“HALT AND CATCH FIRE (HCF): An early computer command that sent the machine into a race condition, forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once. Control of the computer could not be regained.”
Halt and Catch Fire has never been subtle about its view of capitalism. The very first thing that appears on screen at the start of the pilot is a definition of its title, worded to produce a clear double meaning: this is a story about how endless competition causes a system to implode.
Here in 2017, in what some optimistically call late capitalism, the corrosive effects of this infinite race to the bottom are all around us. Wages stagnate so employers can keep more profit for themselves. We’re awash in effective monopolies (Google for search engines, Facebook for personal social media pages, Amazon for online shopping) that will only grow more powerful unless we’re blessed with a sudden revival in antitrust policy. Towns fill with boarded-up windows as small businesses are razed by the Walmarts of the world and rural areas become desolate and abandoned as the young chase dwindling jobs on the other side of the country or the world. There are dozens of corporations with revenues equal to or greater than nations, carefully compartmentalised and domiciled to pay essentially zero taxes while public services that should be the basic infrastructure of a decent life – healthcare, housing, transport – are skinned to the bone in the name of austerity or sold off to the very corporations that killed them. “Already, the cash that Apple has on hand exceeds the GDPs of two-thirds of the world’s countries,” says Foreign Policy, and if you’ve ever had even a moment of naïve hope that anything has ever been done to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crash, think again:
“After the 2008 financial crisis, the U.S. Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act to discourage banks from growing excessively big and catastrophe-prone. Yet while the law crushed some smaller financial institutions, the largest banks — with operations spread across many countries — actually became even larger, amassing more capital and lending less. Today, the 10 biggest banks still control almost 50 percent of assets under management worldwide.”
Much like Halt and Catch Fire, we at The Sundae have never been subtle about our opinions about capitalism: we believe it’s a system designed to enrich an ever more exclusive few by immiserating an ever more desperate many. We believe it’s inherently immoral and unjust, and we eagerly await its long-overdue destruction. We’ve mentioned variations on these opinions often in our writing, and speaking for myself at least, I sometimes worry we’ve been heavy-handed. After all, I read tons of great critics, and they almost never mention capitalism, even when writing about shows like Halt and Catch Fire that are very obviously about capitalism, or shows like Silicon Valley that very obviously should be about capitalism, but aren’t for some reason. Sometimes I see how much I think everything is about capitalism, or should be, and I’m concerned I’ve let my socialist agenda corrupt my critical faculties.
But I write about capitalism in pop culture because almost no other critics do, and I see capitalism in every nook and cranny because it shapes and informs every aspect of our lives – we understand this when we talk about life in countries unlike the liberal democratic capitalist west, whether they’re communist or theocratic or whatever else, but so often act like capitalism is a default natural state instead of a deliberate way of organising society and the distribution of resources. We rarely blame capitalism for the atrocities of capitalism in the way we blame other ideologies and systems for the atrocities they brought about. But once you step back and stop thinking about capitalism as natural or inevitable in some way, you start to see how it infects every facet of our existence, how it judges us worthy of a decent life on our ability to be useful to the generation of profit, how it unfairly distributes everything from food and water to time itself, how it decides in a very fundamental way who lives and who dies.
Halt and Catch Fire is a TV show that understands just how insidious capitalism is in a way I’ve rarely seen in any work of art, especially its portrayal of time, and it’s not subtle about that focus either. Read it as a warning and the show’s title takes on yet another meaning.
If you stop moving, you will die.
Halt and Catch Fire begins in 1983 as the story of three misunderstood visionaries: Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), a former IBM sales executive who sees the incredible possibility for human connection in tech and wants to usher it into being; Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a middle-aged engineering genius slogging his way through a mediocre sales job after the failure of his first computer, the Symphonic; and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), an androgynous punk girl, coding prodigy and soon-to-be college dropout who wants to “build something that makes people fall in love”.
