Book notes: Uncanny Valley

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
Read Feb 25, 2020 - Mar 10, 2020

Anna Wiener’s memoir Uncanny Valley takes us through her time working in the tech industry. It begins with Wiener leaving her job at a New York publishing house, and joining a budding New York based startup. That job doesn’t work out for long, and she ends up moving to San Francisco to work for other Silicon Valley companies.

This is a very different book from Wendy Liu’s Abolish Silicon Valley, which is also part memoir (my notes about Abolish Silicon Valley are here). Liu is a programmer, an insider from the privileged strata of the industry, while Wiener comes into tech as an outsider and into a different place in the pecking order, working in customer support. Where Liu offers an analysis, a critique and a possible path forward for a better way of building technology, Wiener focuses on character and story.

Uncanny Valley offers a vivid picture of Wiener’s life in San Francisco. Wiener invites us to look with her at the weirdness of it all and, although she makes no overt judgement, seeing Silicon Valley through her eyes is as much of an indictment of the industry as Liu’s analysis.

Book highlights

There were no crises in this vision of the future. There were only opportunities.

Later, once I better understood the industry-wide interest in promoting women in tech—if not up the ranks, then at least in corporate marketing materials—I would allow myself to consider that perhaps I was more important to the aesthetic than critical to the business.

I had also been spoiled by the speed and open-mindedness of the tech industry, the optimism and sense of possibility.

There weren’t any jobs, my friends said, unless you wanted to work for a tech company. It went without saying that none of them did. Within a few years, they departed for gentrifying neighborhoods in New Orleans or Los Angeles, or found their way to graduate school, their flight paths and cross-country road trips doing double duty as funeral marches for a beloved city that, they all assured me, no longer existed.

learning from another company’s mistakes took on a new meaning when those mistakes had proved lucrative.

Here was a character flaw on parade, my industry origin story: I had always responded well to negging.

those who understood our cultural moment saw that selling out—corporate positions, partnerships, sponsors—would become our generation’s premier aspiration, the best way to get paid.

Good interface design was like magic, or religion: it cultivated the mass suspension of disbelief.

The message was clear, and intoxicating: society valued our contributions and, by extension, us.

Does that make sense? I’d ask every few minutes, as gently as a tutor, giving them space to shift the blame back to me.

The part of my brain that took some pleasure in coding also thrived on obsessive-compulsive behavior and perfectionism. It wasn’t the part of my brain that I wanted to nurture.

All this time, and I could just leave. I could have left months ago. For nearly two years, I had been seduced by the confidence of young men. They made it look so simple, knowing what you wanted and getting it. I had been ready to believe in them, eager to organize my life around their principles. I had trusted them to tell me who I was, what mattered, how to live. I had trusted them to have a plan, and trusted that it was the best plan for me. I thought they knew something I did not know. I swam in relief. Watching the city, wrapped in Ian’s jacket, I did not see that I was in good company: an entire culture had been seduced. I understood my blind faith in ambitious, aggressive, arrogant young men from America’s soft suburbs as a personal pathology, but it wasn’t personal at all. It had become a global affliction.

The platforms, designed to accommodate and harvest infinite data, inspired an infinite scroll. They encouraged a cultural impulse to fill all spare time with someone else’s thoughts.

Men, I saw, simply responded differently to men. My male pseudonyms had more authority than I did.

But rationalism could also be a mode of historical disengagement that ignored or absolved massive power imbalances.

Arguing fervently about a world that was not actually the world struck me as vaguely immoral. At best, it was suspiciously flattering to power.

The accelerator claimed to want people who wanted to beat the system, but a tool for organizing workers was perhaps beating the system too hard.

This was just the next phase of the artisanal fetish, the engineer said. It was like LARPing, like Burning Man. “It’s a working-class MMOG,” he said, shooting me a withering look. “We are not vulnerable people.”

“People need unions to feel safe,” the engineer said. “What would a union protect any of us from? Uncomfortable conversations?”

Working in tech had provided an escape from the side of my personality that was emotional, impractical, ambivalent, and inconvenient—the part of me that wanted to know everyone’s feelings, that wanted to be moved, that had no apparent market value.

I was looking for stories; I should have seen a system.

I could have stayed in my job forever, which was how I knew it was time to go.

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