"There's this thing called the internet."
This phrase is used in National Geographic's new show, Valley of the Boom, by the young Silicon Valley founders trying to explain to potential investors what they are doing.
What are they doing? They are trying to launch the companies whose frameworks set the course for today's technological and cultural landscape.
There's Netscape, the browser that came before Google; TheGlobe.com, the social network predating Facebook; and YouTube's early counterpart: Pixelon.
These companies and their founders were part of the rise of Silicon Valley as it's known today, the dot-com "bubble" of the 1990s that lead to the dot.com "bust" of the early 2000s, and the phenomena by which Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) made Instant Public Millionaires out of company founders.
Valley of the Boom chronicles in quasi-factual fashion the stories behind the three companies. The show is a weird blend of scripted drama (Bradley Whitford plays Netscape CEO James Barksdale, Steve Zahn plays Pixelon founder and conman "Michael Fenne," and Lamorne Morris plays a fictional investment banker who narrates the show) with real interviews of various characters depicted in the show, tech journalists and the show's executive producer, Arianna Huffington. These are all spliced together with real news footage. This narrative technique makes for a disjointed viewing experience: half documentary, half dramatic re-enactment. Nat Geo also throws a fair amount of meta into the mix, with actors breaking the wall to comment on what's happening, a '90s-style rap battle used to explain the "browser war" between Microsoft and Netscape, and a puppet brought in to deliver a Bill Gates speech.
I had imagined, being old enough to kind of remember the era, that I'd watch the show with fitful nostalgia. In fact, many of its particulars seemed arcane. Halfway through, I realized I had spent very little time in my early 20s contemplating the world of venture capital (nor do I seem to have spent much of my 40s thinking about that topic either). Perhaps more significantly than reinforcing my sorry lack of interest in big finance, the show also fails (thus far; I've got two episodes left in the six-part limited series) to illuminate the current sorry state of the internet.
Maybe it's not fair to throw the entire internet into the mix. See, there's this thing called the internet. And there are these other entities, whose shadows loom across the story of Valley of the Boom: the before-mentioned entities of Google, Facebook and YouTube (not to mention Twitter, Amazon, Apple, etc., etc.). Forget the internet and just call it Big Tech.
Writing in Time Magazine Jan. 17, Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor and Mark Zuckerberg mentor, details his regret and lament about the company's trajectory. (It's an interesting read even though "I am sad about Facebook" strikes me as an unforgivably soft lead for an essay about the potential destruction of humanity.) I read McNamee's piece in the midst of idle research over one of FB's latest trends, the #10yearchallenge (in which folks create a collage of their profile pics spanning a decade). Out of curiosity, I had made one myself, but hadn't posted it as stories had predictably (and believably) quickly emerged postulating the trend's potential traction as a Big Tech data-collection point for facial recognition algorithms.
McNamee calls for a variety of reforms to begin mitigating the damage Facebook's "growth hacking" strategy has wrought in terms of undermining "democracy, human rights, privacy, public health and innovation." The reforms span categories, from democracy to privacy to public health, but ultimately require revamping the entire architecture of the internet to promote human versus artificial technology. He also calls for regulation of Big Tech companies whose monopolist character, he writes, have lessened opportunities for innovators and startups.
McNamee's précis on the state of the internet taken alongside the jocular tone of Valley of the Boom also creates a disjointed experience. Watching the series to investigate first causes (spoiler alert: greed) for present existential threats seems valid. But should it involve musical numbers?
As it happens, both my #10yearchallenge photos included a large glass of wine partially obscuring my aging face but, nonetheless, I abstained from participating for whatever scant good that does in terms of privacy protection. I'm guessing zero good. But perhaps it's a start.
Valley of the Boom airs 7 pm Sundays on National Geographic.
Watch online at nationalgeographic.com/tv/valley-of-the-boom