Friday, April 10, 2020

Uncanny Valley

By Liz Wolfe - April 10, 2020 at 06:00AM

In 2013, Anna Wiener quit her coffee-fetching job in publishing to work in Silicon Valley. Seven years later, that choice brings us another entry in the glut of books about tech-world malfeasance.

Wiener's memoir, Uncanny Valley, dips into gender studies ("my job had placed me, a self-identified feminist, in a position of ceaseless, professionalized deference to the male ego") and touches on founders' self-centeredness ("baby tyrants…one-hit wonders who had dropped out of school and become their own bosses and thought they knew how the world worked").

But Wiener was too junior to have a full view of the world about which she purports to offer a sweeping indictment. She worked in relatively low-level customer support roles with little prior experience yet got a hefty payday at the end, cashing out stock options for $200,000. She made out fine and couldn't see the whole map, but she doesn't let that stand in the way of her conclusion that Silicon Valley's tech titans are making our world worse.

Wiener is at her best when she grapples with Edward Snowden's whistleblowing and her own startup's metadata collection: "We didn't think of ourselves as participating in the surveillance economy. We weren't thinking about our role in facilitating and normalizing the creation of unregulated, privately held databases on human behavior."

In interviews about Uncanny Valley, Wiener paraphrases a CEO: "Silicon Valley is a culture focused on doing, not reflecting or thinking." Her book is afflicted with the same malady. Still, the result is compellingly readable. Credit that to rubber-necking or to the strength of Wiener's writing, even if she doesn't offer much in the way of novelty.


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