This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener.
is the truest thing I’ve ever read. It’s such a precise picture of the last decade in the tech industry, told in matter-of-fact prose that made me gasp and cringe and laugh. Anna Wiener takes readers on her journey from barely-scraping-by publishing assistant to well-compensated tech worker, and how she grapples with the slow burn of false promises and the unforeseen consequences of the venture-backed playground of Silicon Valley. This is so prescient, so funny, so chilling, and required reading for anyone trying to make sense of the 21st century. — Michelle C.
Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley
left us with mixed emotions. On the one hand, it’s an astutely observed, clever work that relays Wiener’s experiences in Silicon Valley with candor and self-awareness. Wiener is an excellent writer with a keen eye for detail (describing, for example, a chat between tech executives as “like watching two ATMs in conversation”), ably transforming the San Francisco and Silicon Valley of news reports and popular imagination into a vivid, confusing place where the urban devastation of thoughtless gentrification rubs against the appealing wholesomeness of juice bars and men in climbing gear. On the other hand, for all her thoughtfulness, Uncanny Valley
doesn’t do much with Wiener’s observations. It communicates, beautifully, the complexities and pains of the digital economy — internalized misogyny, the ethics of Big Data, the cult of the CEO — but doesn’t offer historical context or analysis. In Wiener’s hands, the remaking of the American economy and social fabric in the image of young white men seems like a crushing inevitability, or a forgone conclusion.
Is it fair to lay analysis at Wiener’s feet? Uncanny Valley
is a memoir, not a policy book, and she does a compelling job of exploring her reasons for leaving a poor-paying job in publishing for lucrative customer support work in the tech industry. Although Wiener tends to wax romantic about her life and friends in Brooklyn, with their creative projects and anti-tech stance, it’s clear that Wiener was lonely in New York and not making enough money to live securely. It’s pragmatism as much as curiosity that drives Wiener out west and a lot of readers would or have made similar choices. More troubling and very interesting is Wiener’s evolving relationship with her jobs and coworkers, as she notices, ignores, and investigates the ways she anesthetizes herself against the social, political, and environmental harm her companies are causing as they, in one CEO’s particularly toothsome phrase, “push the fold of mankind.”
As she nears the end of her tenure in tech, Wiener acknowledges that her concerns aren’t broadly shared: The “young men of Silicon Valley were doing fine....they had no qualms....They had inexorable faith in their own ideas and their own potential....The person with the yearning was me.” That Silicon Valley is perpetuating a work culture, and more insidiously, through the nature of its many customer-facing products, a society in which yearning for something beyond convenience and optimization is coded as feminine and faulty, is something we wish Uncanny Valley
addressed less obliquely; the same is true for Wiener’s Trump-inspired insights into how the “reality” of the Internet is sometimes a poor reflection of on-the-ground realities.
In the end, what’s disappointing about Uncanny Valley
is also what makes it a piercing portrait of a time and place that is our time and place. Instead of holding the tech industry accountable for its considerable benefits, delusions, and complicities, Wiener turns inward to explore how she is failing; she shoulders an almost painful amount of blame for seeking out the stability, comfort, and sense of belonging most of us want, and for which most of us, at least sometimes, turn to technology. In this context, the absence of a critical framework in Uncanny Valley
is more a reflection of Silicon Valley’s success in disrupting natural ways of feeling and behaving than a failure on Wiener’s part to fully interrogate her subjects. That a writer as perceptive as Wiener either misses or elects to ignore this makes Uncanny Valley
an all the more chilling and thought-provoking read.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month here