The world of tech is one we all share opinions on. “I’m trying this thing where I leave my phone outside my room at night.” “I really need to spend less time on Instagram.” “How accurate do you think Apple’s inbuilt pedometer really is?” It’s the ubiquity of the products and services that feature so heavily in Uncanny Valley that make it surprising that we haven’t seen a book with such eloquent candour like Anna Weiner’s novelistic memoir.
Wiener’s book is not sold as a whistleblower account, a confessional industry tell-all, or even any exhaustive tour of the world of tech. Instead, it is a simply put and perfectly-pitched outsider’s perspective on an industry that all of us come into contact with daily, yet know very little about.
Weiner herself would be the first to note that those fully immersed in chasing Silicon Valley dreams barely have time to read a book, let alone write one. Crucially, they have little incentive to write one with this degree of honesty. The books we routinely see coming out of the community are hybrid success stories and productivity hacks with one key thing in common: to exalt the writer, promote their work, and deify the tech community as a whole. These books are so consumed with endearing themselves to the world they represent that they fail to capture the nuanced realities of tech, and certainly not its darkness. That’s why Weiner’s perspective is so special.
Weiner is a convincing outsider, considering the story is based in a world she spent the best part of a decade in. She is the ideal ‘reader’s narrator,’ starting out in the world of publishing in New York and begrudgingly segueing through an e-reader startup in the city before making the leap cross-country and into the murky depths of the start-up world. This rare career jump and the associated perspective makes for a gripping read. Literature has long portrayed a superiority complex when it comes to tech (from the opening of Rachel Cusk’s Outline to Joe Goldberg’s entire life outlook in Caroline Kepnes’ You ), and one can reasonably assume, even hope, that Weiner strategically chose to maintain a distance from her peers throughout her career knowing that writing her story would be her own personal ‘exit,’ to borrow from the Silicon Valley terminology that Weiner both uses and subverts throughout.
She may be living the all-digital, all-virtual San Francisco high life, but Weiner takes care to show that her true, analogue New Yorker self is the real her. She’s on our side, and her Silicon Valley self is an avatar, and a necessary one to survive. It’s an easy, deeply enjoyable read because of that distance, even for those who know little about tech. She openly states at the start that she had spared little thought to the people 'behind the internet’ before this journey began, and acts as a translator to an audience who perhaps know little about code and anti-corporate structures. Weiner perfectly balances disdain for the wider culture, while making all of the reasons that she strayed so far from her roots and worked her way up within it entirely relatable. Presented with her options (financial and emotional), we would make the same choices she did.
It is so rare we get to glimpse into the lives of the humans behind the machines, and it’s Weiner’s focus on this that makes Uncanny Valley so eminently readable. Weiner names barely anything or anyone (Facebook is "the social network everyone hates," various colleagues are defined exclusively by their job titles), and the characters that do qualify for naming rights are those she connected with more fundamentally than the startup ecosystem typically allows. As her own career progression shows, the non-tech roles are severely undervalued, propped up by women and other minority groups — but it’s this underrepresented real-world side to it all that’s so fascinating.
While there are moments in recent history that have raised eyebrows of outrage in the direction of Silicon Valley — sexist lawsuits, racist AI, data scandals, political corruption — much of it goes unnoticed in our daily lives. We go on tapping, swiping and scrolling. Wiener’s most stark observations about the inequality and exponential gentrification of the city, labour, late-stage capitalism, and exploitation come in between the most outlandish anecdotes and the voyeuristic thrill they bring. They are placed so casually it is uncomfortable, and it should be, because we are all complicit. It is our duty to learn more about this world we facilitate yet choose to ignore — and Weiner’s human story is the perfect route in. No preaching, just blank-faced facts in a witty and accessible prose.
While not wanting it to, I spent the second half of the book wondering how it could end. Surely she couldn’t still be in tech? But what could push her out? I was struck by the inevitability of her chosen final chapter, and the unexpected emotion it roused.
More timely now than ever, if you’ve used a device or a network today, you should read this.
Uncanny Valley: A Memoir
By Anna Weiner
225 pages. 2020.
Buy it here.