Data Compression in
Silicon Valley

The hit HBO series SILICON VALLEY satirizes the start-up culture of California’s Silicon Valley. A group of computer scientists housed in a low-budget incubator come up with a high-compression cloud storage system for data, which turns out to be of enormous value. Is this technological innovation plausible, and would it be of such value in the real world?

The writers of SILICON VALLEY consulted with more experts than any other comedy: 250 people, many of whom work at Google, Facebook, and other leading technology companies. The show’s lead technical consultant Jonathan Dotan said, “Compression is a fundamental technology—it truly could be a billion dollar proposal.” Data compression (making a file smaller) is an invisible invention; it is conceived of theoretically and is not a physical structure and so, the show did not have to build it.

As for how the SILICON VALLEY team came up with the idea of a data-compression algorithm in the first place, directors Mike Judge and Alec Berg (also a lead writer), and the star Thomas Middleditch said in a Fresh Air interview, “I just remember from school that compression was kind of an interesting thing—that there are different kinds and still, especially in video, there is still probably room for something that could really compress it more. I think it’s realistic. I talked to some of my old engineer friends who said, yeah it’s still possible that somebody could come up with a game-changing algorithm in that space.”

Though SILICON VALLEY’s data-compression algorithm is not yet a reality, the show enlisted Stanford University Professor Tsachy Weissman to come up with a proposal for a theoretical algorithm which would compress data without it losing any of its original quality. Computer science experts have verified that “compression is one of the biggest challenges we’re going to face because right now we have massive data storage centers—these warehouses and there is a finite amount of space and we’re exponentially requiring more and more each year.”

SILICON VALLEY just completed its third season and is nominated for a number of Emmy awards in the most noteworthy categories. The series is up for Best Comedy, the directors Mike Judge and Alec Berg are nominated for Outstanding Directing, and the writers Alec Berg and Dan O’Keefe are up for Outstanding Writing. The star Thomas Middleditch is nominated for Lead Actor. The Emmy Awards will be held on September 18 and broadcast live on ABC from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles at 7pm EST.