Stepping into Ambiguity: A Review of Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
Words By Abi Mechley
Published January 14, 2020 by Macmillan
Sometimes a book lands perfectly along the ley lines of past and future. Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner is one such memoir. A reflection of life that is impossible to look away from, it masterfully outlines the past two decades’ rapid shift to a tech economy and the accompanying anxieties around privacy, surveillance, and technological dependency most of us have been trying to ignore.
Weiner, who ventured into the booming tech industry of 2010s San Francisco, writes of beginning as an admittedly naïve twenty-something experiencing first-hand the euphoria and anxiety of working in Silicon Valley. She engages in a sweeping discussion of the tech industry and startup culture, interweaving her own very personal journey as a perpetual outsider-on-the-inside.
Just like the industry it studies, Uncanny Valley operates in contradictions: sincerity alongside performance, hope mixed with doubt, childlike wonder given power and control. To see it all through Weiner’s eyes is also to experience her gradual disenchantment, and her razor-sharp observations frequently reflect the social balancing act that we’re all attempting to navigate. Some of the funniest lines in the book are those that deliver the most dread; they are so absurdly and blatantly real that laughing is less a symptom of disbelief and more a sign of recognition.
One stand-out feature of the book is how nuanced a perspective it takes. It would have been incredibly easy to write a narrative solely of corruption, bad actors, how technology is making the world worse. And Weiner doesn’t resist looking the biggest problems squarely in the face: economic inequality, misogyny, racism, the ways in which the worst qualities of the internet and technology are actually symptoms of success. But nothing is overblown or taken out of context. Every scene is presented plainly, with intense humanity, and she takes care to lay every card on the table—even when they show her own flaws.
To show how easy it is to uphold an industry hell-bent on progress at any costs, Weiner implicates herself, showing how her personal desires for relationships, security, and meaningful work reinforce both her blindness to the industry’s problems (only halfway through the book does she begin to acknowledge that her company’s data collection is surveillance work), but also her early, impassioned belief that those profiting from the system are victims of it. Every time she places her trust in the system, the voice of her future self steps in, takes stock, lets us peek behind the curtain. She doesn’t use hindsight to put her optimism on trial; instead, she takes a measured look at her original assumptions alongside the nuanced reality she had to survive.
The experiences within Uncanny Valley are also distinctly millennial, characterized by a search for greater purpose amidst economic hardship and lack of meaning. As a narrator, Weiner is constantly analyzing herself and others, observing with embarrassment the adolescent culture cultivated by the startup industry while simultaneously wishing she could exist fully in that space. And it’s millennial most of all in the disillusionment she experiences, a commonality with today’s 20- and 30-somethings who spent their early adulthood crushed by student debt, struggling to find living-wage jobs in the recession, bombarded by the 24/7 news cycle of climate change and growing political unrest, and coming to terms with their individual powerlessness in the face of billionaires and corporate monopolies. Should we work inside the castle walls of capitalism, where at least we get healthcare and a decent wage, even as our identities are subsumed? What about everyone else? Weiner doesn’t claim to have the answers, but this book shows she’s drawing her line in the sand.
At its heart, Uncanny Valley is a window into a world many of us have only seen from a distance, a world some of us are all too familiar with. Alongside other contemporary works like Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion and Susan Fowler’s Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber, Weiner has expertly shared her own experiences and offered insight into the technological movement that is shaping our futures.