“Uncanny Valley:” An Uneasy Dispatch from the World of Tech

Uncanny Valley, Wiener’s new memoir, tracks the years as Silicon Valley’s prospects soured, both in the public eye, and for Wiener herself, as venture capitalists and their cult-like philosophies emerged. The memoir reads quickly and juicily, like the Young Adult dystopian’s final form, where the rules of a warped society are described, mulled over, and most disquieting, remain.

Uncanny Valley, a memoir by Anna Wiener, chronicles her years working for tech startups in their golden age of money and hype. Glitch artwork by nesnad.

It’s 2014. The dread is a slow trickle, but eventually, it will arrive. Now, though, the promise of the tech industry still has Americans of all stripes enraptured, including a 25-year-old publishing assistant, one Anna Wiener.

She flees publishing for tech because her world lacks promise and security. “The truth,” she writes, “was that we were expendable.” A high turnover rate, paired with the contradictions inherent in the lives and salaries of higher-ups, makes a future in publishing look bleak. The tech industry has eerily similar attrition, eerily similar hypocrisies––but those revelations are a few years obscured.

Uncanny Valley, Wiener’s new memoir, tracks these years as Silicon Valley’s prospects soured, both in the public eye, and for Wiener herself, as venture capitalists and their cult-like philosophies emerged, the once friendly employer-provided dinner revealing its true nature: a carb-heavy nudge to keep working. The memoir reads quickly and juicily, like the Young Adult dystopian’s final form, where the rules of a warped society are described, mulled over, and most disquieting, remain. Its gradual build from the almost endearing camaraderie of a small startup to the frightening political implications only starting to take place, leaves quite the residual chill, fitting for a time of reeling––but not without the wry humor an affluent, insular community like Silicon Valley is due.

Wiener, indeed, is sharp on the subcultural subtleties––she never drops “pompous” or “elitist,” preferring instead to describe the ubiquity of those hiking shoes with toes, the simulacrum of its former subversiveness modern San Francisco has become, the company apparel, the endless ways in which an obsession with optimization manifests itself. Uncanny Valley doesn’t espouse any profound truths about Silicon Valley we didn’t already know, but it does capture the culture of a very specific moment, memorializing for future generations portentous incidents of negligence, and illuminates the circumstances that make it the norm.

The dots are all a matter of public record. The political targeting and resulting echo chambers on Facebook are a matter of public scandal. But Wiener’s memoir connects the dots on very human terms, helping us understand why such an excess of power was concentrated in such a vulnerable place so quickly. Why the CEOs of startups cast a spell over their employees. Why the magic is so tempting to a generation of precarious finances and cloistered, ruthless industries (re: publishing) that took the recession as a call to shut their gates to all but a privileged few.

Wiener describes with pungent self-awareness and careful understanding the way her CEO at an analytics startup captured her sympathy despite his tendency to make employees cry and to view his very human workforce as a machine in need of a few tweaks for efficiency’s sake. She saw a “yearning,” she writes later, in one of many devastating final hits in the last fifty pages of the book, where all the shrugged-of problems come back to bite. Uncanny Valley is as much about chasing money, security, and potential as it is about looking into the seat of power and seeing a vulnerable, relatable human being with simple wants––not the money and power they eventually amassed while no one was paying attention. That particular trap is second-nature to many of us; Wiener recounts it with unswerving clarity when she remembers her younger self “looking for stories” where she should’ve seen a system. In all the time she spent contemplating the motivations of the CEO (“or at least, my idea of him”), an algorithm with none of those considerations and a ruling class with its eye fixed on the ivory tower were taking shape. She describes her transfixed state with hindsight taking the lead, but her misplaced sensitivity is so compelling that you just can’t help but buy in, even for a moment, even when you’re reading this from the future, where you know what the cost will be.

Uncanny Valley really reckons with the more personal side of our tech fixation, amidst its time of startling changes, giving voice to the promise and hope we saw in the hustlers who were changing the world––and, more vitally, recalls the pain and humiliation of meeting with these idols and being looked straight through.

It’s the same Achilles’ heel that comes to a fatal blow when politics get involved, when tech billionaires come under fire and their followers in hustle culture rush to their defense, when the anxious scroll captivates us by telling us what is wrong with the world and urging us to tweet to fix it. The human brain is hardwired to see faces that aren’t there, but this memoir of disillusionment deals in the invented conscience: goals to better the world giant companies don’t have and sentimental characters that never sat in CEO’s offices, but that we all saw there anyway.

The slow descent at the end of Wiener’s memoir is one of the most sobering I’ve ever read. Its vision of the 2016 election, specifically, though more are beginning to trickle into the literary Spiritus Mundi, rings bleak and prescient, and fades the book into a heavy, lingering end. The author and a few San Francisco friends canvas in northern Nevada on election day. They bring their corporatized feminism from the attention economy in uterus apparel and “nasty woman” bling, completely in the dark about reality outside their gated citadel. As recent memory spoils, it falls on deaf ears. The machine doesn’t stop.