Uncanny Valley: Review
NOTE: Book jacket for “Uncanny Valley” by Anna Wiener (Read: Not my artwork)
I am probably as qualified to write this review as Anna Wiener was to write Uncanny Valley, a memoir about her time working in Silicon Valley. As a writer Wiener is inarguably gifted. She has a way of carrying readers through long descriptive sentences that ebb and flow with criticism and observation landing on a higher moral perspective. She uses this to slap Silicon Valley in the face a few times...rightfully so.
As someone who works in Silicon Valley I appreciate her ability to narrate complex experiences and uncomfortable conversations, that often left me wondering “did that just happen”? At no point did I disagree with Wiener’s criticisms about what it can be like for women in tech, toxic start-up culture, “flat” organizations based on meritocracy, and how businesses operate when people in their early 20s are given access to endless cash. The resulting literal playground deserves to be checked but I found myself frustrated with her whining, self-deprecating, vindictive story. With every page I craved a deeper revelation that would offer perspective of the why behind the what but was left disappointed by a deeply contradictory character and a haphazard, inconclusive ending.
Lacking an insider’s insight
Wiener pitches herself as someone with a fresh perspective, a New Yorker with a liberal arts degree and a sensual connection to life which she continues to remind readers that people in tech just don’t have. But for all of Wiener’s fresh perspective she comes away with the same conclusions writers have been commenting on about Silicon Valley and the Bay Area for decades. In Wiener’s voice they sound banal and arrogant.
Bay Area’s housing crisis, unregulated spending at start-ups, untrained and unchecked CEOs, hiring sprints fueled by nepotism. Anyone remotely interested in Silicon Valley’s start-up culture will unlikely learn anything new.
She maintains that she didn’t know much about Silicon Valley before joining her first start up but it’s hard to reconcile that for a narrative that took place in 2013. By then Facebook was public and she could comfortably refer to Amazon as “an online superstore that had gotten its start in the nineties by selling books on the World Wide Web” and Jeff Bezos as “a chelonian ex-hedge funder, would become the wealthiest person in the world and undergo a montage-worthy makeover”. This makes her doe-eyed stance even more incredulous.
I can’t help but wonder: did she not know the realities of Silicon Valley or did she not want to believe it? How much of her perceived innocence was selective ignorance to protect herself from the realization that through her passive observations she was actually an active participant?
A static character in a chaotic environment
Perhaps most frustrating of all is Wiener’s lack of character development in a narrative that spans across 5 years. Wiener asks herself the same questions, “do I belong here” and “what am I doing”, as she’s packing her New York apartment and again when she chooses to leave tech 5 years later. Among other questions, none are unique to Silicon Valley, rather synonymous to anyone questioning the influence of their profession on their personal life.
In a follow up interview on Recode Decode, Wiener clarifies that she didn’t write Uncanny Valley as an exposé but rather as a personal narrative. This only deepens the lack character development and highlights the contradictions she never attempts to acknowledge let alone reconcile.
She makes bold (unoriginal) generalizations of people who work in tech conveniently overlooking her engineer boyfriend and billionaire CEO friend who exemplify some of her biggest criticisms. She criticizes engineers for their lack of introspection, obsession with product, role in fueling toxic work cultures, but never once questions her boyfriend. She berates Silicon Valley culture for creating overnight millionaires and billionaires but in the same breath reveres her billionaire CEO friend and grants him permissions of being an unreliable friend on grounds of his time being more valuable than hers.
She grants sweeping exceptions for those in her circle to her but at a closer look it’s those who make her feel like she could add value in a world that doesn't make her feel valued. Everyone else is seen as an accomplice to a universe that doesn’t appreciate people with her keen observation and unmonetizable soft skills.
No I on this team
Weiner sees herself as a victim of Silicon Valley rather than a product of it which is evident in her use of “they” and “them” throughout her writing. She constantly others herself from groups of people closest to her, namely friends and colleagues.
“All these people, spending their twenties and thirties in open-plan offices on the campuses of the decade’s most valuable public companies, pouring themselves bowls of free cereal from human bird feeders, crushing empty cans of fruit-tinged water, bored out of their minds but unable to walk away from the direct deposits—it was so unimaginative.”
The morally superior tone of her writing is laughable and cringeworthy at the same time. Part of this probably comes from wanting to distance herself from the toxic spiral of conformity which is only apparent in hindsight. A majority of it reads as a desperate attempt to earn a place as a “non-technical” person in the world of tech.
This, is deeply relatable. As someone who works at a tech company but isn’t really in tech and simultaneously in the creative industry but not granted the same permissions of a "creative” I get this. She doesn’t fit in and she shouldn’t fit in.
I wish she would have delved deeper into the insecurities spurred within her while working in the valley. I would be far more interested to know what it’s like to nurture under-valued skills while working in a professional community that doesn’t reward passion but romanticizes a laser focus on lucrative side hustles.
Original Essay: Uncanny Valley | Issue 25