The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Where is HBO Silicon Valley’s Real Pied Piper? Look in Ayr, Scotland

HBO's “Silicon Valley” turns to real-world startup MaidSafe for its decentralized Internet

3 min read
Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods, Martin Starr, Thomas Middleditch in a scene from Season 5 of Silicon Valley
Photo: Ali Paige Goldstein/HBO

Pied Piper, the fictional startup of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” began as a data compression company. Producers during its first few seasons consulted with researchers at Stanford who specialize in compression algorithms—first, Tsachy Weissman and Vinith Misra, and later Dmitri Pavlichin—to put a real-world spin on discussions about its technology and the whiteboards explaining it. Weissman developed a new compression metric, the Weissman Score, for the show; real-world researchers even started using it. And Misra wrote a technical paper, published online, explaining a fictional (and R-rated) improvement to the compression algorithm.

But like so many startups, Pied Piper eventually pivoted to a different business model—and a new technology. Last season, Richard Hendriks and his team changed their focus to decentralizing the Internet, that is, creating what the show explained as a peer-to-peer network of websites “with no firewalls, no tolls, no government regulation, no spying.”

This wasn’t a unique idea, though it hadn’t gotten a huge amount of notice outside of segments of the tech industry. In 2015, Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, published a white paper making a case for a Decentralized Web, and in 2016 the Internet Archive held the first Decentralized Web Summit. Meanwhile, several real-world startups were working on developing the technology, including Anonymouse and MaidSafe. (While HBO Silicon Valley refers to a decentralized Internet, what the show describes is generally what the rest of the tech world calls a decentralized web.)

With the fifth season of “Silicon Valley” that kicked off in March, the engineers of the rapidly expanding Pied Piper aren’t talking compression at all, rather, they are busy reinventing the Internet. Says fictional CEO Richard Hendriks, “The idea of creating a new Internet—that’s special. We can rewrite the most important thing in human history and build it the way it should have been built all along, not this addictive parasite that companies …use to spy on us and exploit us.”

Nick Lambert\u00a0,David Irvine and Viv Rajkumar of MaidSafeNick Lambert, David Irvine, and Viv Rajkumar of MaidSafe aim to build a decentralized web.Photo: MaidSafe

Behind the scenes, this pivot meant that Stanford’s compression experts are off the job—and new technical experts are in. To learn about building a decentralized web, the show consulted the CEO, CTO, and COO at one of those real-world teams I reported on last year: David Irvine, Viv Rajkumar, and Nicholas Lambert at MaidSafe in Ayr, Scotland. Lambert says they were "delighted" to have offered advice to the production team.

“It is great that the decentralized web is getting such a high profile thanks to the show,” Lambert told me. “You only have to look at what’s gone on with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica to understand how important it is to build an alternative Internet that gives users back control.”

“Without trying to sound too much like Richard,” Lambert continued, “we are 100 percent focused on the goals of the decentralized web. Today’s Internet is broken. It is not just affecting the privacy of individual consumers. It is leading to censorship, fake news, and attempts to interfere in democrat processes. We passionately believe that we have to take a stand to defend what we believe to be the fundamental values of the Internet—openness, privacy and freedom of expression. We are dedicated to ensuring the benefits of the decentralized web go beyond a plot line.”

Lambert isn’t the only one pushing for a decentralized web in the real world. The Internet Archive just announced plans for its second Decentralized Web Summit, to be held this August. Maybe they should invite a certain TV crew.

Updated 18 April to reflect the company’s move to Ayr, Scotland.

The Conversation (0)

Why the Internet Needs the InterPlanetary File System

Peer-to-peer file sharing would make the Internet far more efficient

12 min read
Horizontal
An illustration of a series
Carl De Torres
LightBlue

When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in early 2020, the world made an unprecedented shift to remote work. As a precaution, some Internet providers scaled back service levels temporarily, although that probably wasn’t necessary for countries in Asia, Europe, and North America, which were generally able to cope with the surge in demand caused by people teleworking (and binge-watching Netflix). That’s because most of their networks were overprovisioned, with more capacity than they usually need. But in countries without the same level of investment in network infrastructure, the picture was less rosy: Internet service providers (ISPs) in South Africa and Venezuela, for instance, reported significant strain.

But is overprovisioning the only way to ensure resilience? We don’t think so. To understand the alternative approach we’re championing, though, you first need to recall how the Internet works.

Keep Reading ↓Show less