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Pirates of Silicon Valley – A Critical Analysis – Semaphore Film Screening

By Hervé St-Louis
January 22, 2014 - 14:50

I hosted the first film screening for Techniques and Start Ups at Semaphore Labs, an inclusive design, mobile and pervasive computing research cluster at the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto. Pirates of Silicon Valley was the first of a series of six movie screenings followed by critical discussions about themes in the film and how it relates to information ventures. Information ventures are new start ups related to information and communication technologies. When I pick this movie, I felt that it would provide some historical background for the rest of the series. And it did.

Pirates of Silicon Valley was released for television in 1999 by Turner Network Television. The goal of the movie was to tell the early history of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as each built computing technology empires that would popularize the use of computers for small business and home users. At the time, computers were still mostly mainframes with personal computers seen as niche hobbies for geeks as opposed to common electronic appliances. For Semaphore, the era demonstrated in The Pirates of Silicon Valley matters. Much of our research revolves around the ubiquity of computing with the public but also the political economy and critical consequences of the design and usage of such technologies. A common question of students of science and technology is do technologies determine the course of human social interactions, political organizations or are such technologies modulated by human interacting and modifying technologies to suit unforeseen needs previously ignored by inventors?

Two important themes are at play in this movie. The first one is the concept of generative versus closed technologies as argued by Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain. Zittrain argues that personal computers and other technologies such as the Internet offer open platforms from which subsequent technological improvements can be made. The film illustrates such a concept when it we see Bill Gates and his associates Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer attempt to graft their software on other people’s computing hardware. Yet Gates was specifically trying to make his additional technologies important components of the established platform, not just a random addition added to black box. Zittrain also argues that technologies can also be constructed as closed systems which do not allow foreign integration of new elements. This is a concept closely associated traditionally with Apple and Steve Jobs. In a crucial scene in the film, Bill Gates hovers behind Steve Jobs and whispers devilishly to Steve Jobs that his new Lisa computer needs Microsoft software. Jobs, of course, does not believe that Lisa needs any additional software, and especially not from Microsoft. Yet, Gates succeeds in convincing Jobs to let his programs on the Macintosh. Later, Jobs realizes that he has let the wolf into the barnyard and feels betrayed by Gates.

The second important theme of Pirates of Silicon Valley is how new technology is often open in its initial stages but as the industry matures, a few dominant players close innovation grounds until a new payer disrupts the monopolies and the cartels and allow innovation to occur again. This is a theory that was argued by Columbia Law professor Tim Wu. Personal computers disrupted the monopolies of IBM networked mainframe computers. The movie shows this quite well as it frames both Jobs and Gates’s quest for success as a way of thwarting the dominance of IBM and other large companies in the same industry such as Hewlett-Packard. Both Apple’s and Microsoft’s products as seen in the film disrupted their industries and challenged larger players such as IBM and Xerox. Xerox’s part in the movie, of course was about the famous adoption of the graphical user interface developed by Xerox’s Silicon Valley’s PARC by Apple. Zittrain argues that often dominant industry movers squash and even sabotage new disruptive technologies that could affect their businesses monopolies negatively. One could argue Xerox would never have commercialized the new graphical user interface and the computer mouse it had created because it was not in its direct interests to disrupt its existing business. Thus the “theft” by Apple was one of the only ways such innovative technology could have spread. What is interesting is that the movie alleges that Bill Gates and Microsoft then stole the same graphical interface and later the mouse from Apple, before the latter had even begun disrupting the computer industry.

The majority of the movie focuses on the private wars and tribulations of each of the respective technology empire and thus continues a popular theme in popular culture about the genius of the inventor. Wu argues that the inventor should not be receiving all of the adulation as the main disruptor of technologies. He argues that for an invention to occur, several parts and the right context must exist first. Thus innovations, disruptive or not are meant to exist eventually, one way or another when the conditions are right. What Wu argues matters the most is how these technologies are marketed and exploited. They need strong sponsors that will push them forward and be willing to fight competitive established monopolies and cartels. Again, the movie shows that both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were willing to play the roles of the sponsors while elevating the work of technological geniuses like Paul Allen and Steve Wozniak.

However, strong regulatory forces often tacitly promoted by established industrial players can also squash the prospects of disruptive technologies. In the movie, what we see is that disruptive technologies that do not face direct regulatory constraints, such as the personal computer can indeed survive long enough to foster stronger generative platforms. I the Pirates of Silicon Valley, the personal computer is generative technology first exploited by hobbyists and myriads of users. There is no governmental oversight on the actual architecture of a personal computer beyond the basic personal security requirements such as controls for fire hazards. How a computer manages, accesses and uses information is not regulated specifically.

The narrative parts of Pirates of Silicon Valley was quite entertaining especially as a story explained by Hollywood studios who often seem to not understand the world of information technologies that exists in Northern California. Silicon Valley has often disrupted the entertainment industry and there could be a lot of misunderstandings between the two worlds. This movie, historically produced in 1999 tells a story of technology giants before the full onslaught of Silicon Valley would attack Hollywood in areas such as digital music, films and books. Silicon Valley back then, although it was already quite involved in the multimedia sphere, did not directly challenge Hollywood’s cultural supremacy in the minds of Americans and the rest of the world. Yet, there is a sense that even back then, as in the portrayal of Steve Jobs by Noah Wyle. Wyle certainly displayed the antisocial aspects of Jobs’s personality but his casting also made him the hero of the film. On the opposite, Anthony Michael Hall’s Bill Gates is continually cunning and never endearing. He really is the antagonist in the movie and the one who played the biggest trick on the dashing Steve Jobs. The cinematography was cheesy. The effects looked cheap. Moreover, the movie photography has what has been described as the “Canadian film look” by some friends of mine. It lacks film grain and feels like it was overly lightened. Thus it gives the film a cheap production look or that made for television look that is well-below a night time drama or a Hollywood movie.

However, Pirates of Silicon Valley is a comprehensive and entertaining historical movie about two of the most influential technological families in current information and communication technologies. The battles of the personal computers have been repeated in the mobile world where a third player Google has joined the cast as the anti-king maker. The next movie in Semaphore’s Techniques and Start Ups film screening series is The Social Network, which can be perceived as a modern update of many Shakespearian stories of friendship and betrayal, as seen in the Pirates of Silicon Valley. But The Social Network can also be seen as more than a mere sequel to Pirates of Silicon Valley. It covers the creation of media empires in cyberspace and the direct integration of contents into platforms and the theoretical dethroning of Hollywood as the principal cultural force of North America. If you live in the Toronto area, please join us on January 28, 2014 from 5PM to 8PM at Semaphore Lab’s demo room at 130 St. George at the Robarts Library, Room 1150 for a lively screening and discussion of The Social Network.


Wu, Tim. The Master Switch. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Zittrain, Jonathan. The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

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