself to a laptop in a slightly funkier room goes unexamined; the possibility that work within a capitalist system, no matter how creative and freeform and unlike what your parents did, might be fundamentally incompatible with self-actualization and spiritual fulfillment is not on the table.

This, to paraphrase Portlandia, is one of the dreams of the ’90s — that our work selves and our true natures could be one and the same. 1995 also marked the debut of Fast Company magazine, whose first issue shouted “WORK IS PERSONAL” in type as big and bold as the publication’s name. Inside that first issue, ideas about boom-time productivity and hipness and the search for meaning hung out and did whatever.

“As far as I’m concerned, having to change your life when you arrive at work each morning is tantamount to slavery,” says the head of an Intel microprocessor fabrication plant, who adjusted his hard-charging management style after suffering a heart attack at 36. (“To this day he visits cardiac units every six months,” we’re told, “‘just to look at the gray faces and remember.’”) Kathy Ryan, then AOL’s “Vice President of Cool,” explains her title: “Often you’ll see it spelled k-e-w-e-l. It’s used when the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, when interesting graphics, low prices, innovative concepts, and interactivity all come together. That’s kewel.” She then names a bunch of kewel websites that no one will ever hear of again. The only vision of the future of work that doesn’t sound like a New Economy opium dream comes courtesy of Hatim Tyabji, then the CEO of VeriFone, who answers a question about his demanding and (back then) unusually email-driven management style as follows:

All I can say is that every person has to come to terms with himself or herself in the context of this new environment. Let’s say it’s Sunday, and you’re at home. You walk past the den or bedroom, wherever your computer is. Are VeriFone people more likely than other people to log on? Absolutely. Am I expecting that? To some extent, yes. But I’m not demanding that. You have to decide … Now the reality is, if you are a global company, you can’t say ‘It’s Sunday in the United States so I’m not going to think about work.’ If it’s Sunday here, it’s Monday in Australia, and people there may need you. So it’s a never-ending cycle. I make no bones about that.

We are all more like VeriFone people than we used to be. Mobile-device commercials appropriate the rhetoric of freedom to sell us the devices that will enable our jobs to reach into our lives at any moment, long after we’ve left the office, for the day or for life. More often than not, WORK IS PERSONAL not because we’ve turned it into a space where we can be our best selves but because it bleeds into and colonizes the part of the day we’re supposed to spend living and loving and finding ourselves. Microserfs isn’t without cynicism about Silicon Valley and the new paradigms that were being birthed there circa 1993-94. “I suppose,” Daniel says, “that this is the birthplace of the new postindustrial economy here amid the ghosts of apricot orchards, spinach farms and horse ranches … Here, where sexy new technologies are being blueprinted, CAD’ed, engineered, imagineered and modeled — post-machines making countless millions of people obsolete overnight.”

From across a cultural divide, the nerds from Redmond regard the breezily profligate supernerds of Palo Alto with a mix of envy and horror: “They’re immune to money. They just sort of assume it’ll appear like rain.” With Steve Jobs in exile and the Web’s billionaire boys’ club still a few years away, the Valley in the book is “a bland anarchy,” a kingdom “with a thousand princes but no kings.” A few of those princes, of course, will grow up. They’ll disrupt industries for disruption’s sake, tank the economy at least once, vigorously defend their right to treat employees like contractors, and turn a new generation of coder-dreamers into serfs. Coupland’s characters can’t conceive of any of this yet. Capitalism still seems like it can be saved from within; no matter how much it takes over your life, work never seems like work in the traditional sense, as long as there’s a trampoline in the backyard that you can jump on while thinking about God. And that, to coin a phrase, is how they get you.

Nowadays, of course, serious thinkers addressing tech culture and its promises of innovation/liberation are expected to wear their suspicion like a sidearm. Adapting Ben Mezrich’s nonfiction book The Accidental Billionaires for the screen as The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin looked at Facebook and saw junior Jacobins preparing to guillotine their social and intellectual betters. The movie is close to perfect as cinema and deeply suspect as commentary. It’s too busy judging Mark Zuckerberg and his motives to reflect on the real spiritual consequences of rampant technologization. Sorkin’s gravestone as a thinking person will have HE READ THE COMMENTS engraved on it; aggrieved by the existence of an Internet where anyone, no matter how uninformed, can just go online and say bad things about Aaron Sorkin, he turns Zuckerberg’s invention of Facebook into the vengeance of a lovelorn loser. In the movie’s last scene, Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg hits refresh in vain on the friend request that Rooney Mara’s Erica won’t accept, while the soundtrack sticks the Beatles’ “Baby You’re a Rich Man” in his guts like a shiv. The moment reads two ways. Either it’s about Zuckerberg, for all his billions, being Just Like Us — a slave to the same digital toy to which we’ve subcontracted management of our memories, our personal interactions, and our sense of self-worth — or it’s about how Facebook, born of Zuckerberg’s sense of exclusion, has made us just like him. The notion that the tech visionaries whose inventions colonize our daily lives are actually uploading the virus of their personalities to the global unconscious is an idea that floats through The Social Network; it’s the engine that powers Alex Gibney’s forthcoming documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, which stops just short of postulating that every iPhone includes a fragment of poor angry uncharitable emotionally stunted Steve’s immortal soul, like a sliver of wormwood from Mordor.

