The only thing everyone in blockchain agrees about is that blockchain has a mainstream image problem. Pop culture is full of talk about tulip bubbles, dark-web boogeymen, attention-starved child actors, Lambo-buying ponzi-schemers, anarchist hackers, and shitcoin-shilling celebrities.
The scabrous satire of HBO’s Silicon Valley could have just sprayed more gasoline on the dumpster fire. But the series, which began as a lampoon of a data-compression start-up, has somehow become a walking, talking pitch-deck for blockchain, complete with an actual Powerpoint presentation.
Yes, the recent season featured a billionaire who lost all his money on ICOs—and spent a scene sifting through a trash heap looking for a lost crypto wallet—but the fifth season also gave Coinbase a plum call-out in the show’s opening animation, alongside Google and Uber. And, instead of portraying crypto as nothing but some back-alley filled with dark-web assassins and scammy ICOs, the series has evolved into the empathetic story of three hostel hackers who are striving to build a better internet.
For viewers confused by this often-baffling wave of innovation, the show has offered three compelling answers to everyone’s most basic question: Why blockchain?
Since few agree on why blockchain matters, the show’s heroes actually have three distinct motivations: Chasing that Lambo, choosing cryptocurrency over old-school money, and believing in decentralization instead of corporate monopoly. They believe cryptocurrency represents three kinds of fuck you money:
1. Fuck-you money: enough wealth to buy happiness, or at least an exotic car.
Plagued by insecurities, Pied Piper senior programmer Dinesh Chugtai (Kumail Nanjiani) is the Rodney Dangerfield of Silicon Valley: He gets no respect. So, like many men (and Dangerfield characters) before him, Dinesh intends to buy it. With fuck-you money.
Dinesh doesn’t want to change the world; he wants to change how the world sees him. He’d prefer to be known as the “Pakistani Denzel” and, like so many crypto dudes, he’s after that Lambo money—or, as he calls it, “Tesla superiority.”
“I used to be the Tesla guy in the office,” he says, after discovering his car’s “insane mode” has been eclipsed by a junior employee’s newer Tesla, which features a “ludicrous” mode. “Any one of these bourgeois, new-money millennial fucks can just go out and buy one,” he gripes. “I don’t wanna sound selfish, but sometimes I wish only I made money. You know?”
Dinesh would have taken the venture capital money offered to Pied Piper, but he’s cool with blockchain if it helps him get that fuck-you money eventually. Maybe next season, he’ll be that crypto bro you see at the blockchain conference, rolling up to a Chipotle in a leased Lambo. Maybe in season seven, he’ll be more like Craig S. Wright (aka Faketoshi), so desperate to prove himself that he spends his days on Twitter taunting haters with yacht pics of his fuck-you money.
2. “Fuck you, money”: a rejection of fiat currency.
Pied Piper chief systems architect Bertram Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) isn’t in it for the Lambo. He’s a devout anarchist-Satanist hacker. “There are very few things that I will defend with true passion,” he says. “Medical marijuana, the biblical Satan as a metaphor for rebellion against tyranny, and motherfucking goddamn cryptocurrency.”
A bitcoin miner, Gilfoyle produces a pro-crypto Powerpoint that quotes Aristotle’s definition of sound money as being “durable, transferable, divisible, scarce, recognizable… and fungible” and describes banks as “thieves of economic injustice” that “steal as much money as they store.”
The entire presentation, available online, plays out like a Socratic sales pitch, in which he tees up common critiques and shoots them down. “Every day I read about how we’re in a bitcoin bubble,” Gilfoyle says. “And who is writing those articles? Is it possible that Warren Buffet called bitcoin a pyramid scheme because he has 92 billion conventional dollars to protect?”
His bottom line: “Netizens should be able to pay for any good they want. In any way they want. Without any government looking in. Some call that money laundering. Others call it smart shopping.”
Gilfoyle passionately believes in cryptocurrency because it allows him to say: Fuck your government-backed, censorable, slow, inefficient transactions. He swears by crypto because it might allow him to swear off traditional money: to tell the U.S. dollar to suck it; the Venezeulan bolivar to kiss his ass, and the Chinese yuan to go to hell. He believes in motherfucking goddamn cryptocurrency because it’s his way of saying, “Fuck you, money.”
3. “Fuck you, Money”: a rejection of Big Money.
Dinesh believes in blockchain because it’s the quickest path to getting enough “fuck-you money” to buy a Tesla and Gilfoyle believes cryptocurrency because it’s is his way to say “fuck you, money” to fiat currency, but Pied Piper Founder and CEO Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) has higher aims.
Richard is in it for the little guy: the idealistic coders who have their big ideas perverted by corporate greed, and the users who get used by companies like Google. “For thousands of years, guys like us have gotten the shit kicked out of us,” Richard once said. “But now, for the first time, we’re living in an era where we can be in charge and build empires.”
A purist who sees “inferior products win out all the time,” Richard wants to build a better, decentralized Internet. His company slogan: “You own your data. You control your identity. You have the power.”
In the penultimate episode of Silicon Valley’s last season, Richard isn’t persuaded by Gilfoyle’s cryptocurrency PowerPoint. He rejects the idea of an ICO as sketchy. He is only convinced to reject venture-capital funding when he discovers that his VC partners will turn his company into just another data-mining, insecure, centralized system like the show’s corporate nemesis Hooli. Richard chooses blockchain because he’s pissed off and angry about being sold out, yet again.
Richard chooses blockchain because decentralization allows him to say “fuck you” to capital-m Money: the centralized establishment that mines user data, invades privacy, and maximizes shareholder value at all costs. Richard chooses blockchain because he hopes it can give the little guy the ability to disintermediate from Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Microsoft and say, “Fuck you, Money.”
There may be less profane reasons to care about blockchain. “Then again,” as Bobby Axelrod, the crypto-friendly BDE-having hedge fund manager of Showtime’s Billions likes to say, “What’s the point of having fuck-you money if you never say fuck you?”
Silicon Valley photo courtesy Ali Paige Goldstein/HBO