We are only a few weeks into the New Year and an impeached president has already used drone technology to kill a foreign leader and threaten war using a social media platform. This same president was elected with the help of Russian bots and fraudulent accounts on another social media platform, which was also accused of selling the private data of millions of users to political operatives. At this year’s Golden Globes, a comedian called out the founder of said social media platform and was plenty applauded, though that did not stop his colleagues from posting on yet another social media platform about their red carpet fashion. Rubes like us then liked, shared, followed, tweeted, and linked our reactions, all while solemnly swearing to cut back our screen time. Most of us won’t. Many of us will pose the question on the internet: How did we get here?
The new memoir Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener provides an answer. Now a contributing writer for The New Yorker, Wiener spent most of her twenties as a liberal arts expat working in Silicon Valley start-ups, after having grown disillusioned with the stagnant wages and old-school hierarchies of New York publishing. “Tech,” she writes, “promised what so few industries or institutions could, at the time: a future.” While Wiener went looking for a future, what she found was a dystopia.
It’s tempting to call Uncanny Valley a coming-of-age tale, but what the memoir offers is less about Wiener’s own personal narrative and more of a sociological study on tech-bro, start-up culture. There is something Swiftian about her professional journey, which first takes her to a small e-book company in New York that allows her to “fail up” (her words) then to a rapidly growing analytics start-up before landing in a more established open-source platform enterprise. Each step up the economic chain proves to be more grotesque, as the promise of technology devolves into the threats we understand today, and it becomes clear why: Despite tech leaders’ and workers’ belief that their products are ahistorical, apolitical, and practically atemporal—perpetually relevant and futuristic in their mind—the systems they create are political by design.
Wiener shines when she turns her incisive observations on the many entitled men running amok in Silicon Valley. Anyone who’s paid attention to the tech world in the past decade will recognize the frat mentality, the evolution of the internet troll, the implicit and explicit misogyny and racism that runs rampant in the industry. It’s an engaging summary of every terrible thing you’ve heard about start-ups, from the unnecessary ping-pong table at the expense of an HR department, to the cringe-worthy retreats that are a #MeToo moment waiting to happen, to the absolute cluelessness of some of today’s most brilliant minds, earnestly discussing genetically designed babies as a net positive.
One of the more insightful analyses Wiener makes is on the degradation of language that incubated in the open-office plans of app developers and has now spilled over into the outside world. She obsesses over a missing hyphen in her company’s “I AM DATA DRIVEN” T-shirts, marvels at a coworker who says “LOL” instead of laughing, lists verbs that are now used as nouns, and gawks at emojis as a stand-in for genuine emotion. “[P]eople used a sort of nonlanguage, which was neither beautiful nor especially efficient: a mash-up of business-speak with athletic and wartime metaphors, inflated with self-importance,” she writes. “Calls to action; front lines and trenches; blitzscaling.”
It’s a quirk that proves to be dangerous, not just annoying. It’s easier to obfuscate what the product is when you’re using a bunch of buzzwords instead of saying you’re surveilling customers. It’s easier to say you’re “disrupting” than to truly consider the long-term consequences of your work.
There is also an acute awareness of how Wiener and everyone around her becomes less and less in-tune with their bodies as technology seeps more and more into their daily lives. In the constant strive to optimize productivity something must be sacrificed and that tends to be what many of us appreciate most in life: idle time in the pursuit of pleasure. Bodies are now hacked instead of enjoyed. She realizes at the time that she’ll spend most of her late twenties with her “neck bent at an unnatural angle, staring at a computer.” The uncanny valley of the title is a clever misnomer. We aren’t unsettled by computer-generated humanoids here but humans willingly transforming themselves into workaholic quasi-cyborgs.
Wiener’s desire to return to a life filled with art, music, sensuality, tangible results, and physical exhaustion, and away from avatars, screens, and technocrats, though latent, comes late as a moral conflict. Although we see glimmers of how unattractive other alternatives were—the rigidity of traditional industries, the passive counterculture of artsier scenes, the weakening of civic life—these are missed opportunities to delve deeper into how the lack of a social safety net fueled the industry’s gravitational pull. Wiener is perceptive, inquisitive, and frankly too smart for so much of the bullshit described that it’s still hard to understand why she lasted so long. One wonders how she was so easily seduced. But then again, weren’t we all?