STARRED REVIEW
January 2020

Uncanny Valley

By Anna Wiener
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Chances are, you know someone who has misgivings about technology. Perhaps this person quit Facebook or downgraded from a smartphone. In Uncanny Valley: A Memoir, these same misgivings are voiced by a former Silicon Valley foot soldier.

Anna Wiener, now a writer for The New Yorker, draws on her anxiety-addled experiences working at several startups during her mid-20s. Her bosses were very young, hoodie-clad men. They ran companies fattened up with venture capital, eager to “disrupt” something, anything. They were encouraged to “move fast and break things,” to “ask forgiveness, not permission.” Recklessness in the name of “optimization” was seen as noble. 

But Uncanny Valley is not a Devil Wears Prada-style takedown of any company or CEO. Instead, Wiener focuses on the startup climate as a whole—giving an insider’s view of San Francisco and the tech-​Manifest-Destiny-minded brogrammers who inhabit it.

She portrays tech as a field for people who want to be taken seriously, even though most of them have not yet proven themselves as good leaders or even good human beings. Wiener wonders how she came to earn a salary over $100,000 to essentially answer emails. Her questioning who earns that kind of money, and why, feels pertinent to the current political climate.

Wiener sipped the Kool-Aid but never quite drank it. She became skeptical about whether tech contributes positively to society, let alone fixes anything in it (which is often the stated goal). In each of her workplaces, she was one of only a few women, an experience she likens to “immersion therapy for internalized misogyny.” Surveillance of tech users was—and still is—rampant, and unchecked greed turns out to be a big elephant in the room. “What were we doing, anyway, helping people become billionaires?” she writes toward the book’s end. The reader will have long been wondering the same thing. 

Wiener’s eventual exit from startups is publishing’s gain: She is an extremely gifted writer and cultural critic. Uncanny Valley may be a defining memoir of the 2020s, and it’s one that will send a massive chill down your spine. 

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Uncanny Valley

Uncanny Valley

By Anna Wiener
Picador
ISBN 9781250785695

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