Joe cons his way into a job at Cardiff Electric, the small software company in the Silicon Prairie of Dallas-Fort Worth where Gordon works, and convinces Gordon to help illegally reverse-engineer a copy of the proprietary Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) code that underpins IBM’s operating system, then the industry standard. Joe enacts a convoluted plan to force Cardiff to create a personal computer division (he leaks the BIOS cloning to IBM, who threaten a lawsuit that will bankrupt Cardiff unless they backdate the work to cover up the BIOS cloning as necessary research to create a machine compatible with IBM software) and brings on Cameron to write a new BIOS. Initially on the edges are John “Boz” Bosworth (Toby Huss), Vice-President of Cardiff, and Gordon’s wife, Donna (Kerry Bishé), co-creator of the Symphonic and also an engineering genius roughing it in an underpaid quality assurance job at Texas Instruments, though both eventually become core players in the story. Together, the five of them build the Cardiff Giant, a portable computer that’s the lightest ever thanks to Donna’s brilliant idea to save space by putting chips on both sides of the circuit board. The Giant is a technically beautiful machine that Cameron gives a soul with an operating system that responds to the user like a conversation partner – a computer that people can fall in love with.
For many critics, the first season of Halt and Catch Fire was apparently so uncritical about capitalism as a cauldron of innovation that it came as a shock when the season ended with Gordon and Joe removing Cameron’s operating system – literally tearing out the Giant’s soul – to make it cheaper in order to outmanoeuvre a rival machine built on ideas stolen by a disgruntled ex-Cardiff employee and Donna’s former boss at Texas Instruments. An unbelievably stupid piece from a writer at a libertarian think tank even referred to Halt and Catch Fire as “capitalism’s finest hour” in what may be the most embarrassing misapprehension of a work of art since Roger Ebert called Blue Velvet disgusting for “exploiting” Isabella Rossellini. While the finale laid it on thicker than any other episode of the first season, it’s hard to see how anyone could miss all the ways that Halt and Catch Fire critiques capitalism beforehand if they were paying attention. From Donna pointing out uncompensated labour she does in the home so Gordon can work the hours that Cardiff requires of him (“I make your world possible”) to the constant frustration of the whole team every time their brilliant solutions to technical problems are restricted by financial cost when the only limit should be the laws of physics, the show’s first season was consistently sceptical of capitalism both as a way of creating and supporting the good life and as a system for driving innovation.
Halt and Catch Fire doesn’t look admiringly on the long nights of unpaid overtime that Gordon endures to finish the Giant – in one of the most incredible sequences of the first season, Gordon undergoes a psychotic break from the stress of the project while watching his daughters. He tells his daughters the story of the Cardiff Giant hoax and the trickery of the great con artist PT Barnum who stole the idea of the Giant from a forgotten farmer, an expression of Gordon’s own fears that Joe will ultimately take credit for his work. Donna arrives home to find him digging a hole in their backyard. “I’m looking for the Giant,” he tells her. Nor does Halt and Catch Fire look on all the damage to people’s lives involved in the so-called “creative destruction” of disruptive innovation that wipes out jobs, companies and entire industries based on now-obsolete services and products (e.g. the replacement of human labourers with machines), to be worth whatever innovation occurs. The Cardiff Giant is an impressive machine, but it’s not worth the livelihoods of all the people who lose their jobs in the pivot from software to hardware, or the suffering the protagonists undergo to create it, especially when the capitalist imperative of profitability leads Gordon and Joe to destroy everything that makes the Giant unique so that it can survive as a functional but soulless product.
