What if there was a Mad Men-style retro TV show that focused on tech? And what if that show, a fictional drama, somehow got most of the beats right about the history of Silicon Valley during its rise in the ’80s and ’90s? Yeah, me too, I’d definitely watch.
Well, you’re in luck. That show exists. It’s on AMC, where it’s currently moving through its fourth season, despite the fact that many people still don’t seem to know the show even exists. It’s called Halt and Catch Fire, and there’s still time to become a super fan like me — even as the series draws to a close in this, its final season.
Why should you care? Because it uses the artistry of drama and the shadow of real recent history to impart a number of powerful messages about one of the most important topics in 2017: the role of women in tech.
Using the framework of a non-documentary, alternative tech history, the series also illuminates the nature of some of the challenges faced by early tech innovators, as well as the passions that fueled their drive to create what we now know as the modern tech industry responsible for your iPhone, your laptop, and even your favorite websites.
Season 1 focused on the emergence of personal computers (with a special appearance from none other than the Apple Macintosh). Season 2 dove into the rise online gaming and chat rooms. And Season 3 introduced us to the advent of antivirus software and the World Wide Web.
That may not sound sexy, but stirring performances from the likes of Mackenzie Davis (of Black Mirror‘s “San Junipero”) and Lee “this guy should play all the Steve Jobs roles” Pace (Pushing Daisies and Lord of the Rings) raise the dramatic tension around building software, hardware, and the modern web into something that pulls you in, even if you’ve never touched a line code.
In ‘Halt and Catch Fire,’ the inventor of the first search site is a teenage girl, the lead on a VC firm’s best innovation is a black woman, and the most brilliant coder is, again, a woman.
Season 4, currently on Episode 4 of 10, is perhaps the most important of the series, as it ushers in the concept of search engines (and venture capital).
We’re introduced to two of the first (fictional) search engines in Comet (similar to early Yahoo, focused on human-crafted indexing) and Rover (similar to early, algorithm-powered search from Google). The show turns seemingly sedate intrigue around search engine code wars into Game of Thrones-style twists of betrayal and eureka moments. Don’t believe me, just check the Rotten Tomatoes (91 percent) and IMDB (8.1) ratings.
But Halt and Catch Fire is at its best in the moments in which it crafts a narrative in which women and people of color are in the spotlight, giving rise to major tech innovations as leaders. Of course, there were actual women and people of color helping lead the tech industry in the ’80s and ’90s — and they often received little credit or exposure. The reality presented by Halt and Catch Fire offers a powerful counter-narrative of how tech history might have played out in a tech industry somewhat less controlled by sexist norms (although sexism is still a challenge women face in the show).
In the world of Halt and Catch Fire, the most powerful VC is a woman, the inventor of the first search site is a teenage girl, the lead on a VC firm’s best innovation is a black woman, and the most brilliant coder is, again, a woman (Davis). Some of these things have happened in reality, but in Halt and Catch Fire, the women who are innovators and leaders aren’t buried in obscurity as they so often are in the real world. (Well, some men in the show’s narrative try, but Davis and her counterpart, Kerry Bishé, don’t let that shit stand.)
The internet wasn’t a cute baby. #HaltAndCatchFire pic.twitter.com/W7PETOqWk0
— Halt and Catch Fire (@HaltAMC) August 29, 2017
It’s beautiful to watch, and just as gripping, if not more so, than watching a couple of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs stand-ins vie for control of the nascent tech universe.
Beyond the fictional storylines of tech’s rise, the show is also an homage to all the unsung women in tech from decades past who helped build Silicon Valley.
The advertising tagline for the show’s final season is “What are you searching for?” It’s a nod to the show’s ever-evolving character arcs, as well as its focus on the birth of search engines in the ’90s.
Witness the ruthless race to the future on the final season of #HaltAndCatchFire. pic.twitter.com/yqaCCa6hEw
— Halt and Catch Fire (@HaltAMC) August 26, 2017
But more than anything, that message, and the show itself, is a powerful piece of pop culture code that has infected its fans with a welcome and refreshing mind virus of empowerment, particularly for tech’s lesser known heroes.
No, you won’t learn the facts of exactly what happened in the early history of Silicon Valley, but after watching Halt and Catch Fire, you may want to go and find out what really happened (the bad and the good). Perhaps you’ll even be inspired to try your hand at becoming a part of the future of tech history that’s still being made today.