Sunday, 31 October 2021

TV review: The Billion Dollar Code, Netflix (2021)

If you don’t like foreign productions (this is mostly in German) then keep away, but if you enjoy topical TV then this might push your buttons. The acting is as good as the script in this story of the men who designed and built the forerunner to Google Earth. It’s short at four episodes, but there’s enough drama in this docuseries to entertain for a couple of days.

It opens with a dry boardroom meeting between the complainants – Carsten Schluter (Mark Waschke) and Juri Muller (Misel Maticevic) – facing lawyers who want to find out about the two men’s history of software development. Google is being sued. The action that makes up the majority of screen time takes place a generation earlier in the years the Berlin Wall fell and the city started to open up to the world. The internet was new and new ideas began to be realised. Young Schluter (Leonard Scheicher) has an idea to allow people to see the world then zoom into a specific geographical locality using a computer with a graphical user interface. Carsten has a problem in that even with a good idea he still needs people to help him realise it but one night he meets young Juri (Marius Ahrendt) at a disco and they hit it off. 

Young Juri is suitably sombre and geeky, though the two men’s infectious enthusiasm soon permeates the viewer’s mind and despite a slow start the show soon had me rooting for them. It’s amusing to think of Netflix – a major brand with billions in market capitalisation – running interference on a non-rival (Google; also a company worth billions of dollars) – so the drama isn’t just to be found inside the movie.

The deadly seriousness of actual, real-world competition animating the public sphere must bring added piquancy to the experience of watching, tension in the show being raised by specific moments working to hold the production – which takes place across a broad section of time – firmly together. Things not said have as much moment as things that are stated baldly, in fact more in some cases, as when young Carsten asks young Juri what Juri’d told Brian Anderson of Silicon Graphics (Lukas Loughran) during a trip to California the two men made. 

This is the nineties, a time when dial-up modems would screech their signatures into the silence of peopled rooms and when the internet was an embryonic realm of unknowing that players like Google’s founders capitalised off with their technologies and using the economic infrastructure of Silicon Valley. I well remember a time when the work unit I was with made one of the 50 first websites in Japan. We were trailblazers but that didn’t mean everyone I worked with in those years made it big and struck it rich. Years of grind followed the launch of Yamatake’s English-language website, and in the end I left the company under a cloud when my marriage broke down.

Carsten and Juri revelled in San Francisco’s freewheeling IT culture but their challenge was to get Deutsche Telekom, their sponsor (who’d funded the initial version of Terra Vision), to pony up cash for a PC version. This is a tale of a culture of sharing that had to be married with sound business sense in order to result in the winner everyone feels themselves entitled to be. And you won’t see the ending coming unless you’re already familiar with the case.


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