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A Silicon Valley version of The Devil Wears Prada

Memoir: Uncanny Valley

Anna Wiener

Fourth Estate hardback, 304 pages, €23.79


Anna Wiener: an incisive dissection of the tech industry

Anna Wiener: an incisive dissection of the tech industry

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener


Anna Wiener: an incisive dissection of the tech industry

About one year into her time in Silicon Valley, and halfway through her new book, Anna Wiener goes to hear a symphony with a privacy activist friend. She is taking a break from her gruelling work at a business-to-business start-up whose provision of data analysis to innumerable other apps and services gives its employees a backdoor view into some of the most personal information imaginable.

As her friend rails against the tech industry's slow centralisation, she grows uncomfortable. Finally, she asks the question: "Do you think I work at a surveillance company?" He answers: "I thought you'd never ask."

There are already a large number of Silicon Valley memoirs. But unlike most of its peers, Uncanny Valley is not interested in name-dropping and corporate buccaneering. It contains little business advice, and will not be of much use to the next generation of hustling would-be gurus. Instead, it is a cool, witty, incisive dissection of an industry and culture which has asked "forgiveness, not permission" while imposing its beliefs across the whole world. It is also an affecting story of a young woman's personal change and disenchantment: The Devil Wears Prada with LSD and sleeveless fleece jackets.

"Tech promised what so few other industries or institutions could, at the time," writes Wiener: "A future." Her account begins in 2012, the year Facebook went public, but back then she wasn't paying attention. At 25, she is a downtrodden member of New York City's "assistant class", well-educated but paid a pittance, working in publishing, and slowly overtaken by peers with generational wealth. She lives an "affectedly analogue" life, taking photographs on film, and dating woodworkers, acoustic guitarists and an "experimental baker".

A chance job at an ebook start-up offers a sudden portal to San Francisco, on the other side of the country, a former outsiders' haven now being blown apart by massive financial infusions. Her old friends, who disdain capitalism and sometimes carry flip phones with no internet connection, feel she has sold out. But secretly, she is glad to be doing something "ambitious" - fast-moving, that seems real - and soon she is intoxicated by the Californian ideology (as well as the salary).

Clearly, though, she retained a literary perspective. Uncanny Valley reads like the final report of a deep cover agent of the publishing world from inside its mortal enemy (though Wiener says she was not plotting this all along). She writes with a flat effect that mirrors the anodyne unreality of digital products, but punctures that surface with quietly savage turns of phrase and sudden, bittersweet admissions. She nails the quasi-religious, cult-like aura that attaches to Valley "thought leaders" as well as the hypocrisy of chief executives who lecture their employees about "wanting it" and being "a family" while manipulating their emotions.

Her descriptions of techies' quirky lifestyles - their "biohacking", their sex parties, their hyperproductive spirituality - are also extremely funny, which is a considerable achievement when considering how long the world has now been laughing at these habits. One effective tactic is to never say the name of any company or prominent individual, even when it is perfectly obvious. Uber is "an on-demand ride-sharing start-up", Airbnb is "a home-sharing platform", and Facebook is simply "the social network everyone hated". The rule even applies to bars, restaurants, the Twilight novels and the film The Matrix.

The result is a wry defamiliarisation that rescues these companies from our long numbness to their existence and restores their true strangeness. Shorn of their brands, globe-spanning tech titans stand equal to doomed dog-walking apps and services for renting out driveways: all equally anonymous, equally bizarre, and equally questionable in their diversion of talent and capital towards the ever-more-efficient fulfilment of rich Westerners' desires (but not necessarily, Wiener argues, their needs).

She also depicts San Francisco's growing inequality: its untreated mental health patients "shouting down nobody" outside metro stations, its junkies shooting up in the Tenderloin district just blocks away from where start-ups glibly discuss how to "addict" their customers, and its spiralling rents, which were already forcing anyone messy or artistic - anyone who resembles Wiener's old Brooklyn friends - out of town.

The book has its climax in November 2016, with the failure of Wiener's own efforts to prevent the rise of Donald Trump. In theory, it is the end of tech's innocence, and a belated reckoning for its sunny conviction that "networks, humming along at scale" have the fate of the world in hand.

Wiener isn't so sure. The networks are still humming, the money is still flowing, and the data is still being extracted. In the end, Uncanny Valley's conclusions are sadder, more personal, reflecting back on any reader who has ever allowed themselves to swallow a whole belief system alongside a pay cheque.

What did Wiener hope to find in California? What do any of us hope to find here? What, indeed, drives us to spend so long looking at our smartphones?

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We come here, or go there, chasing something important without necessarily knowing what it is. Wiener, "committed to the idea of vulnerability", spends years searching for an answer, for some kind of humanity, at the core of her corporate superiors, trying to be a "girlfriend, sister, mother" to the alleged lost boys who become millionaires before they have become adults. For some of them, these may be profound questions; for many, though, the answers are depressingly simple.

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