Even Coupland would never be this credulous again about the tech sector and its promises; nothing he’s written since could be mistaken for propaganda. He undertook a grueling book tour for Microserfs that left him exhausted and suffering from depression, and his fiction in the ensuing years went to a pretty apocalyptic and Ballardian place. He even took a hammer to his own back catalogue in 2006’s JPod, a bearded-Spock reimagining of Microserfs set at a video-game company, with side trips via human trafficking to the industrial wastes of China, where one character acquires a heroin habit after a stint in a bootleg-Nike factory. When another character mentions Coupland’s name, someone groans, “That asshole.” Coupland himself shows up later in the book as a cynical and foul-mouthed would-be entrepreneur angling to poach programmers for a weather-prediction start-up. It’s a guilty meta-meltdown, the closest thing to a Deconstructing Harry or Yeezus in Coupland’s bibliography. JPod is a tech-culture story informed by a decade of evidence that the tech revolution has disproportionately benefited terrible people while doing nothing in particular for our evolution as a species into beings of pure light.

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Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley, which just wrapped its second season on HBO this week, turns that dispiriting reality into the premise for a sitcom. Judge made his way to the real Silicon Valley after graduating from UC San Diego with a physics degree in 1985. He got a tester-engineer job at an interface-card company in Sunnyvale, called in sick on many a Monday, and quit after two and a half months to play upright bass in a blues band. Eventually he discovered animation, and went on to create Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill. But he also wrote and directed 1999’s Office Space, about white-collar drones toiling in the kind of soul-desiccating corporate cubicle-warren from which the Internet was supposed to liberate us. One of the dark truths underlying Silicon Valley is that on some level workers might have had it easier under the Bill Lumberghs of the world; better a boss who asks you to come in on weekends to fill out TPS reports than a job that annihilates the idea of weekends entirely.

Our hero, if that’s the right word here, is Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch), a socially awkward and flop-sweaty programmer at the Google-esque software giant Hooli. Richard almost always wears a hoodie and a look of skin-crawling embarrassment; he’s the kind of gamma male to whom even Mark Zuckerberg might have administered atomic wedgies. And that’s the joke: No matter how much it still thinks of itself as the Wild West, the Valley is now an entrenched and hierarchical culture, in which power accrues to anyone willing to do the necessary bullying. Richard lives and works at a start-up incubator run by Erlich Bachman, played by T.J. Miller, who expertly conjures both Val Kilmer in Real Genius and Garfield sniffing for lasagna, underlining each gem of highly suspect entrepreneurial wisdom with contrails of pot smoke. Richard’s not a visionary; the project he’s incubating at Erlich’s place is a music-player app that even Erlich can’t see the point of, until someone else looks at Richard’s code and realizes he’s accidentally created a potentially revolutionary new data-compression algorithm. When he chooses to start his own company, Pied Piper, and develop the algorithm with funding from a venture capitalist (the late Christopher Evan Welch) instead of taking a $10 million buyout from his hard-charging Hooli boss, Gavin Belson, he becomes a CEO overnight, and realizes almost as quickly that the job comes with requirements he’s not equipped to handle. “If you’re not an asshole,” Erlich tells him, “it creates this kind of asshole vacuum, and that void is filled by other assholes.” The tech sector is no longer a space in which you can be your best self — it’s a space that demands your worst, and Richard has spent the rest of the series fighting that reality, usually in vain.

Two seasons in, Silicon Valley is a good show but not yet a great one. The pacing is awkward, as if the actors are leaving room after each zinger for a laugh track we can’t hear. The cameos by real-life Valley royalty (Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, tech journalists Kara Swisher and Walter Mossberg, Google’s Eric Schmidt) are as winkingly self-serving as Entourage’s famous-actor walk-ons always were, and add just as little in the way of verisimilitude — plus actors, unlike billionaires, can usually act. We get more than enough reality from the opening credits, which depict the Valley as an ever-changing SimCity-as-Westeros circuit board of animated tech-company logos signifying fortunes in perpetual flux. Napster is a balloon that inflates and collapses; Yahoo’s logo is elbowed into a subordinate position by Alibaba’s; Facebook’s logo just gets bigger. The show is as cynical about tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists as its Sunday-night lead-out Veep is about Washington.5 There’s a discussion about whether a crappy piece of software is “Apple Maps bad, or just Zune bad”; VCs in a pitch meeting calmly explore the possibility that a new playground-finder app for parents might also have “pedophile-facing” implications.

