In some ways, Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener is a memoir in two parts.
The first part is set in New York, when Anna was in her mid-twenties, and working in the publishing industry. There was none of the glamour or perks that she had anticipated and while the ‘meaningfulness’ of her work had initially sustained her, it did not pay the bills.
While my future peers were hiring wealth advisors and going on meditation retreats in Bali to pursue self-actualization, I was vacuuming roaches off the walls of my rental apartment, smoking weed, and bicycling to warehouse concerts along the East River, staving off a thrumming sense of dread.
She describes herself as ‘privileged and downwardly mobile’, her life in the city subsidised by her ‘generous, forgiving parents’. But with less than a year left on her parents’ health insurance plan, Anna turns to the emerging digital economy and takes a job – with health benefits – with a startup. It had a book-and-publishing angle, so she hadn’t completely sold-out.
The second part of her story describes her move to San Fransisco, where she begins working for a big-data startup in the heart of Silicon Valley. By this stage, she can no longer pretend to be trying things out, career-wise. She’s totally immersed – the surreal extravagance of her work places; the go-team culture; the financial successes (which are hard to fathom against the modest publishing industry) are startling to her.
The word ‘disruption’ proliferated, and everything was ripe or vulnerable to it: sheet music, tuxedo rentals, home cooking, home buying, wedding planning, banking, shaving, credit lines, dry cleaning, the rhythm method. A website that allowed people to rent out their unused driveways raised four million dollars from elite firms on Sand Hill Road. A website taking on the kennel market – a pet-sitting and dog-walking app that disrupted neighborhood twelve-year-olds – raised ten million.
The broader context of this story focuses on how the tech-industry’s development in Silicon Valley created a locus of wealth and power to match that of Wall Street. It also had a significant impact on the socio-economic fabric of San Fransisco –
The city, trapped in nostalgia for its own mythology, stuck in a hallucination of a halcyon past, had not quite caught up to the newfound momentum of tech’s dark triad: capital, power, and a bland, overcorrected, heterosexual masculinity.
And more broadly, it describes how tech leeched into everyone’s lives (whether we wanted it or not).
…the industry expanded beyond the province of futurists and hardware enthusiasts, and settled into its new role as the scaffolding of everyday life.
We all have different levels of comfort when it comes to tech and data. I adopt on an as-needs basis. Got the first iPhone but still use a paper diary. Embraced online banking from the outset but have never ordered from UberEats (I have reasons for these choices that I won’t bore you with). But it leads to the ethical element of the industry (or lack thereof). Anna describes the emergence of data collection and the normalising of consumer surveillance. Initially, she did not understand the implications of what was happening (it was 2010 and she states that she ‘…was not thinking about data collection as one of the moral quandaries of our time’) but, after a number of whistle-blower events, she begins to question the dubious nature of the industry she was by then entrenched in. Cue existential crisis.
The tech industry was making me a perfect consumer of the world it was creating.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first part of this memoir but found the second part slower. Details about the actual technology and coding were less interesting than Anna’s reflections on the culture.
My job had placed me, a self-identified feminist, in a position of ceaseless, professionalized deference to the male ego.
She goes on to describe workplace discrimination and harassment, where ‘…women kept personal incident logs. They kept spreadsheets. They kept tabs…’ because they all had stories (from a woman being ‘…slipped GHB by a friend of her CEO‘ to another who was ‘…raped by a ‘10X’ engineer‘ and then pushed out of the company after reporting to HR). At the same time, Anna states that compared to other women she’d met, she had it good – ‘But the bar was so, so low‘.
So the happy ending has to be Anna quitting the industry and good prevailing. You can Google what she’s up to now (see what I did there?) but I’ll finish with this quote –
I was mad. Mad that tech entrepreneurs like him seemed constitutionally unable to resist cannibilizing music, books, subcultures – whatever made life interesting. Reading wasn’t about mainlining information. The tech industry’s efficiency fetish was so dreary.
“There’s no menu, so you can’t just order, you know, a martini,” the engineer told me…”You tell the bartender three adjectives, and he’ll customize a drink for you accordingly. I’ve been thinking about my adjectives all day.” What was it like to be fun, I wondered – what was it like to feel you’d earned this?
I tried to game the system by asking for something smoky, salty, and angry, crossing my fingers for mescal; it worked.
As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (July 3): Belfast 10°-18° and Melbourne 7°-14°. And, as it happened, I was in Fiji when I read this book and the weather that day was 20°-27°.