Stop and catch fire is a fascinating AMC series about the computer industry of the 1980s, and its intense characters and nostalgic evocations of classic startups have made it a cult favorite for the past two years. Each season explores an aspect of the burgeoning tech scene – first in Austin, then San Francisco – by reimagining key moments in the early days of personal computing. Season 1 brought us the drama of making the first PC clones, Season 2 was a story about the early online gaming and chat room community at Mutiny’s startup, and Season 3 kicked off this week with a look at online services like eBay and antivirus software (evil marketing genius Joe turned into John McAfee). It’s a good start and offers a nuanced look at online privacy and startup culture.
You might say that Stop and catch fire is an alternate history of the techie 1980s, re-imagining the origins of today’s online world through the lives of our struggling, flawed geek heroes. Perhaps “alternate history” sounds like a strong term for a show that offers a fairly realistic snapshot of the tech world of the ’80s, right down to the squeaky music and New Wave design of the credits. Many details, such as the marketing of PC clones and online communities such as CompuServe, are fairly accurate. But often events from the 1990s and 2000s are injected into the story. For example, this season Mutiny founders Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna (Kerry Bishé) are basically inventing eBay. But they do it by addressing a tech problem from the 2000s: digital privacy.
Cameron and Donna get their eBay idea by spying on their users’ private chats to find out what people do when they chat one-on-one. The two gradually realize that people are either hooking up (a.k.a. meeting offline), or trading old game controllers and comics. This leads Donna and Cameron to their eureka moment: why not create a “trade” functionality for users on Mutiny’s forums? It’s actually the birth of eBay, about a decade early. The writing here is particularly clever, as we must never forget that this discovery is only possible because Mutiny has no respect for the privacy of its users. Although one of their technicians pressures Cameron and Donna to have a private, encrypted chat, the two are unconcerned.
But not everyone is so dismissive of concerns about computer security. The season premiere ends at the Castro Theater, where Joe (Lee Pace) pimps his security company’s new consumer antivirus software. Clearly patterned after McAfee, which was founded in 1987, Joe’s company uses a scare marketing campaign based on the slogan “Are you safe?” Charismatic basket case Joe is the perfectly fictionalized version of John McAfee, who is known for his hallucinatory philosophical diatribes. However, in this alternate history, Joe’s antivirus software is a blatant rip-off of something created by his former business partner Gordon (Scoot McNairy). Emotionally haunted and knocked down by illness last season, Gordon recovers in Season 3 with a lawsuit against Joe. He still works at his wife Donna’s company, but wants to start his own business.
Gordon and Donna’s relationship is one of the most painfully realistic parts of the series, but it also feels like something out of the “lean in” feminist world of 2016. Both are gifted engineers who co-developed a PC clone in Season 1 , but they’ve seen very different levels of success – largely due to sexism in the tech world, but also random chance. Gordon got rich while Donna struggled. To get a better job, Donna took a risk and moved into an executive role at Cameron’s startup Mutiny. The gains will be huge if Mutiny can break out, but every day represents a financial or technical hurdle until it does. Gordon and Donna’s marriage is strained by a simmering competition between two people working in the same field trying to make it big in the early days of personal computing.
As the young cyberpunk visionary who founded Mutiny, Cameron remains the centerpiece of the show. Initially, her business was an elaborate online game that garnered a cult following. But then Donna helped her expand it to chat rooms and private chat, increasing the number of users to over 100,000. This season they moved the operation to San Francisco and are looking for something to compete with CompuServe. That’s why they’re thinking about going in an eBay-like direction. We see Cameron struggle to balance her underground hacker sensibility with Silicon Valley’s startup culture, and it’s not always easy. In this way she evokes classic tech films from the 1980s Real geniusthat dramatize what happens when nerd geniuses try (and fail) to work within the system.
Stop and catch fire is also fascinating to watch alongside the other great cult tech series of this decade, Mr Robot. They’re both character-driven shows about techies, and they’re both about the cultural impact of computers at key moments in history. While Mr Robot pushes us five minutes into the future, Stop and catch fire takes us back to the origins of all the technology that shapes our lives today. By littering 1980s history with today’s concerns, show creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers force us to consider how the origins of a new technology can shape its entire lifespan. That’s especially interesting in light of this season’s focus on privacy and infosec, two issues notoriously neglected and misrepresented in the media (and the tech industry itself). If you build an empire by violating user privacy and selling anti-virus snake oil… you may be creating a world headed for a Mr Robot scenario. That’s the kind of subversive suggestion that creeps in almost every episode Stop and catch fire.
Note the cultural nuance or note the technical nostalgia. But whatever you do, if computers have changed your life, you’ll want to check it out Stop and catch fire. The first two seasons can be streamed on Netflix. The third season unfolds in real time on AMC.