Gavin Belson, CEO of the fictitious tech juggernaut Hooli, is gazing out the floor-to-ceiling windows of his office.
Hordes of Hooli employees are migrating in groups across the fiber-optically rich pastures of its headquarters. Behind him stands his spiritual advisor: an Indian man, judging by his complexion and the kurta (but somewhat muddled by the collection of prayer beads around his neck). Arms crossed, brow furrowed in reflection, Belson observes, “It’s weeeeeeird. They always travel in groups of five, these programmers. There’s always a tall skinny white guy, short skinny Asian guy, fat guy… with a ponytail, some guy with crazy facial hair, and then… an east-Indian guy. It’s like they trade guys until they all have the right group.”
Like so many scenes in HBO’s excellent show “Silicon Valley,” this one has cult-classic potential on par with several scenes from Office Space. Packed into these thirty seconds is a lifetime’s worth of truth.
I write this acutely aware of the cliché that is writing about the life lessons that may be gleaned from [favorite_TV_show_or_really_anything]. But I’m also writing this as a software engineer wearing a hoodie and Warby Parker glasses, typing on a Mac from a small, fair trade, neighborhood coffee shop. When it comes to being a cliché, I have much bigger worries. So screw it, let’s indulge in cliché (because not indulging in cliché because it’s cliché is about as cliché as it can get OK I’ll stop now).
Where was I? Ah, yes, the scene and its truths.
First, there’s the environment itself: Belson’s expansive yet deliberately modest office, a hallmark of the modern, frugal, enlightened tech leader. In fact, thriftiness isn’t a signal reserved just for individuals; it’s for entire corporations too (which in legal terms are individuals, I guess). Take Amazon’s legendary door desks, for instance. I had one of these bad boys to my name from 2005 to 2007—adjusting the height required filing a maintenance ticket that brought a handyman to your door (desk) armed with a 4×4, a saw, and not much of a sense of humor.
There is nothing particularly offensive about valuing thriftiness and correlating it to your ability to revolutionize industries, synergize economies, and materialize innovation. On the contrary, one could argue (in press releases that nobody reads, and Medium posts that a few people read so long as the reading time is three minutes or less) that it is a good thing. Except of course when it’s just cheap signaling, which more often than not, it is.
Then there’s the uncomfortable juxtaposition of white guy with always-agreeable, non-white spiritual advisor guy standing behind white guy: a setup that masterfully draws out irony and discomfort. From the Beatles to Steve Jobs to the lady down the street that you can’t stand but “God, she’s so nice!” to even Zuckerberg, few things can warp your average spiritual person straight to self-actualized god-among-men like a visit to India.
But the writing here works on more planes than the “brown men are props in a white male tech culture” narrative. Last year, Anil Dash wrote a persuasive piece about how Asian-American men are in a position of privilege in the tech industry, and often complicit in the oppression of other minorities. That’s the nuance the scene nails: brown guy looking over leader white guy’s shoulders, as they both look down at the common folk.
The truthiest truth of this scene is the subject of the scene itself: Belson’s revelation that programmers sort themselves into groups of five by ethnicity, size, and facial hair. It’s hard not to sink a little deeper into your hoodie as you watch his revelation unfold. But it’s just as hard to put your finger on exactly what causes the discomfort.
Is it the Indian guru looking on with admiration, as he was paid to do? Is it Belson’s sociopathic callousness as exemplified by, well, every superficial observation he made? Is it that the group of five doesn’t include “non-model” minorities? Or that it excludes women entirely? Or, is it Belson making clear that humans are just pattern-matching monkeys fooled into thinking they aren’t by the accident that is consciousness?
Brace yourself for the cliché of clichés: life is a game—a game of identifying and navigating patterns. Every once in awhile, I forget this. I drop my guard, and start going about my day with the earnestness of a puppy play-bowing to a grumpy 11-year-old cat who’s seen it all and frankly, has had enough. And as you’d expect, with the swoosh of a claw, the overweight ball of fur and hate delivers a cut so surgical that my yelp comes out before the bleeding starts. And then I faint (because, as I learned all too well from the self-amputation finalé of 127 Hours or from simply walking around the hotel lobby during my last visit to India, things make me faint).
But when I come around, I am the better for it. Because as much as I loathe all these ugly patterns—and loathe having to see them, and turn them, and bend them, and fit them all together, and take them apart, and repeat, so that I may be able to see the picture more clearly—by accepting that it is what it is, I am in a much better position to make it what it isn’t.
Or even, what I want it to be.
As Belson gapes out the window, the camera’s focus shifts past him to the face of his spiritual advisor, like a homunculus perched on his shoulder to echo his self-congratulation. For one split second, the advisor’s face flashes a micro-expression of disbelief that almost betrays his inner eye-roll.
But then, with seasoned grace, it morphs into a picture of serenity. A knowing smile appears on his face, and without skipping a beat, he responds, “You clearly have a great understanding of humanity.”