Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
In 2013, at the age of 25, Anna Wiener quit her job at a New York literary agency and went to work in the tech industry, said Angela Saini in The Observer. Relocating to San Francisco, she landed a job at a data analytics start-up before moving to the open source software platform GitHub. In Uncanny Valley, her “beautifully relatable and tender” memoir of this period, Wiener casts a shrewd, satirical eye on the foibles and excesses of Silicon Valley. This isn’t a book packed with “revelations”: we all know by now about the misogyny, greed and pretentiousness of the tech world. What it offers, instead, is an “intimate” day-to-day portrait of the industry by a “young woman trying her best to swallow the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid, but never quite managing to keep it down”.
“There is so much money in Silicon Valley that even English literature graduates get to have some of it,” said James Marriott in The Times. Wiener’s roles, in customer relations, place her near the bottom of the tech food chain. Even so, she’s soon earning $90,000 a year, and eventually cashes in stock options worth $200,000. But Wiener’s colleagues “aren’t just making money, they’re figuring out a new way to live”, which makes them very annoying. Dressed in “recycled polyester athletic vests” and “Spandex leggings printed with unicorn emojis”, they pass their days chewing “powdered Swedish tobacco” while listening to “deep house” on “oversized headphones”. They’re forever “roaming around barefoot, juggling and playing guitar”; one even identifies as a Japanese raccoon dog: “you’ll know him by the tail”, Wiener is advised.
“There is a trend for talented young women writing non-fiction to be described as millennial Joan Didions,” said Elaine Moore in the FT. While Wiener has been paid this compliment, her “jokes and self-deprecation reminded me more of Nora Ephron. In places, Uncanny Valley reads like a comedy screenplay.” And that’s the problem, said Julia Carrie Wong in The Guardian: for the most part, it’s like an “exquisitely curated Tumblr blog” of the “young, newly wealthy and utterly absurd”. What’s missing are “ethical or moral considerations”. The societal ills associated with the tech boom – from San Francisco’s homelessness crisis to concerns about the erosion of privacy – are mostly glossed over, presented as “opportunities for irony, not empathy”. The result is that a book which purports to be an outsider’s account of Silicon Valley ends up feeling “more like an insider’s unwitting confession”.