Last year I went to the second “instalment” of Russell’s conference called Interesting, and was struck to find one of the speakers was going to do a 10-minute talk on hair in The Good Wife. If you’re not familiar with the Good Wife, it’s an American TV drama series first aired on CBS and deals with the life an tribulations of Alicia Florrick, wife of the Illinois governor and ass-kicking attorney (it’s really good , BTW, you should give it a try).
The reason I was excited about seeing someone do a talk on The Good Wife (TGW) is I had always thought the series had a really interesting take on a number of things like tech, relationships, privacy, religion, but I had almost always wondered if I was the only one to think that. Truth be told, hair was not one of the topics I had found notable about TGW. But technology was.
After that talk, I started googling things about the series, convinced that there must be a lot of writing on the portrayal of tech in TGW and found, to my absolute surprise, there were not that many pieces. There’s this decent one in Wired all the way back in 2013 and a couple more here and here, in less widely known titles. But overall, what I thought would have generated a deluge of writing remains less talked about.
Here is why this is confusing to me: I think, largely, across multiple seasons TGW covers almost ALL of the big themes which we revolve around when it comes to tech and the Internet.
There’s the big Google-Facebook rivalry (Chumhum is clearly Google) and the time when Chumhum maps racially segregate reviews, the time when the same Chumhum’s facial recognition software inadvertently matches the face of an African American with that of a gorilla or the time when the main competitor of Chumhum and the Chumhum’s founder’s fiancee collude to keep developer salaries down in the Valley. All of these are stories modelled on actual events in the tech world. Even the story of how Patrick Edelstein, who is clearly Mark Zuckerberg, sues a production house for making a movie about how we created his tech empire, is basically the story of MZ and The Social Network.
But the tech stories don’t stop there: you have Snowden in former NSA contractor, turned accidental leaker and then fugitive to Iceland, Jeff Dellinger, Anonymous — who turn up to help Alicia on numerous occasions after Alicia helps one of its pretend-founders with a Bitcoin related case, and last but not least, a couple of episodes about self-driving cars and the highly discussed matter of who’s responsible for a car-crash involving a self-driving car.
I also recall several smaller instances of references to ad-tech and search, as when Jackie’s searches for condoms and other sex-related stuff stay cached in Alicia’s son’s browser, when ads on Chumhum maps and how they are targeted are discussed in depth by Luca and Cary who stare in disbelief at their respective browser showing two clearly racially-targeted banners on top of the same map location.
There’s a huge section of Season 6 dealing with the NSA and its massive surveillance of Americans and some more hacker-related stuff in Season 6 when Alicia’s firm’s computers are blocked by ransomware in the wake of an important deposition. We’d already seen some tech related hacks of voting machines as early as Season 2.
Finally, as Alicia’s husband gets ready to take on Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, there’s some early references to live leaks, fake news and device hacking to sabotage his campaign.
As you can see, I cannot think of something that has been topical for the tech world which TGW did not embrace. The way the show does it is equally interesting because the way it builds caricatures of all these players gives a bit of context on how they are seen by mainstream audiences.
Neil Gross, Chumhum (Google) creator, is a hoodie-wearing, pseudo-nerd with a mean streak who loves to get rid of anything and anyone standing in his way. His company’s mantra — a spoof of Google’s former “Do no Evil” — is clearly just a ploy to confuse people as he turns out to be a major douchebag.
The NSA seems to be populated with nerds who enjoy pranking one another with goat videos and have zero moral and ethical conundrums about the job they need to do. Two of them try really hard to make a tenuous connection between Alicia and a Nigerian refugee so they can continue listening to her calls, but their ultimate goal is to see if she will sleep with her boss.
The self-driving car episodes bring another tech-cliche on the scene, the tech purist and ethicist, in the person of Anthony Dudewitz (please note the name, by this point the creators are not even trying to hide how they feel about these guys :)). Dudewitz is a self-entitled, grandiose nerd who pontificates about the purity of algorithms but is eventually mystified by Alicia’s questioning into admitting that AI is unpredictable (oh, yeah, forgot to mention this one: AI and how it’s going to take over everything).
I could go on forever about this and if you google individual titles of the episodes you will find a bit more nuance on the specific topics but if you’re into tech and you’ve not watched TGW, now is the time.