What “Silicon Valley” can teach Silicon Valley

How HBO’s fictional Pied Piper can “change the world” using ethical data-compression, by Bill Softky

What “Silicon Valley” can teach Silicon Valley

How HBO’s fictional Pied Piper can “change the world” using ethical data-compression, by Bill Softky

Coming Sunday we’ll see the return of our better selves in the new season of the HBO series Silicon Valley and its fictional startup Pied Piper. I like the show not just because I grew up and work in real Silicon Valley, but because the fictional CEO Richard Hendricks is more inept and funny than real life, yet somehow also a better role model. Being a data-compression inventor makes Hendricks a rare breed among CEOs nowadays, and being scrupulously honest even more so. That’s not just moralizing; it takes a creative, honest geek to read and follow Natures’ edicts well enough to profit from them, so in Hendricks and his product we have a ready-made example of how the real Silicon Valley ought to operate, conforming to the laws both of math and of human decency. What lessons can we draw?

Play to truth, not deception. Last year about this time Hendricks had just won a data-compression contest, on the merits. It is a truth universally acknowledged that most tech algorithms are vapor-ware, smoke and mirrors with grand claims and no deliberate fudging. Hendricks played the grown-up’s game by submitting to a transparent, honest test. Because data compression allows neutral metrics, focusing on that technology was the perfect product choice. (And so was owning up to accidental fraud when he discovered it). Remarkably, Hendricks’ revenue goals as CEO didn’t tarnish his integrity as CTO.

Connect people to each other. I’ve noticed that people in this fictional TV world look each other in the face. They’re lucky; nowadays, in my world, people look each other in the smartphone. But those who build compression algorithms know that live faces carry a million times more bandwidth than texts (megabytes vs. bytes). Fortunately, Hendricks data-compression technology can re-connect people to each other as human beings, as he did at the last minute by pivoting his product away from file-storage into video chat. The human need for live connection is what saved Pied Piper in last season’s Finale.

Don’t follow the money. I also noticed that in the TV world, mobile calls don’t drop. In mine they do. In fact cell calls here are glitchy and droppy, again for data-compression reasons. The sad business fact is that carriers save the most bandwidth and make the most money when they compress speech nearly to the point of complete frustration. The Pied Piper video-chat product will face that challenge too. Bandwidth costs money, right? I hope he doesn’t give in to that Devil’s bargain. At the very least, Hendricks could offer his customers the choice of guaranteed call quality for fewer minutes, perhaps enforced by service-level agreements like those Pied Piper already pays for.

To be sure, in this season the pressures on Pied Piper to meet milestones will be huge. As of now, venture capitalists and customers alike make companies produce short-term results, even as they ask for long-term strategy. That’s their mistake; they’ll learn soon enough that even customers have nervous systems which don’t take kindly to exploitation.

So in the ideal Silicon Valley, Hendricks will resist the siren-call of immediate profit margin just long enough to build a human-friendly technology, capable of conveying the micro-expressions and micro-interactions the human sensory system needs. Then he really might change the world.


William Softky invented the job Chief Algorithm Officer a dozen years ago, and in that founding role supported two acquisitions. His upcoming paper on digital dependencies and diseases (with Criscillia Benford), “Sensory Metrics of Neuromechanical Trust,” is forthcoming in MIT Press’ Journal of Neural Computation. He also has Ph.D. from Caltech in theoretical physics.