This review of The Billion Dollar Code is spoiler-free.
The idea that multinational mega-corporations might be a bit unscrupulous isn’t exactly a new one, which makes Netflix’s new four-part limited series The Billion Dollar Code a tough sell. Goodness only knows how many small start-ups have been crushed underfoot, how many patents have been infringed upon, how many unassuming geniuses the world over languish in obscurity thanks to the bottomless pockets of the so-called “Big Five”. Google is only one point of a pentagon that encompasses virtually the entirety of the American – and thus global – information technology industry. The story of Google Earth, and the little-known early version of the idea designed by two Germans in the early ‘90s that Google possibly stole wholesale, is probably one of several hundred depressingly similar ones.But, at least according to The Billion Dollar Code, it’s still an especially fascinating story.
Carsten Schlüter (Leonard Schleicher), an ambitious art student, and Juri Müller (Marius Ahrendt), a genius but rather antisocial computer boffin, met at a techno club in Berlin in 1993. Together, they developed the idea for an invention that would double as both technological breakthrough and never-before-seen art installation; a system that would allow for seamless online travel to any place on the face of the Earth, using a complex network of photographs, algorithms, and processing power that was unavailable to them until they finessed Deutsche Telekom into a sponsorship. The deal was that they’d have a working prototype of what they on a whim dubbed “TerraVision” ready for an international communications fair in Kyoto, Japan, in 1994, so Carsten and Juri recruited various hackers and artists from the underground Chaos Computer Club and got to work.
What begins as one success story after another morphs quickly into a scathing examination of predatory Big Tech and the self-serving Judases who look to line their own pockets by lodging knives into the backs of the little men. Before long, Google Earth emerges and becomes a sensation, working identically in 2005 to how TerraVision worked in 1994. Thus begins a court case which this series reserves for its finale, in which Carsten and Juri, alongside a pair of reluctant but determined lawyers, challenge Google in court for patent infringement. Using two timelines and four episodes that all exceed an hour in runtime, The Billion Dollar Code details the creation of TerraVision and the court case itself in granular detail, winding from post-reunification Berlin’s experimental art scene to the dour courtrooms of 2017.
The show’s director Robert Thalheim and screenwriter Oliver Ziegenbalg do tremendous work making an insular and uniquely rebellious community feel like the David to Big Tech’s Goliath. The performances are admirable, and the sense of excitement surrounding the nascent Internet is palpable. Hindsight of course makes statements such as the one made by Deutsche Telekom executives that the Internet would never take off seem laughably naïve, but the show doesn’t feel judgmental in its presentation of those who were skeptical of burgeoning technology that they didn’t understand. The writing is the same way. There’s a lot of technobabble, but it’s made palatable to a layman in unpatronizing ways, and the story itself is a pretty universal one. You can’t rely on justice to be done in these circumstances, but you can at least rest assured that those who never got credit for their brilliance in the first place might finally get their time in the spotlight now – better late than never.