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The other residents of Erlich’s incubator become Pied Piper’s first employees, including Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), who communicate through scatological insults and references to jerking off. “Our corporate culture is that we don’t have a corporate culture,” Erlich says, not unproudly. The dude-clubhouse sets are an achievement in production design; when you look at them, you can practically smell the energy-drink burps and the trash can that everyone has decided is someone else’s problem. We’re meant to root for these guys against Hooli the way we rooted for the Deltas against the Omegas in Animal House; they don’t stand for anything in particular, but their loutishness establishes them as de facto counterculture heroes, standing in opposition to the pretensions of ruling-class phonies like Gavin Belson, who says things like, “I don’t know about you people, but I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do.”

But the smartest thing about Silicon Valley is that — at least so far — it’s not a show about a scrappy new start-up taking on the big guys and winning; it’s a show about a scrappy new start-up taking on the big guys and barely surviving. Better-lawyered and deeper-pocketed, Hooli keeps finding new ways to knock them around; every ally they find on the VC side turns out to have an ego-driven agenda of their own. Richard finds out that Welch’s Peter Gregory funded Pied Piper only as part of a feud with Belson; when he expresses incredulity to Gregory’s assistant (Amanda Crew), she responds, “That’s nothing. Peter would spend millions just to mildly annoy Gavin. These are billionaires, Richard. Annoying each other means more to them than we’ll make in a lifetime.” They’re utterly at the mercy of the behemoths whose hegemony they’re supposed to be disrupting, pawns moved about the board by capricious gods. And in that sense, they’re just like us — there’s something cathartically funny about watching the Pied Piper guys suit up for a game that’s already been decided because our own interactions with Apple, Google, and Facebook tend to leave us feeling just as powerless.

The quintessential Silicon Valley character isn’t Richard or Erlich or Belson; it’s Richard’s old Hooli coworker Nelson “Big Head” Bighetti, who stays behind when Richard strikes out on his own. Big Head has nothing to offer the company or the world; his one invention is a lousy and morally deplorable app called “Nip Alert.” But like Being There’s Chauncey Gardner or the hypnotized Ron Livingston in Office Space, his blankness registers with management as the sphinxlike affect of a star. Belson, obsessed with re-creating the Pied Piper algorithm, repeatedly promotes Big Head all the way to a position as “head dreamer.” In Judge’s universe, money is destruction, success just makes you a target, cynicism blankets Northern California like Wi-Fi, and the only morally sound way to win is by not trying. Forget the search for human identity, self-reinvention, post-humanity, God in the machine, art, emotion, making a faith out of commercial detritus, or building the future; Richard and the rest of the Pied Piper crew are too busy trying to avoid being bulldozed into a landfill.

In Microserfs, Daniel’s Microsoft coworker and eventual girlfriend Karla describes coders as “the fabricators of the human dream’s next REM cycle … building the center from which all else will be held.” Nobody talks that way about computers anymore; maybe it was always a sales pitch when they did. Our relationship to technology and our sense of the people who profit from putting it in our hands has changed dramatically since 1995; we’re no longer convinced that the engineers of our way of life have our best interests at heart. (The apple.com page where you can buy the $17,000 yellow-gold Apple Watch actually says the watch “represents a new chapter in the relationship people have with technology” — a chapter in which Apple stops pretending it isn’t as much a luxury-goods concern as LVMH, I guess.) So The Social Network works because it villainizes Mark Zuckerberg, and Ex Machina’s twists feel telegraphed because of course Oscar Isaac’s health-conscious tech billionaire is a creep, and Silicon Valley connects because it makes its tech bros hapless and goofy enough to be sympathetic, and the only place where the old notion of programmers as creatives and inventors of new paradigms can still live and breathe is on a low-rated TV show that’s also a period piece set 30 years in the past.

AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire takes its name from a mythical command that would supposedly cause a computer to accelerate and multitask to the point of self-destruction; in Halt, ex-IBM executive Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) does approximately the same thing to a pokey early-’80s Dallas software company called Cardiff Electric, hot-wiring its business model by cloning an IBM machine and launching Cardiff into the personal-computer market before his bosses can object. The part about the cloning is more or less fact-based; Joe and engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) are essentially doing what the founders of Texas-born Compaq did in 1982. This was the dawn of the PC wars, a hugely important moment in personal-computing history, but it’s hard to look at these guys and imagine their story striking anyone as a worthy successor to Mad Men.6 You can understand why Halt’s creators felt the need or the pressure to overload Pace’s Joe with a whole soap opera’s worth of plot-sparking character traits — a murky employment history, hidden agendas, sexual ambiguity, a propensity for stagey outbursts of violence. The A.V. Club smugly rechristened him “Tron Draper.”

For a while, you could assume you knew where all this was headed — to Joe and Gordon changing the world with their amazing knockoff computer, to an Apple parallel with Joe as Steve Jobs and Gordon as Steve Wozniak, to the truism that innovation in technology requires perfect sharks as well as perfect geeks. And yet from the beginning, you could feel the show trying to escape the arc suggested by its premise, to pull the rug out on itself. In the pilot, Joe meets Cameron, a punk computer science major who between games of Centipede has come up with some oddly prescient ideas about a worldwide network of linked computers. They have sex; later, when Joe needs to produce an engineer who’s never seen IBM’s code in order to evade legal action from Big Blue, she becomes Cardiff Electric’s newest employee.

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In the beginning, Cameron, like Joe, is a strung-together collection of traits and ideas — about women in technology, about women in general, about punk — that the actress Mackenzie Davis managed to render consistent by sheer force of will. But Cameron becomes the character whose presence bends the story away from what “really happened.” Joe has instructed Gordon and Cardiff’s engineers to build a computer, the Cardiff Giant, that’s twice as fast as anything on the market and costs half as much; they’re close to accomplishing this goal when Cameron comes up with the idea to give the Giant a personality, via an interface that asks questions like, “What do you want to do today?” She’s essentially invented Siri a generation ahead of schedule, dreaming up a future when computers aren’t mere office supplies. Joe loves the idea, because he’s in love with Cameron; Gordon objects, on the grounds that giving the machine a soul will be hard to implement and cost them in speed, although Gordon’s wife, Donna, who’s also an engineer, understands the idea immediately. Suddenly we were watching a show about artistic collaboration and compromise, and while we all knew Gordon was wrong when he groused that a personable OS will be like “having your mother inside your computer,” we could see where he was coming from. The story twists again: Joe loses his nerve. The Giant goes to market as a regular old fast/cheap PC. Then, in a Comdex hotel room darkened as if for a séance, Joe comes face-to-face with his first Macintosh, and realizes he’s made the wrong call: “It speaks,” he says, his voice full of wonder and dread. We realize we’ve spent the better part of a season watching these characters fail — that Gordon and Joe aren’t going to become the Jobs and Wozniak of this world because Jobs and Wozniak are the Jobs and Wozniak of this world.

And it quickly became a show with no comfort zone to return to; Joe became a frustrated artist, Gordon ended up a businessman, and Cameron took off with Donna to start an online-gaming company called Mutiny out of a suburban Dallas punk-pad. A third of the way into Season 2, Halt’s vision of start-up life at Mutiny looks a little like the early days of Nolan Bushnell’s Atari, back when the company consisted of T-shirted potheads building Pong machines in an old roller rink. If there’s a substantive Mad Men parallel to be drawn here, it’s that these shows share a willingness to shift the ground under their characters’ feet and understand that sometimes the best stories involve people on the wrong side of history. Recall that for all his brilliance as an ad man, Don Draper could often be as blinkered and resistant to change as anyone else at Sterling Cooper. He started out in Season 1 sneering at Doyle Dane Bernbach’s iconic “Lemon” ad for Volkswagen, which sparked advertising’s so-called Creative Revolution; it took him a decade and no small amount of suffering to get around to buying the world a Coke. There’s no story to be told about someone who’s always right.

“Something’s coming, and it’s gonna be big, and it won’t include this place, and it won’t include you,” Joe MacMillan tells Cardiff Electric’s founder, on what might be the last day of their acquaintance. But the compelling thing about this show as a portrait of an industry destined to transform our world is that the change in the air might not include Joe or Gordon or even Cameron, who in a recent episode was presented with something that looked an awful lot like a social network and failed to see the point of it. She’s trying to make online gaming happen in a world that’s about a year away from going cartridge-crazy again thanks to Nintendo. We’ll see. The important thing is the sense of manic excitement that pervades the Mutiny scenes this season, and the way it bleeds into the show itself. We know exactly where computers are and aren’t going, but it still feels like anything is possible.

Filed Under: TV, Silicon Valley, Microserfs, Mike Judge, halt and catch fire, Douglas Coupland, Internet, Microsoft, apple, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Wired, Fast Company, Internet Explorer

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Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.

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