In the new FX show “Devs,” Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”) trades his comedic typecast for the role of a tech CEO on a mission to harness quantum computing for sinister purposes. It’s like a Palo Alto version of the early seasons of “House of Cards,” but instead of a Washington, DC backdrop with journalists cozying up to politicians to expose secrets, low-level developers sneak USB drives into security desktops.
Three episodes have streamed on Hulu so far, and in the third a senator visiting Offerman’s company lays out the world’s current attitude toward Silicon Valley.
“A.I. is going to create 60 percent unemployment. Instagram makes people feel like s— about their lives, Twitter makes them feel reviled, Facebook destroyed democracy. They use you, they need you, but they don’t like you anymore,” says the senator.
The series is a stark contrast to the fun-and-games hacker houses that defined the start-up world in the definitive post-dotcom comedy of our era, HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” But although dark and dystopian, the show’s portrait of tech titans playing God actually gives a sliver of hope in today’s climate of crisis.
Offerman’s company operates out of an ultra-modern corporate complex nestled in a wooded environment similar to Apple’s headquarters. The show’s title comes from a shadowy elite development division of the company that uses their quantum technology for applications that are still nebulous, but nefarious enough that they’ll stop at nothing to keep them hidden (including murder). A low-level coder played by Sonoya Mizuno (“Crazy Rich Asians,” “La La Land”) realizes something is amiss when her boyfriend goes missing and enters a rabbit hole of corporate secrets.
“Silicon Valley” earned a following for its perceptive parody of Bay Area culture, but the city of San Francisco wasn’t ever a star and rarely even made a cameo. “Devs” is full of pensive aerial shots of the city, scenes inside tiny walk-up apartments and the reality of packed commuter buses. The contrast of Amaya’s pristine campus with the grit of San Francisco highlights the distance between the haves and have-nots, rather than the haves and about-to-have goofballs scrapping for their Series A funding in suburban co-ops.
It also shows how far the industry has shifted from the fun-and-games era of app development and social media. Catching the big fish circa 2020 means applying platforms to world-sized issues, and, in effect, perhaps creating even bigger problems. The final season of “Silicon Valley” turned in this direction as the team at Pied Piper realized the destructive potential of their AI algorithm, but the dystopian possibilities were veiled with jokes about Tesla ownership and knock-off Chinese competitors. Here, code is an ominous language with consequences that those who don’t speak it can’t imagine.
“Devs” is a far cry from the levity of “Silicon Valley,” and in today’s coronavirus crisis a dark drama may be the last thing people would go to for a comfort-watch, but conceptually there’s actually something reassuring about… coders at a megacorporation using quantum technology to view JFK’s assassination from multiple angles, purely for entertainment.
Similar to how the company Pied Piper in “Silicon Valley” pivots their platform towards issues far larger than their original goals of MP3 compression, Offerman’s top secret Devs department harnesses their quantum firepower for futuristic sci-fi purposes that also seem to have something to do with Offerman’s deceased daughter Amaya (also the company’s namesake).
The show paints Amaya as nearly omniscient in its use of technology, capable of harnessing the infinite potential of code to predict the future and recreate the past. It wasn’t meant to be an inspiring story by any means, but in today’s catastrophic climate, it’s almost reassuring to think that real-life powerhouses like Google may have deep elite divisions who could aim their developers at the pressing problem of COVID-19. And hopefully similar companies might move beyond just following the mantra “don’t be evil” and drop everything to do good.
Dan Gentile is a digital editor at SFGATE. Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @Dannosphere
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