BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 21 AUG 15
Featured in
Issue 173

You Can Do it!

The glorification of the pontiffs of Palo Alto

BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 21 AUG 15

Halt and Catch Fire, 2015. Courtesy: AMC

After the Wright Brothers lifted off in their miraculous flying machine, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903, it’s unlikely anyone predicted a future of drones or satellite surveillance. Psychologists now warn parents about excessive screen time for children. I, child-free, have noticed how estranging it can be, seeing those little faces entirely directed at an inanimate glowing object, ignoring other humans who hope to talk and play with them. Still, the behaviour does provoke a question, even some optimism: might the many and various attention deficit disorders children now suffer disappear? Medical/psychological conditions do come and go, or change description: they are signs of the times.

Little humans are concentrating intently, the way I did as a child, while simultaneously reading a book and watching TV, one eye roving to the screen. Maybe these baby technophiles will sit quietly in class, in front of screens, if all their lessons are taught on them; and, teachers and parents will adapt to that. Maybe evolution has reasons for our species growing broad, flat asses. (The word on the street: sitting is the new smoking.) To what end this end, I can’t predict, except that healthy people with extra body fat do live longer, and will last longer if the food supply gives out. The us appears to be leading this evolutionary charge, with much of its population obese. Future humans might hibernate in caves, because the air is toxic, and live like bears off their fat.

No one knows what kinds of children will be produced from this novel screen-parenting. Generally, the effects of the new are seen as ominous. With change, people often believe things will get worse; ‘bad’ appears easier to predict than ‘good’. But none of this pessimism inhabits Silicon Valley and other tech sites: in their open-plan work-spaces, or as they chow down on healthy produce in their free cafeterias, the future looks fabulous. Some talk about utopia, though an outsider might ask if, unpaid or under-employed, they would be as committed to this future.

In the TV series Halt and Catch Fire (2011–ongoing), its innovators would be totally committed. Currently in its second season, Halt and Catch Fire dramatizes the 1980s birth of the home computer, its games, neophyte communities, and computer-cowboys riding into a territory with no laws, just talent. The show’s genius protagonists are Joe MacMillan, Cameron Howe and Gordon and Donna Clark – that two such unique women existed in the 1980s is a welcome fiction. MacMillan is a kind of magus; Howe, a speedy rebel with a start-up called Mutiny; and the Clarks, a married couple with kids, equally talented. Donna solves big problems while Gordon thinks big, does big, and also ruins what he touches.

Their conversations scintillate with capitalist team spirit. A paradigmatic speech comes from neurotic Gordon to four top men in the field: he’d asked them to work with him on inventing an inexpensive, easy-to-configure model. It will blow everything else out of the water. They make it, in two days! Wow!

Gordon thanks them: ‘The hardest thing in life is to get knocked down and to get up. We do it because we love it, and we know it’s the right idea […] I think I’ve finally found the thing that will allow me to say: You can do it. You can follow your dream, no matter how hard it is. You can do it.’ Horatio Alger all over again. I stare at the screen, stupefied, somehow caught up in Gordon’s enthusiasm. It helps that he’s just learned he has an incurable neurological condition.

The stories are many, the plot single-minded: how to rise to the top, with the best product, fight off the competitors trying to steal it and become mega-rich. As these driven characters gaze into the guts of pasted-together hard drives, their brains lit up, they excitedly expatiate on their visionary schemes, which now are household items.

Halt and Catch Fire is historical fiction: it does the tech-talk of the day, along with fevered sex and plaintive romance. It enacts ethical conflicts among the strivers, and extolls the hard work needed to make it new. The recent past is turned into a genre – say, capitalist melodrama. And, the glorification of the pontiffs of Palo Alto is constant.

Hollywood has often honoured geniuses: Madame Curie, Sigmund Freud, Alexander Graham Bell, Helen Keller, John Forbes Nash. No bio-pic of Albert Einstein, yet. Who’d play him? Not Daniel Day-Lewis, but I can imagine him: Day-Lewis is wearing a Warhol-like white wig and stands about five feet tall, having shrunk himself to Einstein’s size through complete immersion in his character. I’d love to see that movie.

Lynne Tillman is the author of Mothercare (2022) and numerous other books. The reissue of her 

second novel, Motion Sickness (1991), was published by Peninsula Press in September.