In 2012, Anna Wiener sat at her desk in a New York City literary agency attempting to calculate her value to the company based on her salary. In her mid-20s, Wiener was vacuuming cockroaches off the wall of the apartment she shared with a near-stranger, counting on her superiors to “defect or die” so she could move up in what felt like an unstable, stagnant industry.
“What was my value?” Wiener writes in “Uncanny Valley,” her compelling memoir-ethnography of Silicon Valley that begins with these calculations on the East Coast. “Five times as much as our new office sofa; twenty orders of customized stationery.”
Across the country in California, there was a tech boom. Young people, nearly all men, were leading companies backed by millions of dollars in venture capital. They were filling their offices with chocolate milk, craft beer, energy bars and Razor RipStiks. They were giving employees gym memberships and taking them on ski retreats, and they even offered nearly six-figure salaries to nontechnical employees.
“It was easy to get me to want something,” confesses Wiener, now a columnist for The New Yorker. “Tech, by comparison, promised what so few industries or institutions could at the time: a future.”
This is where “Uncanny Valley” begins. After a short stint at an e-book startup — which would have been a useful transition to tech if the startup executives had any interest in literature — Wiener moved to San Francisco to start a customer-support position at an unspecified (but easily specifiable) data-analytics startup. The Brooklyn native stepped into an alternate universe of eternal youth, one chock-full of venture capital, step counters, thought leaders, optimization and workarounds. Dubbed “the ecosystem” by those who inhabit it, Wiener explains that Silicon Valley startups were in the business of disruption. The profound implications of this would become clear later. But in the beginning, she was captivated.
In the first half of the book, Wiener’s enthusiasm for the analytics startup and her optimism for Silicon Valley as a whole were palpable, but increasingly tempered by a spate of worrying observations that she couldn’t fashion into a full-fledged critique at the time.
“Not everyone knew what we needed from big data, but everyone knew they needed it,” she writes. As a business-facing customer-support agent, Wiener and her colleagues often needed to access the consumer data they harvested, best done by enabling “God Mode” to peer into consumer info. It becomes clear that the thin boundary protecting consumers’ data was the presumed good faith of young tech workers. “It was assumed we would only look at customers’ data sets out of necessity, and only when requested by customers themselves; that we would not, under any circumstances, look up individual profiles of our lovers and family members and coworkers in the data sets belonging to dating apps and shopping services and fitness trackers and travel sites.”
As Wiener spent more time in the industry, her naiveté developed into an oft-unappreciated perspective in Silicon Valley: a critical one. The amenities that once enticed her came to represent a rapidly collapsing boundary between work and home life. The youthful energy and tenacity that initially attracted her to tech transformed into an expectation that she be “Down For the Cause” day and night. The singular focus on efficiency came at the exclusion of thoughtful deliberation and consideration of social consequences. She could not meaningfully separate the National Security Agency’s shocking breaches of privacy, revealed by Edward Snowden, from the data firm’s activities. The presence of homeless encampments “in the shadow of luxury condo developments” in tech-heavy cities proved to embody an inextricable connection, not just an unsettling juxtaposition. The “move fast and break things” mentality had broken too much.
“Uncanny Valley” ends amid the election of President Donald Trump. Wiener, at the time, was in a content-moderation position governed by no clear content-moderation policies, at an unidentified (but easily identifiable) open-source startup. Ambiguous content was forwarded to the legal department with question mark emojis. “There are no adults in the White House,” a colleague comments to Wiener at a party. “We’re the government now.”
“An entire culture had been seduced by ambitious, aggressive, arrogant young men from America’s soft suburbs” Wiener reflects, though never absolving herself of blame or fault. Her book is an attempt to unravel the mythology that has insulated big tech from meaningful assessment or oversight, but the book leaves readers with more questions than answers. What does it mean for an entire culture to cede decision-making to algorithms? When will citizens be able to access and control their own data? Can startups beholden to venture capitalists make responsible technology products? Who (or what) provides the checks and balances on tech companies, which now account for 10% of the American economy?
The concept of the uncanny valley is that seemingly humanoid objects — robots, 3D animations, even dolls — elicit responses of eerie revulsion in humans when the objects appear too human. The future is a dark, unsettling frontier, and “Uncanny Valley” is a call to vigilance and action.
“Uncanny Valley” by Anna Wiener, MCD, 288 pp., $27
Author appearance: Anna Wiener will discuss “Uncanny Valley” at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 1, at The Forum at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle (west entrance); tickets $5; townhallseattle.org