Quick Review: UNCANNY VALLEY by Anna Wiener (MCD, FSG / Fourth Estate)

WienerA-UncannyValleyUSA page-turning memoir of contemporary Silicon Valley

In her mid-twenties, at the height of tech industry idealism, Anna Wiener — stuck, broke, and looking for meaning in her work, like any good millennial–left a job in book publishing for the promise of the new digital economy. She moved from New York to San Francisco, where she landed at a big-data startup in the heart of the Silicon Valley bubble: a world of surreal extravagance, dubious success, and fresh-faced entrepreneurs hell-bent on domination, glory, and, of course, progress.

Anna arrived amidst a massive cultural shift, as the tech industry rapidly transformed into a locus of wealth and power rivaling Wall Street. But amid the company ski vacations and in-office speakeasies, boyish camaraderie and ride-or-die corporate fealty, a new Silicon Valley began to emerge: one in far over its head, one that enriched itself at the expense of the idyllic future it claimed to be building.

Part coming-of-age-story, part portrait of an already-bygone era, Anna Wiener’s memoir is a rare first-person glimpse into high-flying, reckless startup culture at a time of unchecked ambition, unregulated surveillance, wild fortune, and accelerating political power. With wit, candor, and heart, Anna deftly charts the tech industry’s shift from self-appointed world savior to democracy-endangering liability, alongside a personal narrative of aspiration, ambivalence, and disillusionment.

Unsparing and incisive, Uncanny Valley is a cautionary tale, and a revelatory interrogation of a world reckoning with consequences its unwitting designers are only beginning to understand.

This memoir received a lot of buzz prior to release. In some ways, this was inevitable — Silicon Valley remains a perennial fascination for so very many people. However, one thing that was coming out of the early buzz was that this is a rather different kind of Silicon Valley memoir/book. I started reading it pretty much as soon as I got a review copy, and I’m happy to report that the hype was justified: this is a superb book.

Uncanny Valley is a combination of personal journey and analysis of technology and the ways in which it — and those who create it and work around it — have changed society and the way we interact with the world and each other. Wiener covers most of the hot-button issues swirling around Silicon Valley — privacy, diversity, sexual harassment, and so forth — offering fair interpretations of what tech leaders have said and how they have reacted to accusations of failing: the level of defensiveness, the often insufficient changes in policy and practice, and so forth. The author places these responses in context, which does explain some of it, but she doesn’t give them a pass, as so many in business and the media do.

“Not everyone was excited by the public conversation. Some prominent founders and investors, habituated to fatuous coverage of playful workplaces and unfiltered, idealistic CEOs, did not appreciate this style of media attention. They blamed journalists who reported on sexual harassment for making the industry look bad; they claimed the media were jealous because the tech industry was eating their lunch. They complained that complaints about the boys’ club discouraged girls from pursuing STEM, as if this were all just a matter of marketing.”

It was particularly interesting to see the author’s perspective of technology evolve the longer she worked for the companies. When leaks occurred, for example, Wiener reexamined what it was that the data company she worked for actually did. Put simply, it was a tool that harvested massive amounts of data that could be used to track, target, and manipulate users — often without their consent and knowledge.

“The guidelines asked that users focus on stories that were interesting to hackers. I had always considered hacking an inherently political activity, insofar as I thought about hacking at all, but it seemed the identity had been co-opted and neutralized by the industry. Hacking apparently no longer meant circumventing the state or speaking truth to power; it just meant writing code. Maybe would-be hackers just became engineers at top tech corporations instead, where they had easier access to any information they wanted.”

It would be easy to think that this book is essentially a criticism of technology, and to an extent it is — although, plenty of the blame lies with the users and our willingness to allow these companies to take over so many aspects of our lives, at the cost of privacy and personal information. But Wiener is also clear about the ways in which certain tech companies (they are rarely, if ever named) have provided or created benefits to society. [Not going to lie, though: the critical portions of the book are more interesting to me.]

One of Wiener’s comments really stood out for me, as it is a more-eloquent expression of my own thoughts about new shifts and trends in fiction:

“Sometimes I would worry about my internet habits and force myself away from the computer, to read a magazine or a book. Contemporary literature offered no respite: I would find prose cluttered with data points, tenuous historical connections, detail so finely tuned it could only have been extracted from a feverish night of search-engine queries. Aphorisms were in; authors were wired. I would pick up books that had been heavily documented on social media, only to find that the books themselves had a curatorial affect: beautiful descriptions of little substance, arranged in elegant vignettes—gestural text, the equivalent of a rumpled linen bedsheet or a bunch of dahlias placed just so. Oh, I would think, turning the page. This author is addicted to the internet, too.”

From the tech companies insistence that the solution to all of society’s and the world’s problems was the same (more tech), to the quite obvious fact that many of the new products and services come out of the Valley were essentially “inventing” things that already existed, or “disrupting” things that were working perfectly well… Wiener gives readers a pretty comprehensive tour of Silicon Valley culture, warts and all. However, it is not a book that is preaching to the audience, nor is it prescribing what we should think: the author lays out the facts, as she experienced, and offers questions and sharp observations.

Uncanny Valley has received a lot of praise since its publication, and I think it is totally justified. This is a brilliantly-written, intelligent and engaging memoir. Incisive, often amusing, and definitely recommended. One of my favourite books of the year so far. I’m really looking forward to reading more by Wiener, and will be first in line for her next book, whatever it might be.

*

Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley is out now, published by MCD in North America and Fourth Estate in the UK.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter
Review copy received from MCD, via NetGalley

I’d also recommend Sarah Frier’s recently-published No Filter, which is ostensibly the story of Instagram but, also, a continuation of the Facebook story begun in Accidental Billionaires, as well as another interesting and engaging examination of how technology is changing our lives.

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