Every week, critic Robert Ham breaks down the mechanics of a particularly excellent Silicon Valley scene, moment or joke. This week, it’s all about the lonely software engineer.
In a 2014 article for The Atlantic, tech writer Adrienne Lafrance discussed the reasons why people often name inanimate objects. “Giving something a human name is ultimately… a way of exerting control over it,” she writes. “A reminder that it works for you, that it exists within a human construct, even when the machine is wholly indifferent.”
When it comes to people’s personal computers, however, there’s a little bit more emotion behind it. So many people give their laptops and desktop boxes affectionate nicknames in the same way that we would a close friend. These are the digital pals that we interact with on a daily basis that provide us with our entertainment and, in some cases, our social lives. We spend more time with our computers than we do with some family members. Why wouldn’t we show them some appreciation by naming them?
I was thinking about this phenomenon as it relates to one of the closing scenes of this week’s episode of Silicon Valley, in particular the moment where we watch Gilfoyle gently talk to his tangled web of servers in the garage while he unplugs them. It nicely closed out a subplot of the show dealing with Dinesh’s apparent lack of real life friends, as well as tying in the romantic travails of many of the characters. But it also spoke to a very real phenomenon within the tech world: the lonely software engineer.
The psychology of this makes perfect sense if you break it down. The folks behind our online world, by and large, are antisocial types who had a hard time making friends or maintaining relationships throughout their lives. They’d prefer to sit for hours in front of a glowing screen, coding, or gaming, or hacking or, in the most extreme cases, trolling folks in the comments sections and message boards of the world. This gives them some feeling of control and power. When it comes to real human interactions, though, that’s when they run into trouble. That’s what was at the root of both The Social Network and Steve Jobs. Here are two guys (Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, respectively) who fundamentally changed the way we live our lives, but who have a complete inability to relate to other humans.
In the world of Silicon Valley, these are the exact types of people we’re surrounded with. Here are five or six guys barely able to tolerate one another, but who do so because they believe in the potential of this thing they’re building together. Yet when confronted with the notion of sharing the Beta invites for this new platform, poor Dinesh looked almost scared. It’s played for laughs and he gets raked over the coals about his lack of friends by Gilfoyle (natch), but there’s something far more sad and truthful lying under the surface of this plotline.
According to a 2013 piece in The Globe & Mail, people are more lonely than ever. Writes Elizabeth Renzetti: “In Vancouver, residents recently listed social isolation as their most pressing concern. More Canadians than ever live alone, and almost one-quarter describe themselves as lonely. In the United States, two studies showed that 40 per cent of people say they’re lonely, a figure that has doubled in 30 years. Britain has a registered charity campaigning to end chronic loneliness, and last month, health secretary Jeremy Hunt gave a speech about the isolated many, calling attention to ‘a forgotten million who live amongst us ignored, to our national shame.’”
For as interconnected as we are with people all over the world, we can often feel more isolated than ever. I’m living proof of this. I have been freelancing as a career for the past eight years and I feel incredibly detached from the world. Yes, I set my own schedule and get to work on a wide variety of projects as a result, but if I didn’t force myself to leave the house, I might not bother. Why would I, when my family is here as well as a plenitude of movie, music, and TV options just a few clicks away? Some folks in my similar position aren’t lucky enough to have a wife and kid around for real conversation and socialization. For them, their computer might be their closest friend. Again… why not then give it a name and, with that, some semblance of a personality?
A real life Gilfoyle might actually feel little pangs of sadness when gently putting his/her small server farm to sleep. Just as I’m sure a real life Dave Bowman would have felt putting an end to the “life” of HAL 9000. Or, a real life Theodore would feel every bit of real heartache over the farewell of his beloved OS Samantha. So we feel for and empathize with Gilfoyle, even though we know he wouldn’t want us to. He’d just want us to leave him alone so he can get some goddamn work done.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. Follow him on Twitter.