The book has its climax in November 2016, with the failure of Wiener’s own efforts to prevent the rise of Donald Trump. In theory, it is the end of tech’s innocence, and a belated reckoning for its sunny conviction that “networks, humming along at scale” have the fate of the world in hand. Wiener isn’t so sure.
The networks are still humming, the money is still flowing, and the data is still being extracted. In the end, Uncanny Valley’s conclusions are sadder, more personal, reflecting back on any reader who has ever allowed themselves to swallow a whole belief system alongside a paycheck.
Uncanny Valley shines a light on some of the more troubling aspects of Silicon Valley culture, including the accumulation of power by the unelected and unqualified, the ‘disruption’ of absolutely everything and the repurposing of the hippy aesthetic for the sensationally affluent tech class. Sexual harassment and gender disparities also provide a sporadic refrain. The offences described are less serious but no less prevalent than those outlined in Whistleblower. Wiener describes how, at a women in computing conference she attends, a white, all-male panel discusses workplace discrimination. Excuses are made. Each case is dealt with like a homage to Homer Simpson’s cleaning technique: the entire contents of a house swept under the carpet. Of course, the mess is still there. Wiener’s book convinces and depresses in equal measure. You wonder why she didn’t leave sooner.
Wiener is an accomplished stylist. Fashionable trainers that she buys but doesn’t wear are a “monument to the end of sensuousness”; restaurants selling a homogeneous version of authenticity are full of “natural fibres and acacia accents, unobtrusive flora and barre-body waitresses”; a hot-tub at a party is a “sous vide bath of genitalia”. But her own position within the industry is ambivalent. “Joan Didion at a start-up” was Rebecca Solnit’s description of this book (emblazoned on the cover). Though Wiener’s memoir is similar in its ethnographic style to Didion’s New Journalism, there’s a crucial difference. Wiener writes as an insider looking back, rather than an outsider looking in. This raises awkward questions that Uncanny Valley never resolves. Given that she disagreed with so many of the tech industry’s tenets, why did she stay?
The almost detached nature of her writing as she recalls key moments in her life sometimes feels similar to Sally Rooney’s hit Conversations With Friends. Though a novel, it keenly explores the millennial feeling of something happening that the writer is unsure of how to respond to and offers it up to the reader for their own uncertain judgement.
Wiener’s account is not designed to shock in the way others have. It is instead intimate, the rolling thoughts of a young hipster sucked into this world against her better judgment. A New Yorker with a liberal arts background who started her career in publishing, she worked briefly in her 20s in Silicon Valley in customer support. It’s the kind of people-facing job that tech companies need, but engineers and coders sneer at. From this vantage, not quite at the heart of the action but adjacent to it, she carefully, wryly observes everyday life in the Valley.
Uncanny Valley, Wiener’s debut, is a fabulously frank account of striving in Silicon Valley as a people-pleasing feminist surrounded by “ambitious, arrogant young men from America’s soft suburbs”. Welcome to the land of “baby tyrants”, who are relentlessly determined to fix everything and make “f*** you” money.
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.
Wiener is a keen social observer and scene-setter. She has an eye for telling details about people and places, and is especially attuned to the hypocrisies of hubristic young men. Her bosses at the e-books start-up say they are too busy to join a book club, and spell Hemingway with two “m’s”. Tech bros in San Francisco “dressed for work as if embarking on an alpine expedition: high-performance down jackets and foul-weather shells, backpacks with decorative carabiners. They looked ready to gather kindling and build a lean-to, not make sales calls and open pull-requests from climate-controlled open-plan offices.” Dating apps in the valley were “flooded with milquetoast strivers who earnestly listed business-management guides among their favourite books and arrived at dinner wearing backpacks stamped with the names of their employers”.
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”.