First coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Moti in 1970, the term “uncanny valley” refers to the ways in which something that’s just shy of humanoid makes us feel uncomfortable. In her new memoir titled after the concept, Anna Wiener offers an insider’s view of the tech industry—a field that’s also overly familiar and deeply off-putting.
Wiener was working as an assistant in the publishing industry in her mid-twenties when she was offered a job at a fledgling e-book startup. Although the e-book job didn’t last long, Wiener, with the support of her former bosses, leveraged her brief time in tech into a customer support role at an analytics startup in San Francisco. She then moved to an open-source startup, eventually transferring into a role that had her dealing with the death threats and far-right propaganda. All the while, Wiener observed an industry and a city that were rapidly changing to meet the whims of the young, moneyed elites who were taking over.
Wiener doesn’t drop names or companies in her memoir, choosing to lightly obscure recognized brands by referring to them as “the social network everyone hated” or “the search engine giant.” Most of these function as fig leaves, but the book benefits from the lack of big names; their omission adds to the facelessness of the “ecosystem,” as Wiener calls the tech industry and the facets of San Francisco that serve it. It’s also a deft means of sidestepping reader biases; some might be more sympathetic to, say, Apple than a “highly litigious Seattle-based conglomerate.”
Wiener never hides her own limited early knowledge of the industry’s nuts and bolts or the true nature of her work. She was a cog in a machine—a refreshing take from someone an in an industry known for inflated job titles and egos. This makes Wiener a constantly relatable presence, someone who is part of the industry but able to discern its cracks and inconsistencies.
When it comes to her own role in the machine, Wiener tends to shrug, which feels like a cop-out but also captures one of the central conundrums of our very connected lives. She mentions the lifestyle made possible by her salary and the perks of being in the tech industry, which are part of why she stayed. It was convenient—a major reason many find it difficult to opt out themselves—even without the six-figure salary.
Uncanny Valley talks less about tech than the world the industry has created. Wiener’s portrait of San Francisco is one in which tech bros want to revolutionize everything and are rewarded for that ambition with unfathomable amounts of money. It’s a scene validated from the inside; its powerful and often not-so-powerful players are protected by their money, status and position within an industry eager to celebrate itself. Wiener explores how the industry—in its expenditure of the millions upon millions of dollars flowing from accelerators and venture capitalists into the hands of 20-something founders—has transformed a major U.S. city into a playground catering to its wants. Wiener makes that transformation central to her story, highlighting how tech money is facilitating the rapid, dizzying expansion of inequality.
Wiener’s prose is even keeled and a pleasure to read, key for a memoir that ultimately boasts little conflict. There’s not much here that will surprise anyone with a passing understanding of the tech industry. But revelation is less important than reflection, which Wiener makes space for the reader to do…even if there are no easy answers in the face of the industry’s many flaws and substantial power.
Uncanny Valley succeeds in presenting a skillful encapsulation of one force defining our lives.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.