Reviewed: Anna Wiener, Uncanny Valley, MCD Books
The ‘self-made boy genius’ is a pervasive image in the tech world. It’s a familiar trajectory, made admirable by its sheer exceptionality: young, brilliant yet maladjusted man floats around in society unsure of his motivations, drops out of university and teaches himself how to code, then stumbles upon a cool new business idea that becomes a game-changer. Venture capital flows in hot and heavy; there’s a strong conviction that what these men have built will revolutionise society; more and more users begin to adopt it. Cue more seed capital, and what used to be a humble start-up in an overstuffed garage becomes a distant memory—fodder for a well-worn origin story, perhaps. Enter a corporate behemoth. A star is born.
In Anna Wiener’s debut memoir Uncanny Valley, this figure not only chokes the atmosphere, but also hovers around its periphery like an uninvited poltergeist. The book opens with Wiener’s own malaise: at 25 and rootless in New York, she works as an assistant in a small literary agency. Encumbered by her sluggish trajectory in a flagging publishing industry and seeing no real way to ascend the ladder, she decides to make the pivot, joining an e-book start-up led by three men younger than her. The position is better paid, and all she has to do is attend meetings, write copy and order the founders’ snacks. This first job sets the tone; new tech is, after all, imbued with the idea of irresistible possibilities and extraordinary beginnings.
Despite her lack of conviction, and after discovering an internal memo where she’s the subject of discussion (‘she’s more interested in learning, not doing’), Wiener comes to a mutual agreement with her bosses and leaves the job. On their suggestion, she moves across the country to San Francisco. As she goes from one expendable, non-coding role to another, the pattern repeats itself: as with an abusive relationship with a powerful person, there’s an unwavering desire to fix things while holding on to the fantasy of ‘what could be’. In this case, it’s the pervasive yet insidious sexism that forms the backdrop of the tech sphere, and the insatiable hunger for scale and expansion, no matter the costs. Or, as Wiener puts it, ‘There were no crises in this vision of the future. There were only opportunities.’ She lands a customer support job at (what is assumed to be) GitHub, with a starting salary of US$90,000.
In an era of what Nick Srnicek dubs ‘platform capitalism’, one does not need to look far to encounter the many services that now make up an integral part of most people’s lives. It seems almost preposterous to imagine that not long ago, our iPhones, Instagrams, UberEats, Airbnbs, Spotifys and Googles didn’t exist, that they all began as a start-up founder’s eureka brainchild. All that net worth, brand identity, equity—they’re happily swirling around in the cloud. Wiener’s deliberate de-identifying of these companies (‘social network everyone said they hated’, ‘online superstore’, ‘millennial-friendly platform for renting strangers’ bedrooms’) emphasises the fact that they are all-encompassing yet interchangeable. After all, as she notes, ‘if we didn’t do it, someone else would’.
The start-up story is particularly alluring for its combined illusion of meritocracy, luck and verve. Put in the hard yards and you too can be a billionaire. Being in the right place at the right time helps. True individuality is a unique asset. And if you’re productive enough, you can be as eccentric as you want. Of course, what these myths assume is that the playing field is level to begin with, and that the culture is extricable from the inherent whiteness and maleness that it’s built on.
When Wiener feels herself lagging behind at the e-book start-up, she tries her best to imitate the mentality by studying blog posts written by tech executives. In San Francisco, she dresses down to fit in, incorporates B vitamins into her diet, teaches herself to like EDM music. She pitches herself as a representative for women, promising a CEO that she will help hire more women even as she nurses her own misgivings. She makes a point of looking for ‘technical self-starters’ and ‘the programming-curious’. She dismisses the possibility that a CEO could be egomaniacal or vindictive (‘I liked him’). In the belly of the beast, it’s easier to aspire to sit with the big boys than openly contest the culture and lose your attendant privileges.
Indeed, for all its trappings of what is quintessentially a white woman memoir à la Didion, Gornick or Nelson, among others, Uncanny Valley is unusually refreshing
in that Wiener doesn’t hide her complicity in her pursuit of agency and desire to belong. Perhaps it is her deadpan, dissociative internet voice that gives it this mood. She is unreservedly upfront: ‘I had been seduced by the confidence of young men’; ‘it was easy to interrogate everyone’s relationship to power and status except for my own’.
Twenty years after Ellen Ullman’s similarly searing treatise Close to the Machine, it’s more than a bit unsettling to see that not much has changed—what Ullman referred to as ‘the nerd flavour of masculinity’, ‘treating reality as code and optimising it’. It is even more horrifying to realise that this reality has scaled so it is no longer niche but the common knowledge that people aspire to and take for granted. Like the co-opting of other once-kooky pursuits such as astrology, feminism and veganism, new media and new money have joined forces to facilitate the glamourisation of selling out, or what Wiener terms ‘our generation’s premier aspiration, the best way to get paid’.
Uncanny Valley brings a heady focus to all the facets of our reality that are strangest when they start to seem normal. When Wiener recounts a rave on a farm in the Sacramento Delta, where artists and tech execs co-mingle in a flurry of drugs, hippie-like endeavours and corporate shilling, it strikes her ‘as a performance from an imperfect past’, ‘a highlight reel of people enacting freedom in the sixties and seventies’. For many embroiled in this world, whether directly or indirectly, and very often from a generation that’s come of age around the 2008 global financial crisis—the moment in which we’re living seems both unprecedented and a reproduction of history.
How did we get here? After all, this so-called ‘technocapitalism’ didn’t materialise out of thin air—it has been quietly brewing in the background for at least the past 20 years. In the quest for ‘optimisation’, ‘scale’ and ‘virality’, Silicon Valley’s overarching ideology has now bled into many other spheres of life, fashioning a new normal with co-working spaces, ‘do-what-you-love’ rhetoric, the frantic desire to quantify all aspects of our lives, the cult of individualism. Under the exciting blanket of newness bubbles a familiar flavour of aspiration. As Wiener notes, ‘our solution, as ever: more technology’. Inside the trap that tech built, the scenery has changed but the rules remain the same. •
Cher Tan is an essayist and critic in Birraranga/Melbourne, via Kaurna Yerta/Adelaide and Singapore. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, the Saturday Paper, Kill Your Darlings, Swampland and Overland, among others. She is an editor at Liminal Magazine and a commissioning editor at the Feminist Writers Festival.