Economics Has Become a Spiritual Thing: How David Byrne Predicted Open Source and Startups

Here’s a post off-the-cuff (and not what I usually write): True Stories is one of my favourite movies that never gets talked about. It’s got everything – Talking Heads songs done better than the album, observing the state of the American suburbs of the 1980’s, and bizarre monologues. What’s not to love?

The scene I want to talk about the most though, is the scene where Byrne has dinner with a local businessman (the kind revered for contributions to their local and small community) and his family. It’s one of the most amusing scenes, but also the most prophetic – particularly for people in the computer business.

It’s a bit hard to explain, so let me show you (with a transcription for the visually impaired/people who like quoting):

Excuse me Mister Culver. I forgot what the peppers represent.
Earl: Let me show you what I think is going on.
The music swells.
Linda: Do you hear music?
Byrne: (addressed to Larry, her brother) Is there something wrong with your sister?
Earl: Mainframe. Microprocessor. Semiconductor.
Linda and Larry: Alright daddy!
Earl: Now, if this is the town (holding lobster), and this is the workplace (hovering over a tray of grapes), with its goods (holding asparagus), and distribution network (he moves the asparagus into the shape of a road)...
Byrne nods. Earl moves a gravy boat across the table and makes a "vroom" noise.
Earl: Now, most middle-class people have worked for large corporations like Varicorp, or for the government itself.
Earl: But now, all that's started to change. Scientists and engineers are moving off from those large corporations like Varicorp (he takes the grapes out from the tray and near the asparagus), and are beginning to start their own companies. Marketing new inventions.
Byrne: Excuse me Mister Culver.
Earl: A-ha! It all spins back to the middle (the tray with the lobster starts to rotate). Here we are right here, in Virgil. Are we doing businesses that have been based on the past (he lifts the lobster up)?
Earl: That's why we have to keep these guys in Virgil, even though they do leave Varicorp (everyone at the table throws grapes at the lobster). For the time being, it's created confusion, and chaos (he throws the peppers from the bowl up in the air)!
Earl: They don't work for money anymore, but to earn a place in heaven, which was a big motivating factor once upon a time, believe you, me. They're working and inventing because they like it! (he throws the asparagus up into the air) Economics has become a spiritual thing! (everyone makes shapes with the food on their plates.) I must admit it frightens me a little bit. They don't seem to see the difference between working (he grabs some deviled eggs) and not working (he takes the eggs, rotates them, and pulls them apart). It's all become a part of one's life. Linda, Larry, there's no concept of weekends anymore!
The table makes their hands as they were praying and the lights dim.

Where to begin with this? For some background, the movie takes place in the town of Virgil, Texas, where Byrne (basically playing himself) observes (in a very neutral, nonchalant manner) the trends that have taken place. The displacement of the town centre in favour of the shopping mall. The highways connecting Texas. The fact that metal buildings are an architect’s dream. The fact that hot dogs and and hot dog buns don’t come in the same size package. Earl Culver (played by the comedian and spoken-word… speaker Spalding Gray) is the town patriarch who observes many coming economic trends, and how Virgil can take advantage of them. Virgil has a large computer manufacturing company called Varicorp, but that isn’t everything anymore, is it?

It’s his observations of the computer business that ring true. Around this time, many of the traditional companies of Silicon Valley were having engineers leave their existing companies and start new companies. Hewlett-Packard led to Apple, after all. If it’s true for the Bay, why can’t it be true for the Silicon Prarie here in Virgil?

Silicon Gulch, Silicon Prarie, Silicon Hills, Silicon Valley!

Even now, our society is even more obsessed with startups, so much so that the monologue Byrne wrote feels more true than ever. I went to college in relatively podunk New Brunswick, and our instructors hammered in entrepreneurial attitudes. You might not be starting your own business, but you might be working for one. Out in the Bay again, venture capitalists like Y Combinator have made an incredible deal out of the startup as a concept, and technology journalism has made a hagiography out of it. Saints do earn a place in our culture’s heaven – a big motivating factor for engineers and scientists, more so than the stock options in place of money. (Of course, startups aren’t often fun and games. As we all know, they rarely make it to their liquidity events, and they can work you to the bone more than a normal job – just ask my friends.)

The metaphor even works for free software/open source. Engineers don’t work for money, but to earn a place in heaven – be it vapid as GitHub stars, the political agenda of the FSF, hoping that their software can make peoples’ lives better, or simply just sharing what they found useful. The lack of a concept for weekends applies less because a startup makes them think they’re working for a higher cause, but because they volunteer their own time, for their own purposes.

Well, they might be making money nowadays – open source is quite an industry, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally. Some projects and their authors suffer from the not making money part (you still need that, even if you want to earn a place in heaven!), even if they become part of core infrastructure for software. OpenSSL famously barely made enough money before the Heartbleed controversy, despite the fact it’s used almost everywhere.

True Stories is worth a watch, if only for this scene alone. But you certainly won’t mind the quirky characters celebrating 150 years of Texas in one of those non-campy musicals (set to the album with the same name, but usually sung by not David Byrne – it works better than the album!), or movies without any conflict at all. I recommend you get a copy – the Criteron Collection has a Blu-Ray version. I’ve been meaning to get that since I only had a standard definition DVD version.

Yup, it’s fancy driving (in my convertible LeBaron) alright.

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