HBO’s Silicon Valley provides much-needed comic relief in its post-Game of Thrones timeslot, but as always with a Mike Judge production, there’s an edge to the humor.  In particular, last week’s episode, “Third Party Insourcing,” dealt with a source of anxiety too real to laugh off: autonomous technology.

To recap, a soft-spoken business manager named Donald takes a ride in a driverless car, which overrides his route and drives him onto a container ship destined for a remote island. Oh, and that island is only inhabited by driverless forklifts, cranes and other robotic builders. No sign of Gilligan.

The incident doesn’t just speak to our fear of being stranded, though it sounds familiar to anyone whose GPS has led them astray. Rather, it can be seen as drawing a direct connection between human helplessness and technological tyranny (which, paradoxically enough, humans are creating). Driven by the pursuit of efficiency, ingenuity or plain laziness, humanity is surrendering more control to the devices and machines intended to support it. This episode, showing a man trapped by his surroundings, puts forth the message that we’re digging our own graves, with the help of autonomous bulldozers.

Though the technology featured in Silicon Valley is new (both within the show and in reality), the sentiment against automation certainly rings a bell. Dating back to 15th-century Holland, laborers who depend on manual processes for their employment have resisted automated technology.  Such resistance wouldn’t be misplaced in the modern era, either—a recent study from Oxford University suggests that up to 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at high risk of being automated, particularly jobs in transportation, logistics and manufacturing.

The news may be unsettling for the current workforce, but over time, the doors closed by automation can give rise to different opportunities. The complex devices being produced by robotics manufacturers still need to be designed, maintained and repaired by humans with specialized skillsets. The key to survival isn’t resistance, but adaptation.

The truth is, the “good ol’ days” only go back as far as our memories. Few lament the lack of elevator operator positions available today. Moreover, technology has automated many tasks considered dangerous, such as moving heavy materials or working underwater. (After all, what good is job security if it kills you?) Humans constantly adapt to reap the most benefit from whatever technology is available.

But what happens if the symbiotic relationship between man and machine goes south? Films such as The Matrix and Terminator imagine the potential terrifying consequences of sentient technology (which could give pause to anyone thinking about implementing the Internet of Things). But the fear embodied in Silicon Valley’s most recent episode touches on a different anxiety: insignificance.  It depicts a world void of humans, instead of one populated by sentient technologies dependent on our energy or violently opposed to our existence. In the episode, Donald tries desperately to interact with his driverless vehicle, even calling the onboard computer “Mr. Car.” His cries go unheard—not for a lack of empathy, but for a lack of software.

We need to remember, though, that this loss of control and significance occurs all the time, regardless of automation’s involvement. Anyone who’s ridden in a cab, with a human cab driver, has surrendered control. In fact, anyone who’s ever been in a car trusts that surrounding drivers will make rational decisions and effectively prevent chaos and destruction.

What humans really don’t like is the idea of giving up control to the point of not being able to regain it, which is what happens in this episode of Silicon Valley. But autonomy itself is not the enemy, as is evident in the semi-autonomous technology already embraced by car manufacturers and drivers alike. The enemy is the engineer who does not include a manual override feature.

Related Posts