The gang’s app is building up momentum—as Jared says, “We may not be a global epidemic yet, but we’ve leapt from bat saliva to humans and we’ve just killed our first few villagers!” This, however, puts Pied Piper in the crosshairs of an attorney who’s taken up patent trolling.
Patent trolling is an annoyance on top of an already contentious issue: the idea that software can be patented at all. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the United States Patent and Trademark Office began issuing software patents—before then, the software business was doing just fine by protecting their work as trade secrets. But the overworked office started churning them out without enough vetting—issuing more than 40,000 in 2013—and many of them are so broad as to be laughable. On the show, the patent in question covers the storage of files on a network, which actually isn’t all that silly—this month, the EFF named a patent on storing files in folders its Stupid Patent of the Month. First-wave Internet billionaire Mark Cuban—the less foul-mouthed inspiration for Silicon Valley's “Radio on the Internet” guy Russ Hanneman—has endowed the EFF's “Mark Cuban Chair to Eliminate Stupid Patents” to track down and invalidate the worst offenders.
Large companies have started to lay off aiming weaponized patents at each other—except when it comes to smartphones—but a cottage industry of small-time patent trolls persists, and—as on the show—it’s often cheaper to just pay up than to fight it. In “The Patent Troll,” Richard tries and fails to unite a group of startups to slay the troll, then hoodwinks him into backing off with a bit of copyright blackmail—but still ends up with a legal bill that rendered the whole thing moot.
Back at the house, Gilfoyle has latched onto some issues that are near and dear to my heart—the wasteful side of the Internet of Things, and the tendency of modern user interfaces to be pointlessly glib and folksy. Jian-Yang has bought himself a $14,000 smart fridge, which offends every fiber of Gilfoyle’s being. First, by its very uselessness: “All it needs to do is keep my fucking beer cold.” And second, by a conversational interface inspired by Eddie, the relentlessly chipper shipboard computer from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (IMDB hasn’t been updated yet, but it sounds like this smart fridge has the same voice as the Carl's Jr. dispenser robot in Idiocracy.)
“This is solutionism at its worst,” he says. “We’re dumbing down machines that are inherently superior.” Dinesh pushes back on this, noting that Gilfoyle’s trusted server is named Anton. “But Anton doesn’t call me anything. He grimly does his work, then he sits motionless until it’s time to work again. We could all take a page from his book."
Skeuomorphism came in handy when things like graphical interfaces and touchscreens were new and unfamiliar. But I think we’re all pretty familiar with computers by now. Nobody got confused when Apple ditched all the green felt and wood in iOS. Thankfully, the current generation of conversational interfaces hasn’t gone full EddieAlexa, Cortana and Google Home sound sufficiently human without trying too hard—but textual skeuomorphism lives on, annoyingly, in many of our apps and Web sites. For example, this is how my Internet-connected sous vide cooking gizmo tells me my steak is done:
Shut it. I’m an adult, you’re a thermostat. We’re not pals. Would a nuclear plant talk to us this way? “Ruh-roh, the reactor coolant pressure is below the minimum safety threshold—did somebody say ‘meltdown’? Y’all better skedaddle!"
Anyway, Gilfoyle does the Dark Lord’s work and bricks the thing. He does this with some help from Anton, but he could have rented time on a botnet to brute-force the refrigerator's password—a botnet that, ironically, consists of hacked smart fridges.
By the way, the very idea of a smart fridge seems pretty wasteful. Manufacturers would be delighted if we replaced our appliances as often as we replaced our mobile phones. While a “dumb” refrigerator will keep your shit cold for decades, a “smart” refrigerator will require software and hardware updates to keep it from forgetting what your food looks like or getting bricked by Moldovan teenagers—and eventually it will make more sense to just “subscribe” to your fridge and pay for it forever.
Footnote: Silicon Valley (the show) has touched many times on gender bias in tech, and in “The Patent Troll” this continues as Erlich actually mansplains mansplaining to Laurie and Monica before attempting to bro down with a VC basketball team. In that vein, here’s another point about tech being a rugged career for manly men: Jean Sammet, co-creator of the COBOL programming language that dominated the business world for decades and probably still manages your bank accounts today, passed away last week after a short illness. She was 89.