Joe, Gordon and Cameron originally unite around their belief in the democratising and connective possibilities of tech – Joe seeks out Gordon after reading an article he wrote on open architecture as a way of freeing computer design from corporate strictures, and chose Cameron as his programmer because she could foresee the mass connectivity of the Internet from 1983, six years before Tim Berners-Lee proposed the creation of the World Wide Web. “I thought that maybe we could do this precisely because we’re all unreasonable people and progress depends on our changing the world to fit us. Not the other way around,” Joe tells Gordon and Cameron during one of his trademark inspirational speeches. “I want to believe that. I must believe that.” Joe is right to say they’re all unreasonable people, but only in the logic of capitalism. Anyone who works closely with the team comes to understand and agree with their vision, because it’s ultimately not unreasonable at all that everyone should have a computer in their home that lets them work more efficiently and pursue their interests and communicate with other people.
What’s unreasonable is that reasonable leaps forward are delayed until a more convenient moment for those who hold the purse-strings. Throughout Halt and Catch Fire, though there are conflicts between the main characters, the ultimate villains are always the money people out for nothing but profit. The owner of Cardiff Electric almost destroys everything the protagonists worked for in the first season when he gets cold feet at the last minute and refuses to fund the final stage of development on the Giant because it’s too risky, forcing Cameron and Boz to hack his bank account to save their machine. In the second season, Joe’s oil tycoon father-in-law Jacob Wheeler lets Joe present an offer to buy Mutiny, the online gaming company founded by Cameron and Donna at the end of the first season, that makes it seem like he’ll fund their creative endeavours, but privately reveals he plans to discard every part of their platform except Community, Donna’s chatroom and instant messaging app, and later steals the entire platform when Joe tells Cameron not to sell. Tragically, the third season antagonist turns out to be Donna herself, as she becomes more focused on the business side of running Mutiny, and eventually sacrifices Mutiny’s ideals on the altar of its financial success.
The show had already portrayed the problem of capital’s control over time in previous seasons through the constant obstacles to the characters’ vision from moneyed interests either deliberately sabotaging innovation (IBM stealing all of Cardiff’s software clients to choke them of cash on hand to fund the new PC division) or simply incapable of making their brilliant work profitable at the time (the characters invent lots of things that are ubiquitous today, including online chat, but always too early to make money, and so doomed to the dustbin of history).
But season three’s conflict over taking Mutiny public is my favourite because it really makes clear just how stupid and arbitrary capitalism is – the acquisition offer from CompuServe gives Mutiny a three-month window in which to float the company on the stock market, and that deadline creates a ridiculous conflict between Cameron and Donna. Both want to improve the platform in the same ways, but Donna wants to use the influx of cash from taking Mutiny public to fund the improvements, while Cameron wants to improve the platform first so it’ll be more sustainable when they do take it public. Their only disagreement is over the feasibility of each other’s approach – Donna thinks Cameron’s path risks failure because the money people might lose interest in Mutiny before they complete the improvements, while Cameron thinks Donna’s path risks failure because delaying the improvements means Mutiny is more likely to crash and burn in the long term. Events come to a head at a shareholders’ meeting where Donna and Cameron both say they’ll leave the company if the other wins the vote on how to proceed. Cameron loses and everything plays out as she predicted, but it’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy because Cameron, as the programming genius, isn’t there to oversee the improvements to the platform. We can’t know for sure, but it seems just as possible that Cameron’s approach would have failed if the more business-savvy Donna had left the company in the scenario where Cameron won the vote. The real problem is that they had to make that choice at all, and only because the holders of capital and their systems of managing economic activity arbitrarily put them on a deadline and made them rush to competing decisions that neither of them was happy with out of fear that it would cost them their company.
