Incisive commentary on the aesthetic excesses of the successful abound; the book’s first half unfolds like an exquisitely curated Tumblr blog, with a scroll of beautifully juxtaposed snapshots of the young, newly wealthy and utterly absurd.
It’s in the second half that the book feels frustratingly, and at times startlingly, thin. Wiener’s admission that she did not like to think about the societal implications of her choices is inadequate, and the degree to which aesthetic judgments supersede ethical or moral considerations grows wearying.
Uncanny Valley is an artful contribution to the war on tech exceptionalism. As an account of the industry through the eyes of a worker it is an interesting companion to Emily Guendelsberger’s On the Clock, which described blue-collar jobs at some of America’s biggest companies as being at the mercy of algorithms, zero hour contracts and data tracking. Both books suggest that tech companies are in mindless pursuit of optimisation for its own sake without too much interest in the human cost. Such criticism may not halt rising share prices but they give more weight to the political pushback that has already led to increased tech regulation. There is a trend for talented young women writing non-fiction to be described as millennial Joan Didions. Wiener has been paid the same compliment. But the New York-born writer’s jokes and self deprecation reminded me more of Nora Ephron. In places Uncanny Valley reads like a comedy screenplay. She describes one colleague as someone who wore “jeans that were so tight I felt I already knew him” and another with the unappetising habit of “sticking his hand thoughtfully down the back of his own waistband”. The book has already been optioned for a movie by the team who skewered Facebook in The Social Network. I can’t wait.
I liked the book a lot and raced through it, but Wiener is no Didion (although in a puff quote on the front cover Rebecca Solnit insists that she is). In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the psychedelic lift of Didion’s prose helped it to soar with the surreal spirit of the age. Uncanny Valley offers no equivalent; no eerie, alien digital style. Instead we’re in an analogue world of comfortable cliché: Wiener feels sexual energy “coursing” through a party; spots a distressed woman “screaming bloody murder”; and describes her strange new city as a “fever dream”.