***Warning: Spoilers for Game of Thrones season 6 and Silicon Valley season 3 included!*** Growing up, I was a big fan of fantasy and sci-fi novels. I loved stories about epic heroes who stood up against impossible odds, set against the backdrop of strange, foreign worlds. In the world of America circa 2016, entrepreneurs are sometimes considered to be our modern heroes. What does the hero’s journey of entrepreneur look like, compared to their fictional fantasy counterparts? In about an hour and a half of television last Sunday night, HBO showed us.
The Magic vs. the Mundane
Game of Thrones is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon, with fans descending on bars for watch parties, dressed as their favorite characters, waiting with zeal to see which major character will be the next to bite the dust. Regardless of how you feel about the show’s narrative merits, it’s a fascinating example of how a fantasy story can grip the popular imagination.
The moment that made everybody in America jump out of their seats last Sunday was the return of fan favorite character Jon Snow, after his untimely death at the hands of a group of stab-happy members of the Night’s Watch, a stunning season-ending betrayal that left fans going nuts for the duration of the 9 month series break. But Jon Snow is not by any means the first one to meet a grisly end on this show - so why was everybody so broken up?
In short, Jon Snow is the only standard fantasy hero on the show. As the (allegedly) bastard son of Ned Stark (one of the only other truly “good” characters on the show who also got murdered for doing what he thought was right), Jon Snow checks off all of the boxes: born to humble circumstances, possessing an innate sense of justice tempered with empathy, seemingly destined for “chosen one” status. He’s the type of fantasy character we love to cheer for.
That said, it was not particularly surprising when the most recent episode ended with Jon Snow shooting back into the land of the living, as the apparent result of a spell cast by one of the show’s limited number of overtly magical characters.
What was jarring, however, was the 30 minutes of television that immediately followed the revelation of Jon Snow’s resurrection. Stepping away from the world of witches and dragons and strolling into the seemingly sedate setting of Silicon Valley almost gave me whiplash. As it happens, however, the Silicon Valley crew turned in an episode that, to me at least, had some interesting thematic parallels to what had just occurred on Game of Thrones.
Entrepreneurs as Heroes
After the breathless happenings over in Westeros, how could Silicon Valley even compare? What could possibly interesting about the corporate culture of the tech industry?
To me, it’s not just that Silicon Valley, in classic Mike Judge fashion, is a show about everyman-ish protagonists whose heart and earnestness is juxtaposed against an environment of satirical absurdity grounded in the mundane reality of working life. It’s that, even as an examination of how the tech elite are sometimes too eager to drink their own kool-aid, throwing out claims of changing the world, the show actually wants to believe that the world will be changed for the better, despite the Office Space-esque hurdles that seem to get in everybody’s way.
In the episode this past Sunday, main character Richard and his crew settle into their new life under Jack Barker, a new CEO who, while successful and respected, seems to communicate primarily via abstract reasoning about the relationship between product development and sales when he’s not running out of the office in the middle of the day. Meanwhile, the sales team is a well-drawn caricature the quasi-tech-literate who have only a passing interest in the actual product they’re selling. For anybody’s who’s worked in tech before, these situations are all too familiar.
In the climax of the episode, Richard has finally had enough and confronts Jack. Richard explains how their product’s unique compression algorithm will allow some of the least advantaged people around the world efficient access to the internet, with all of the of economic and educational opportunity that such a jump would provide. Richard attacks the running joke of the show head-on, exclaiming that he’s providing Jack with an opportunity to actually change the world - and make billions of dollars doing it.
Jack laughs in his face, explaining that Richard is misunderstanding the fundamental truth of the business: the product isn’t the algorithm, or the platform, or the software - it’s the stock. Anything that doesn’t deliver value to the shareholders is a distraction.
The importance of this scene cannot be overstated: in this few minutes of television, Silicon Valley directly exposes the deep conflict bubbling underneath America’s prospects for future economic dynamism.
Richard’s heartfelt plea is an endorsement of capitalism as understood through the framework of mutual benefit - producing great things for customers and reinvesting the proceeds for ever greater progress. Lifting billions out of poverty by increasing access to the fruits of technological innovation.
Jack’s blunt reply is the type of short-sighted thinking that led to our most recent financial crises: the mistaken idea that the foundations of a healthy economy can somehow be built on multiple layers of financial speculation driven by quarterly metrics.
Richard is a fine example of the entrepreneur as hero. While personal profit is one of the motives that continues to drive him, it is an interest in profit earned by creating something truly revolutionary for society, that people will value highly - that could potentially change their lives.
In the current climate of technological progress in the fields of biotech, artificial intelligence, and more, Richard is exactly the type of hero we should be celebrating.
From the Headlines
This is a timely challenge for Richard to tackle, as Facebook recently announced a capital stock structure that will allow Mark Zuckerberg to maintain control over the organization and pursue his particular long term vision. Much like Richard, Zuckerberg has aspirations of enabling revolutionary changes for society. Whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing appears to be related to your view on the relationship between government, voluntary society, and capitalism.
Regardless, the fact remains that at this moment, millions of Americans are independent workers, and that number is set to rise to include half the population by 2020. That’s millions of Americans who will have their own opportunity to create value for others, on their own terms.
The hard work of entrepreneurship may not be as viscerally satisfying as seeing Jon Snow leap back to life, ready to exact vengeance on the people who destroyed his family.
It’s important to remember, however, that while you’ll never be the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch like Jon, you may soon find yourself wading into the world of entrepreneurship if you haven’t already. If you do, hopefully Richard’s story of entrepreneurship as a service to society will serve as an example of how to stick to your guns.