BOOK REVIEW: Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

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4/5 stars

When, exactly, did the economy become based on disruption? Can it really last beyond the first break into the market, initial public offering, and growing into a quote-unquote Real Company? Anna Wiener’s memoir Uncanny Valley approaches the culture and construction of Silicon Valley, recounting her experience working in customer support roles in various San Francisco startups. Wiener’s San Francisco, pre-2016 election and #MeToo, feels a bit like the Wild West, full of companies chasing notoriety and the lauded “unicorn” status. Wiener is a New York transplant in this city that can’t quite work out its own identity, and what results is an atmospheric portrait of a very specific time in American culture.

In her first customer support role, Wiener was the first female employee and the first employee to be working in a non-tech role. She really captures the feeling of being a woman in an office surrounded by men–well, boys, really, college dropouts chasing the Gates/Zuckerberg dream–and being looked down upon for the work you do not being as “advanced” as coding. Having worked at a startup, I definitely know the divide that exists in companies between those who came in at the ground floor and those who didn’t. Wiener’s feeling in customer service–your face and name and tone of voice being reduced to a bot-like construction and a comfort to your customers–is recognisable no matter what kind of customer-facing role you’ve been in.

Wiener is a detail-oriented writer, and captures San Francisco in a great way–public transport ads about analytics software, bars filled with hoodied programmers, and business cards printed with nonsense slogans like “I AM DATA DRIVEN”. This reminded me a lot of Sounds Like Titanic in its tone of post-college ennui and trying to build a career from a liberal arts degree. But some of Wiener’s empathy is lost on how she continues to find that ennui when she’s making six figures and cashing out stock options. She attempts to address systemic issues in the companies she works for (heavily hinted to be GitHub, which had a pretty massive misconduct issue in the mid-2010s), but one of the most sobering moments of the narrative is when she comes across a homeless Black man wearing one of her employer’s hooded sweatshirts, panhandling on a train platform. She tries to talk to her supervisor about how this appears to represent the rapid gentrification of San Francisco and the effect the tech boom might have on marginalised populations, but instead her supervisor replies: “We have to find out whose it is. We aren’t supposed to give the hoodies away.”

If you want to understand what Silicon Valley was and glimpse what it might become, Uncanny Valley is for you.

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