A throwaway gag about a "crazy" invention points to everything wrong with our species.
HBO's Silicon Valley is one of the great satires of modern capitalism.
The main cast is a blend of absurd personalities that are somehow still believable. The clashing of world-changing ideas with massive egos and even larger sums of money perfectly captures the tragicomic nature of a modern era when we are ruled over by technocrats with questionable senses of morality and humanity—who are made billionaires overnight.
Still, the show is far from perfect. The depiction of Jimmy O. Yang's character, Jian-Yang, is often pretty offensive, and T.J. Miller's personal life and history are troubling enough that maybe the show as a whole shouldn't be given a pass. But Silicon Valley, especially in its early seasons, does such a good job of converting the alienating weirdness of its real-world setting into fodder for both high-brow and low-brow comedy that I'm drawn back to it again and again.
And each time I return to the show, there is one scene in season one that haunts me more than anything else...
It's not the wealthy man-children using people as pawns in their cruel games, or the bizarre and possibly too realistic gender dynamics. Generally when the show gets dark and upsetting, it does so with a clear purpose and manages to make it funny. But the scene that upsets me most is one that the show treats as a throw-away gag.
It's not posed as dark in any way, yet each time I watch it I can't help but feel that it presages—more so than the AI-apocalypse averted in the finale—the impending downfall of humanity. I'm talking about the Human Heater.
The Human Heater
Fans of the show might recall the Human Heater scene at the TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield—the event where startups give competing presentations on their tech in a bid for a cash prize. Apart from the montage of awkward young men touting their companies' "local, mobile, social" capabilities and promising that they are "making the world a better place" with their jargon-heavy innovations, we aren't shown much of the competing ventures, except for the Human Heater.
The Human Heater is a system that tracks people as they move through a room, blasting them with a ray of microwave radiation to warm their skin rather than heating the entire room. If that sounds terrifying, then congratulations, you're human.
Silicon Valley - Making the World a Better Placewww.youtube.com
A recurring theme on the show is that the nerds powering the engine of Silicon Valley are solely focused on engineering and problem-solving at the expense of even a basic understanding of people. Often referred to through the dichotomy of Wozniak vs. Jobs—the two Steves who founded Apple—the idea is that the nerdy problem solvers like Woz can design amazing solutions to real-world problems, but that they can't do anything with those solutions without the Jobs-style marketers to sell their ideas to the general public.
Human Heater's presentation is the epitome of that problem, and is meant to show that the TechCrunch judging panel has no patience for the pure Woz-style of problem solving that the main character (Thomas Middleditch's Richard Hendricks) excels at. Would the Human Heater save people hundreds of dollars on their heating bills? Yes. Would it drastically reduce harmful emissions in cold climates where 35-50% of residential power consumption is devoted to heating homes? Undoubtedly. And is it safe? Maybe...
While the judges are skeptical, the creator insists that the technology only penetrates the outermost layer of skin and is perfectly harmless—the military has actually developed a "safe" non-lethal weapon based on that principle. But whether Human Heater is actually safe is treated as an afterthought. The real issue is that, regardless of the safety, it still sounds scary as hell.
When the creator—who claims to have spent 15 years developing the Human Heater—moves to turn on his machine, the panel of judges and the whole audience recoil, and one of the panelists tells him flat-out, "No one is ever going to buy one of these. Ever."
And that's why we're all going to die.
The Death of Civilization
It doesn't matter how good the solution is. The marketing is bad, so the judges don't even take the possibility that's it's safe seriously. It's the only tech among all the lofty promises that has a real potential to make the world a better place. In terms of environmental impact, it would be orders of magnitude more beneficial than everyone switching to electric cars, and it's immediately dismissed.
It doesn't matter if this machine would be instrumental in averting the impending climate crisis that threatens our entire species. The idea of being shot with a heat ray is frightening on a much more personal, tangible level than any vague notions about a future in which hundreds of millions will be displaced and killed by drought and natural disaster. We can know about those issues, and even be vaguely upset about them, but is that enough to get us to put a Human Heater in our homes?
As much as we like to flatter ourselves with ideas about "what separates man from beast," that idea is nonsense. We are animals, and at a base level we are as instinctual and reactive as any other other creature. Our intellects don't make us different. They only serve to bolster our instincts—allowing us to imagine threats beyond what we can perceive—like invisible rays blasting us with cancer.
We're reckless when it comes to abstract, distant, world-destroying problems—pumping dangerous chemicals into the atmosphere as fast as we possibly can—and hyper-cautious when it comes to physical threats to our bodies. And if something is frightening, or confusing, or just inconvenient, it doesn't matter if it serves a good cause—most of us will find a way to justify dismissing it. Meanwhile, most of us would prefer to ignore the impending apocalypse.
Even if you trusted the science saying that the Human Heater was harmless, and you knew that rapid adoption of the technology was essential to saving the planet, would you be first in line to buy one? Me neither. RIP humanity.