Capitalism suppresses the very innovation that’s so often used to justify it, just as it does in real life. How many innovations in renewable energy have been prevented from stopping the imminent ecological apocalypse not because they’re not functional, but because they’re not yet profitable? How many of those innovations are not yet “profitable” because fossil fuel concerns deliberately arrange to keep them so, hoping to squeeze every last ounce of profit from fossil fuels before replacing them with renewables, even though the world will probably be a charred lifeless husk long before we drain the last reserves of oil and gas? There’s a reason that defenders of capitalism only ever offer occasional secondary effects of capitalism like innovation or social mobility as justifications of capitalism, and never defend the generation of endless profit as a moral good, which is the core moral question of capitalism, a system based on nothing but distributing wealth upwards into the grubby hands of a tiny elite. Not only is the profit motive indefensibly evil in itself, but the competition for profit isn’t a game with rules, it’s a vicious and bloody battle where the people with money don’t care if thousands of people die from a preventable gas leak, or have their water poisoned by fracking, as long as cutting corners keeps their profit margins high.
When I ponder the absence of critical writing about Halt and Catch Fire’s portrayal of capitalism, I’m often struck by the number of reviews that talk about it as a show about sexism in the tech industry, but always in a way that makes it seem like sexism is an abhorrent moral stain on an otherwise neutral entity called “the tech industry”. Of course, the sexism of powerful men in the industry is an obstacle for Cameron and Donna, and one of Halt and Catch Fire’s greatest strengths is how it shows the very different ways that sexists target Cameron, who’s punished for being young, outspoken, androgynous and dressing like a grunge Daryl Hannah, and Donna, a mother of two who dresses like an extra from Hidden Figures and who’s talked down to and run roughshod over because she’s learned how to hold her tongue and massage the egos of fragile men. But Halt and Catch Fire has a more nuanced take on the interaction between gender and capitalism than “sexism in the tech industry”. The show recognises that what gives these sexist men the power to obstruct Cameron and Donna, rather than just be personally unpleasant dickheads, is their control of the capital that dictates who does and doesn’t get to thrive in a capitalist society.
Just one among the many great injustices of the capitalist system is how it amplifies and magnifies the prejudices of whoever holds capital to the extent that their prejudices shape the entire structure of society. Capitalism depends on uncompensated domestic labour, but capitalism as a system doesn’t care who does it – it’s the misogynistic expectations of capitalists that imposes that burden on women in particular, because it’s the owners of capital – the employers – who decide who gets a job and who doesn’t. If they think women should be the segment of society who performs domestic labour (when really it could be anyone), then they’ll only hire men. For many people, the solution is to have more women in boardrooms making those kinds of decisions, but Halt and Catch Fire articulates the simple flaw in that premise: capitalist women are still capitalists, and more women in boardrooms is only a solution if women can’t have prejudices (they can) and if there isn’t inequality built into capitalism (there is – you can only be rich at the expense of the poor). When Cameron’s desire to spend a year or two perfecting Mutiny’s platform into a more sustainable product (already a compromise from her general disinterest in excessively monetising the platform) conflicts with Donna’s desire, along with the other shareholders, to take the company public immediately rather than risk never getting rich, neither bonds of sisterhood nor their deep friendship stop Donna from driving Cameron out of the company – profit beats solidarity.
Donna’s fall from grace in season three is shown in excruciating detail precisely because Donna is a feminist and Halt and Catch Fire wants to expose the cracks in the idea of “women in boardrooms”. Obviously, jobs should be distributed more fairly across all demographic lines as an issue of basic justice, but liberal feminists often advocate for more women in higher positions not on the basis of justice, but on the ridiculous premise that more women in control will somehow make capitalism kinder. Donna is a bad feminist, but she’s an excellent capitalist, and that’s exactly the point: capitalism is a system built on exploitation and cruelty, but those qualities are all antithetical to feminism, which aims to free women from exploitation and cruelty, not just shift around which women experience it. Women should have an equal share of jobs and opportunities, but the economy should also be structured so that eight men don’t own as much as the poorest 50% of the entire world population while people go without food and clothes and housing and healthcare because there’s “not enough money for everyone”. Who cares if there are more women in charge of a system that deprives people of basic necessities in the name of profit, if it’s still a system that deprives people of basic necessities in the name of profit? Feminism without anti-capitalism is the feminism of “we need more female police officers to shoot unarmed black men” or “we need more women torturing Muslims in black sites” – a blunt representational tokenism that demands equal participation of all genders in the murder of the poor.
