When you ponder TV that told the story of tech in the 2010s, your first thought is probably Silicon Valley, HBO's bro-centric comedy that aimed to capture the ludicrous nature of the start-up boom. But that show framed its creators as amusing, but untouchable, distant nerds too often swept up in the greed and pettiness of the culture.
Halt and Catch Fire's characters were often arrogant and wrongheaded, but they are also dreamers consumed with the ideas of how technology can enhance the world through artistry or innovation. Through this pursuit they found each other but their passion often augmented their loneliness. "What always struck me was that naive positivity about the future, about how these things are created," Davis says."We create these inert spaces that we imbue with only the best intentions and assume that's an essentially part of their DNA, but it's not, they are vacuums to pour in all of human experiences and resentments and bias and everything shitty and everything great about humanity and sometimes the shitty parts are louder. I think living through our current era of the internet and making show its origin point was so sad and illuminating and really made you understand where this thing came from but how foolish we are all the time."
The contradictions that Davis alludes to are at the heart of Halt and Catch Fire. It's often a heartbreakingly sad show, but one that fundamentally believes in humans' essential need for one another. What computers can yield is often ugly and isolating, but can be beautiful, mysterious, and euphoric. At the simplest level Halt seemed to traverse distinct points in our cultural relationship with tech. As Rogers explains, it was written before Steve Jobs died and purchased afterwards. It began in 2014, the Obama era, when there could still be an optimistic vision of the Internet as a place for community. Cantwell and Rogers took a retreat to Joshua Tree to brainstorm season four the day after Donald Trump was elected, a moment that felt like definitive proof the evil, vitriolic Internet had won. "I think this discomfort with [tech] and this trying to find a role for it in our lives and the question, and I think it's been asked a lot, of whether technology is connecting us or driving us farther apart ended up becoming central to the show in tandem with this thing of the people who create things make themselves into the things they create," Rogers says.
Halt and Catch Fire was never imprecise about what Cameron, Donna, Joe, and Gordon were building, but the jargon was ancillary. It found beautiful moments in Cameron and Joe sharing a day-long phone call and Gordon getting lost in a parking garage. These scenes are the reasons it's the series that most consistently makes me cry. "I think ultimately the show had a reveal of being about human connection and the importance of that direct connection, literally the touching of hands or the making of eye contact, as opposed to through a wire or over a wireless signal," Cantwell explains.
At the end of season three, the four principal characters all gather in a room to hash out what's next. It's the dawn of the World Wide Web, and they are dancing around the notion of a browser. Cameron and Joe find themselves at odds. "I'm so sick of hearing about the future," Cameron says. "What is that? The future is just another crappy version of the present. It's some bribe people offer you to make you do what they want instead of what you want." Joe counters: "This future can be different." Halt and Catch Fire believes both can be true, and that's what makes it exquisite.