Saturday, 19 August 2017
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Secrets of Silicon Valley review – are we sleepwalking towards a …


Antonio García Martínez has seen the future and it is terrifying. Which is why he is going to set up home (“this is the drone room right here”) on a small island north of Seattle and live out the ravages of post-America, self-sufficiently, with a composting toilet and an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. He is nervy and fast-talking, like a survivor who has seen unimaginably horrific things. And he has – he was once a product manager at Facebook. There is going to be a “violent revolt”, he says. The tech overlords, he mentions in passing, are all building their own survivalist camps. The rest of us, the “normals”, are sleepwalking towards the apocalypse, posting Instagram pictures from our most recent Airbnb stay from the back of a self-driving Uber. The first of two episodes of Secrets of Silicon Valley (BBC2, Sunday) was a sobering look at how tech is going to change society quickly and dramatically.

The Industrial Revolution was nothing compared to what is coming, says one tech genius, Jeremy Howard, whose artificial intelligence (AI) software will probably replace doctors any day. He arrives on screen on a one-wheeled skateboard – why have four wheels if you can have one? It seems a neat symbol of how redundant most of us will become.

The presenter, technology writer Jamie Bartlett, with his scruffy beard and manbun, seems comfortingly analogue compared with the hoodied inventors and venture capitalists he meets. One tells him that anyone who questions the wisdom of where we are heading is “anti-progress”, and finishes with a long and chilling stare.

It wasn’t all dystopia. Bartlett visited a Silicon Valley mansion, where young engineers mostly had idealistic visions – one was inventing a way to reverse climate change, another was coming up with a plant-based burger. They tell themselves what all Silicon Valley inhabitants do – that making the world better, and making billions of dollars in the process, are not mutually exclusive. Airbnb executives claim to be connecting people across the world and helping people earn money to pay the rent; the effect is to push up housing costs for locals in cities such as Barcelona. A man from Uber says something vague about how the app is changing the way we use cars to save the world. But the programme shows how it has affected the livelihoods of taxi drivers, and worse, it claimed that, in Hyderabad in India, three Uber drivers have killed themselves. Bartlett does an emotional interview with the widow of one of them.

Many of us have fallen for the branding, Bartlett says – the idea that they are scrappy startups challenging the old order; that they are the “good guys” rather than the tax-minimising corporations they really are. The problem is, some of it is so exciting. It is fun to see a truck driven for 100 miles along the highway by a computer program; it is incredible that AI can be used to diagnose disease from a CT scan in a fraction of a second. But what will redundant truck drivers and radiologists do? It’s OK, say the inventors of the self-driving truck – other jobs will be invented that we can’t even imagine. Howard, the skateboarding radiologist-slayer is more willing to foresee disaster and massive social turmoil: “People aren’t scared enough.”

There was unrest in 18th-century Cornwall in the Poldark finale (BBC1, Sunday). “The Frenchies are coming!” wails Prudie, spotting three ships on the horizon then hitching up her skirts to run and alert everyone. But the French are the least of it. Jobs are being lost, grain prices are high, people are starving. There will be riots, predicts Demelza. “Must we truly stand by while the rich and mighty ride roughshod across we?” says Sam Carne, at a tavern meeting of commoners, incensed by the growing influence of Facebook and Google … sorry, I mean the evil deeds of George Warleggan, banker-turned-MP.

Ross Poldark, tasked with training volunteers to fight the French, is mobilised to protect Warleggan’s grain store. It leads to a tense standoff with the angry mob and much soul-searching from our hero. What an anticlimax, then, when Ross defuses the situation by announcing he will, at some point in the future, and if someone asks him to, stand as an MP for the good of everyone. We can guess at how climactic or not the other simmering standoff was, this one between Demelza and Hugh Armitage, the aristocratic and sensitive naval officer her husband Ross broke out of a French prison. He begs Demelza to give him a “taste of heaven” and there, in the swaying long grass, she does. It has been a gripping series, as bonkers as ever, but saved by some brilliant acting. I’ll miss it, although I’m not exactly looking forward to Poldark: the Westminster Years.



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