Silicon Valley Questions the Morality of Success

The HBO satire’s final season began by examining whether the tech industry can ever really live up to its ideals.

While delivering testimony before the Senate on data privacy, Richard Hendricks launched into an uncharacteristically confident speech. (Ali Paige Goldstein / HBO)

This article contains spoilers through Season 6 Episode 1 of Silicon Valley.

Throughout most of Silicon Valley’s run, Richard Hendricks (played by Thomas Middleditch) and his band of programmers endured a seemingly never-ending series of compromises and close calls to make their start-up, Pied Piper, succeed—until last season’s finale, when Richard finally gained control of his own company. As the sixth and final season began last night, Richard continued relishing his hard-won victory. While delivering testimony before the Senate on data privacy, he launched into an uncharacteristically confident speech that doubled as a verbal middle finger to Big Tech.

“These people up here, you want to rein them in, but you can’t,” he said, citing Facebook, Google, and Amazon as monopolies taking advantage of their users. “They track our every move, they monitor every moment in our lives, and they exploit our data for profit.” Pacing back and forth, he positioned Pied Piper as a company doing good in a corrupt industry: “I promise you, I will help you end this tyranny, by building an internet that is of the people, by the people, and for the people, so help me God.”

But that’s a promise Richard won’t be able to keep. Back at the Pied Piper headquarters after the hearing, the game developer Colin (Neil Casey) revealed that he does collect user data on PiperNet, a network that allows users to control their own data rather than storing it on a centralized server, to improve game-play. Though Richard had previously directed him to stop, Colin refused—he has the upper hand, given that his players make up PiperNet’s largest user base. “Don’t beat yourself up about it,” Colin told a frazzled Richard. “But going forward, maybe stop saying, ‘Pied Piper won’t mine user data’... Or do say it—I don’t care. Maybe it’ll be like Google saying, ‘Don’t be evil,’ or Facebook saying, ‘I’m sorry. We’ll do better.’” He left Richard in a difficult position: If Richard fires Colin, PiperNet will be at risk of shutting down.

The Pied Piper team has cut ethical corners in the past: In Season 2, it capitalized on a live-stream of a man dying to keep the company afloat, and in Season 3, it employed a click farm in Bangladesh to fool investors into believing Pied Piper had scores of users. But Richard excused these compromises as necessary evils, asserting that such moves were made to make Pied Piper a reality. Once the company triumphed, it could return to a clean moral slate.

If the earlier seasons of Silicon Valley satirized the absurdity of the tech bubble by examining how quickly a start-up can rise and fall (and rise again), the sixth season appears to be targeting morality in the industry. Richard faces a question real-life companies have had to tackle after reaching the top: Is it possible for a successful tech company to actually do good?

It’s a heavy question for a comedy to pose, but the premiere offered a few answers. Richard could follow the lead of Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), the CEO of the show’s Google proxy Hooli, and forget ethics entirely. In the episode, Gavin eschewed morals in favor of stroking his own ego. Instead of losing the Hooli name in the company’s sale to Amazon, he downsized, sacrificed entire divisions, and laid off scores of employees. So if Richard were to think like Gavin, he’d keep Colin on board and pivot to a new set of values to upkeep.

Or Richard could do nothing for now, as his brain trust—including Monica (Amanda Crew), Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), and Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani)—advised him. They pointed out that Colin’s large user base is too valuable and that he’s not using the data to sell ads, so his data mining is relatively harmless. But Richard dismissed their concerns; he’s not about to wait until Colin utilizes user data for more nefarious reasons before stepping in. “It goes against everything we stand for,” he said. “If we start collecting personal data just for the good stuff, next thing we know, we’re fucking Facebook.”

This being Silicon Valley, Richard then tried to sidestep the issue entirely by creating a third, especially foolish option. Rather than cutting out Colin or sitting idly by, he concocted a plan to have Colin taste his own medicine. Richard collected audio recorded off Colin’s headset—including snippets of Colin snorting coke, among other reckless acts—and categorized them by indiscretion. Colin, Richard assumed, would be forced to obey his order. But Colin didn’t bristle at the audio; he was impressed by Richard’s categorization and pitched the tool to investors to demonstrate how they could compile user data for more than just game-play improvement.

Richard had justified violating Colin’s privacy in the episode’s most hilariously upsetting scene. He’d approached Jared (Zach Woods) with the plan, knowing that Jared—usually the most ethically minded member of his inner circle—would probably talk him out of it and brainstorm another possible solution. At first, Jared did, advising Richard to remain “virtuous,” but then Jared reversed course. “Even if this is wrong,” he said, “I suppose you can argue that it’s wrong in the service of rightness.” Encouraged, Richard agreed: “It’s unethical in the defense of ethics, unjust in the quest for justice.”

In latching onto such circular logic, Richard failed to account for the motivations behind Jared’s sudden change of heart: He didn’t realize that Jared, since Pied Piper became a company with hundreds of employees, had been feeling out of the loop and merely wanted to feel needed by Richard again. No longer the underdog trying to get a fledgling start-up off the ground, Richard now holds more power and seems less accessible. The company’s rise isn’t just making it harder for Richard to preserve his values; it’s also threatening Richard’s closest relationships.

In that sense, the sixth season premiere of Silicon Valley deftly demonstrated how upholding ethics and humane values at a successful company may be an impossible challenge. At the very least, it’s a lot harder to maintain morals than it is to deliver a speech on the subject. A big tech company—or any company, for that matter—can try to do good, but there will always be employees to please and relationships to navigate.

That may seem like a particularly bleak conclusion, but the series reminds viewers how far Richard has come. In the final scene, Jared approaches Gwart (Nandini Bapat), a timid new programmer. Gwart reminds Jared of a formerly helpless Richard, whose entire career once depended on the whims of Hooli’s leadership. Though his idealism blinded him to reality in this episode, Richard is no longer so powerless. Now he can afford to consider his morals. Now he can try to keep the promise he made on the Senate floor.