It’s fitting that “Hooli-Con," which revolves around yet another moral compromise made in pursuit of success, airs the same week Uber CEO Travis Kalanick goes on (possibly permanent) leave from the company he founded, amid a sea of scandals. While the Pied Piper gang’s scheme to hijack Hooli-Con attendees’ WiFi and inject their own app into everyone's phones is relatively tame, the core question that finally sends poor Jared over the edge – does the end really justify the means? – takes on greater weight in the shadow of Uber’s far more egregious behavior.
Computer science graduates go on to build systems and tools that shape our world, but they rarely receive the same level of ethics training as physicians or attorneys. Their sense of responsibility for their creations depends mostly on their upbringing and innate personalities – nobody’s around to remind them of their work’s moral dimension. Dropped into a business climate that reveres zero-sum, scorched-Earth hegemony (dominate your market, lest you be perceived as a mere “lifestyle business”), they all-too-often foster toxic, amoral corporate cultures where the worst sort of behavior is tolerated or even encouraged as collateral damage on the road to success. Push him into a corner, and even Richard Hendricks will make his unicorn grow fangs.
Of all the horrors Jared’s glassy eyes have seen, it’s this latest descent into darkness that finally sends him into a genuine ethical tailspin. What Pied Piper have cooked up is essentially malware - or, as Richard justifies it, “forced adoption through aggressive guerrilla marketing” - and it’s not even that malicious. A number of seemingly innocuous real-world apps have been found to collect users’ data exhaust to sell to marketers for ad-targeting purposes, and some variants of mobile malware will use your phone’s spare processor cycles to mine up some Bitcoin on the side. But still - like the previous season’s clickfarm scheme to increase PiperChat’s user base, this is probably not going to end well.
That will probably happen next week, since there are worse things that can happen today. While the gang’s devious and possibly illegal ploy managed to actually work - with an assist from now-disgruntled Hooli security chief Hoover - Hooli itself pushed a legitimate software update that causes a public demo failure that lights up the daydreams of anyone who’s had to sit through days of somnolent keynotes at major tech conferences. (Events Gilfoyle describes as a “who’s who of nobodies.”)
I’ve seen many a keynote presenter resort to literal pyrotechnics to rev up the excitement – sparkly things and loud noises work nicely for sales teams – so it was deeply satisfying to watch Action Jack’s desperate and rushed attempt to add some sizzle to his presentation actually blow up in attendees’ faces. (Assuming no one was hurt, of course – for many, attending these conferences is punishment enough.)
The HooliCon keynote also included a nice shout-out to former Microsoft CEO/spokescharacter Steve Ballmer, with Barker bounding across the stage yelling “I love this company!” One wonders if this is the work of occasional Silicon Valley writer Dan Lyons, a keen student of executive puffery who once noted how Ballmer’s antics show he “gives zero fucks about what anyone thinks of him. I love him so much.” Though Barker’s act is thin soup compared to the real thing: maybe if Chris Farley were alive he could pull off a real tribute to the adorable screaming cartoon bear we remember from years of Microsoft company meetings.
Now that the Pied Piper crew have rounded up enough users to support their data storage needs and snatched yet another morsel of success from the jaws of failure, we are one episode away from the season finale – which experience has shown should provide another tightly-written half hour of everything wonderful and awful happening at once. The setup is pretty dark, however: Hooli’s business is literally on fire, Dinesh and Gilfoyle are feeling burned by Richard’s deception over their last acquisition offer, Erlich is off to find himself in Tibet (probably to return as a “wellness guru”), and Jared is… exactly who he’s always been.
Matt Corwine is a writer, tech worker and expat Seattleite in Brooklyn. This is his third tech bubble.