Halt and Catch Fire’s final season began airing in the United States last night. I haven’t watched the premiere yet, so I have no prognostications about where I think the season will go. I hate that style of criticism anyway, but especially in the case of Halt and Catch Fire, I think it misses the point. Of course, I wish the characters well, in that strange way we become invested in the fates of people who aren’t real, and who don’t experience pain and loss and disappointment. But regardless of whether they escape the cycle of defeat they’re trapped in, we know how the future really shakes out.
Our intrepid tech visionaries with their utopian hopes don’t save the world – if anything, the world gets worse, and the impending destruction of the world due to environmental collapse puts us on a far shorter timeline to fix it than any previous generation.
We don’t all agree yet how exactly we’ll do that. Some of us believe we merely need to improve on the status quo. Some of us believe we need to transform society from the ground up. We’re still teasing out the answers, and the possibility of alliance between those of us who disagree in good faith. I’m a socialist, but regardless of where you stand, if you recognise things cannot continue the way they have so far, I think Halt and Catch Fire offers a good guide on the kind of ideals and goals that should be anyone’s starting point. Wherever you see the dark heart of unfettered capitalism in Halt and Catch Fire, the values opposing it are consistent: collaboration, community, democracy, kindness, selflessness, creativity, love and joy. When we work together instead of against each other, when we all play a role in deciding our future instead of leaving it in the hands of a moneyed elite, and when our goal is to bring about prosperity and happiness and flourishing for everyone, not just the rich, that’s when we’ll know we’re on the right track. Halt and Catch Fire is a period piece about how the modern world came to be so twisted and broken, and it would be a grim, fatalistic series if it didn’t believe we could still make things right in the here and now.
The tragic hero of the third season is Ryan Ray, a young programmer who becomes Joe’s protégé at his computer security company, MacMillan Utility. When the company’s board of directors plan to start charging for home security software that Joe had given away for free, Ryan releases the source code online, making it free for everyone, forever, because security is a right, not a privilege. For his defiance of corporate power, Ryan is hounded to the ends of the earth by the FBI, before finally taking his own life to escape punishment. His suicide note is worth quoting in full:
“I, Ryan Ray, released the MacMillan Utility source code. I acted alone; no one helped me, and no one told me to do it. I did this because “security” is a myth. Contrary to what you might have heard, my friends, you are not safe. Safety is a story; it’s something we teach our children so they can sleep at night, but we know it’s not real. Beware, baffled humans. Beware of false prophets who will sell you a fake future, of bad teachers, corrupt leaders and dirty corporations. Beware of cops and robbers… the kind that rob your dreams. But most of all, beware of each other, because everything’s about to change. The world is going to crack wide open. There’s something on the horizon. A massive connectivity. The barriers between us will disappear, and we’re not ready. We’ll hurt each other in new ways. We’ll sell and be sold. We’ll expose our most tender selves, only to be mocked and destroyed. We’ll be so vulnerable, and we’ll pay the price. We won’t be able to pretend that we can protect ourselves anymore. It’s a huge danger, a gigantic risk, but it’s worth it. If only we can learn to take care of each other. Then this awesome, destructive new connection won’t isolate us. It won’t leave us in the end so… totally alone.”
Ryan’s note is a warning about the perils of the transformative connectivity of the Internet, but it’s not just about cyberbullying. It’s also about the monetisation of our living selves (e.g. Facebook and Google selling our personal information to advertising companies) and how the already vast power of corporations will only grow in this new domain. We live in the world that Ryan saw on the horizon and sometimes it’s difficult to believe we’ll ever live in a better one, but we don’t have a choice. No matter how difficult it is to continue, it’s the only thing any of us can do, because if we stop moving, we’ll die.
The last chance to save the world belongs to us.