a review of Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley: A Memoir

uncanny-valley-cover As a fresh college graduate, a young woman, working my first job as a software developer, Anna Wiener in Uncanny Valley: A Memoir put words to many of my own internal doubts and hesitant enjoyment of this new world. Wiener’s story follows her from underpaid and overworked in the New York publishing industry to perhaps overpaid and overqualified in San Francisco’s Silicon Valley in various customer support roles to ultimately unemployed by choice.

In her compelling narrative format, Wiener’s journey provides a great cultural overview of the Silicon Valley tech world. Her perspective feels intentionally well defined — a struggling liberal arts college-grad, educationally privileged, and taught to find value and love in one’s work. Her clearly defined perspective is what makes this book so sharp and lively but still a grounded, broad cultural critique.

For a lot of people, I bet this book offers very little in terms of new critiques of the tech industry. The power of this book is definitely in its breath of summary, not as much in its depth of analysis. However, throughout her journey I was re-reminded of what is indeed uncanny about this seemingly bountiful tech world: it lacks racial diversity and contains many industry insiders who are apathetic to this homogeneity as an issue; there’s often a hierarchy or supposed absence of hierarchy between engineers, customer support, and CEOs; sexual harassment and misogyny covers all corners; pay gaps between men and women stand strong; concentrating wealth and power seem to be it’s primary goal; gentrification and homelessness in the Bay Area are an unignorable side effect; it is built on the misconstrued belief that technology can solve problems that technology itself creates; employees feel distrust and loss of “culture” on venture-capitalist-funded startup’s journey to acquirement by a big tech giant; data-driven technology is deeply tied to surveillance; the black-box nature of industry secrets inspires a severe sense of apathy and inevitability toward the consequences of the industry in the general public; and Silicon Valley intellectuals themselves fail to truly critique their own power systems. Touching on these issues and many more in such a fairly short narrative is quite impressive.

I particularly appreciate Wiener’s attention to emotion while also painting a fairly comprehensive introduction to the critiques of Silicon Valley as not only a place and industry but also a culture and community. To conclude her time employed by growing startups, she eloquently explains a tension (one I too have experienced) between apprehension and desire to find belonging and home in this industry: “I was always looking for the emotional narrative, the psychological explanation, the personal history. […] I was looking for stories; I should have seen a system. The young men of Silicon Valley were doing fine. […] They had power, wealth, and control. The person with yearning was me” (262). Wiener’s memoir is a great example of how one’s particular perspective can illuminate what makes Silicon Valley tech culture both so enticing and so dangerous at the same time.

Through this outsider-gone-in perspective, she draws out what perhaps goes unquestioned by those on the inside for so long. She points that nothing about tech culture, Silicon Valley, and the powerful belief in the power of technology to change the world is a given — this is an industry, a system built by and for those with power and wealth. Still, the narrative format introduces characters to the idealist Silicon Valley landscape. We meet founders and CEOs who become her friends with complicated beliefs and compelling lives. She shows us how these powerful business moguls navigate the mismatch between their personal nuanced beliefs and their public business incentives. Her journey too was one of self-discovery, trying to fit her inner beliefs to the world around her or even trying to change bits of her inner beliefs. Regarding many of her young white male colleagues, she perceives they feel less of this conflict, their inner motives seamlessly mapping to the power they are able to wield in this industry.

Wiener lays out a world where we each have our own role and relationship to it, without presuming that she completely understands any perspective other than her own. Thus, as technologists, support staff, young millennials, CEOs, those without jobs, casual users of “the social network everyone hates”, tech-wiz-zoomers, or even as technological luddites, we each must ask ourselves a few questions: where do I fit into this world? Who in this story am I? Do I see myself fitting in at all? Nothing about Wiener’s narrative says all our roles are equally powerful or visible. But through her strong storytelling, she allows us to begin questioning the histories, peculiarities, and perils lurking in this valley. Uncanny Valley: A Memoir is about the tensions between each of our inner beliefs about technology and ourselves and the collective impacts of this system, making Uncanny Valley worthy of reading for anyone mildly implicated in the world of technology. It turns out, in some way, we all are.

Published on Aug 06, 2020