THE WASHINGTON POST – Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener’s memoir of life in Silicon Valley, is almost the opposite of a tell-all. It withholds a lot – mostly the names of people and companies – and replaces them with generic formulations an app for coupon-clipping, a search-engine giant down in Mountain View. It’s as if the book is trying to switch our brains back to factory settings. Dissociated from the apps and services of our daily lives, with a sense of renewed innocence, we follow Wiener from a literary-agency job in New York to a series of start-ups in San Francisco, and begin to understand how the tech scene has rewired all of us.
Anyone who’s ever felt naked without their smartphone within reach has to have sensed that there’s something sick about our digital lives, and that it’s infected our analogue ones. That wrongness feels so ephemeral and inescapable that it can be hard to think about clearly.
Tech criticism, in its drive to take a systemic view of the industry’s problems, can feel impersonal or fatalistic. Now writers are trying a different way in Uncanny Valley and Joanne McNeil’s Lurking How a Person Became a User defamiliarise us with the Internet as we now know it, reminding us of the human desires and ambitions that have shaped its evolution.
In one example of Wiener’s parlance, Airbnb is only referred to as the home-sharing platform. This cuts to the core of the thing, reminding us of the company’s fundamental function. It allows us to forget the promises of marketing (homegrown local experiences, anywhere in the world!) and all the problems that have since emerged (privacy issues, rising rents). But when she mentioned a renowned private university in Palo Alto, I started wondering whether these elisions were just coy.
The move felt evasive, or somehow like cheating. Editors and audiences typically demand that writers name names, provide hyperlinks, fill the pages with rich, indexable detail. Declining to identify the monopolistic online superstore is not a trick you can get away with in most places. (For instance, here I’m required to disclose that the superstore’s founder owns The Washington Post, which employs me.) Reading Uncanny Valley felt like getting put on airplane mode, blocked from making relevant connections.
Around these gaps, Wiener’s book is studded with sharp assessments. In San Francisco’s high-end restaurant scene, she notes, the food was demented. … Food that was social media famous. Food that wanted to be.
The tech denizens wear pseudo-utilitarian garments, like the knitted, machine-washable shoes that she deems a monument to the end of sensuousness (and buys). She is similarly clear-eyed about her role in customer support and how she is regarded by her engineer co-workersWe.
Conscious of the psychological effects of being constantly immersed in the Internet, she turns to books and magazines, but finds no mental relief. Contemporary literature has taken on social media’s 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. This is a great, cutting observation, not least because it risks self-indictment Squint a little, and it could easily describe Uncanny Valley.
But this book does have an arc, tracing Wiener’s coming-of-age in parallel with the tech industry’s heedless growth, hand-fed by venture capital. Wiener has a gift for channeling Silicon Valley’s unsettling idea of perfection and for reminding us of its allure. She gets the appeal of building something so beautiful, so necessary, so well designed that it insinuated itself into people’s lives without external pressures, and of creating an existence freed of decision-making, the unnecessary friction of human behaviour.
The man-children who hire her really believe they can change the world by selling e-books, analysing data, offering a code-sharing service. In the meantime, in their immediate radius, they create a work culture that infantilises its participants. The commuters on company buses resemble children trying not to get lost in a mall.
Office fridges stocked with string cheese make it seem like employees are either training for a marathon or having an after-school snack. Joining management has the thrill of skipping a grade, skipping three.
But they’re not playing in a sandbox. When Wiener first encounters the malcontents at the fringes of the Internet, no one knows how seriously to take their threatening behaviour. On the platform where she works assisting customers, users have compiled the personal information of women in the gaming industry as part of a harassment campaign. (We know it, of course, as GamerGate.) Wiener’s co-workers take down the repository and dismiss the culprits as not worth any more time, not worth our engagement, even as death threats deluge their inboxes. Seventy pages later, far-right commentators bombard an employee who speaks about diversity in tech. Thirty pages after that, other users claim to be exposing a trafficking ring operating out of a pizzeria in the nation’s capital.
We don’t need proper nouns to know how this plays out. In 2016, a real estate developer who had once played the part of a successful businessman on reality television wins the presidency.
Bizarrely, and predictably, the tech people offer techfixes for our shredded civic fabric a Marshall Plan of rationality, say, or crowdfunding private planes to fly over red counties and drop leaflets. Wiener exercises her stock options and quits. In the end, this memoir is less about how its narrator lost her idealism (if she had much to begin with) than about how she overcame her inertia. Eventually, Wiener writes, her ambivalence becomes unhappiness; her ethical misgivings and psychological disquiet grow too loud to ignore.
Presumably, so do her literary ambitions – though the book underplays that subplot. Seen from that angle, Uncanny Valley is a bildungsroman that doubles as a comedy of remarriage Years after leaving it, Wiener gets back together with the literary world, publishing an essay about this West Coast misadventure in n+1, landing a gig withthe New Yorker and producing this very book.