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Ascent of a techno-sceptic

Is it weird that a CEO can be considered up-and-coming? Yes, but of course everything about the new nearly normal is weird

Lauren Oyler | NYT 

Anna Wiener
Cover: Uncanny Valley

At first, I didn’t understand why I was asked to review Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener’s memoir about working for Bay Area start-ups in the 2010s. Ms Wiener reports on technology for The New Yorker; I’ve only written about technology to say that I think social media is very bad. I’m much more interested in metafiction than metadata, not least because I’m confident I can explain what metafiction is.

But when I started reading, I realised that former liberal arts majors who halfheartedly resist the app-enabled future are the intended audience for this book. Ms Wiener was, and maybe still is, one of us; far from seeking to disabuse civic-minded techno-sceptics of our views, she is here to fill out our worst-case scenarios with shrewd insight and literary detail. It isn’t that those of us with skill sets as soft as our hearts don’t need to know what’s going on in “the ecosystem,” as those “high on the fumes of world-historical potential” call Silicon Valley. It’s more that everything over there is as absurdly wrong as we imagine. “Tone = DOOM,” I wrote in the margins, and that was before an up-and-coming CEO introduces Ms Wiener, a new hire, to his favourite dictatorially motivational phrase: “Down for the Cause” (DFTC).

Is it weird that a CEO can be considered up-and-coming? Yes, but of course everything about the new nearly normal is weird, and Ms Wiener is a droll yet gentle guide. Uncanny Valley begins across the country, where 25-year-old Ms Wiener is a low-paid assistant at a small New York literary agency, “oblivious to Silicon Valley, and contentedly so.” “I did not know that it was nearly impossible to use the internet at all without enriching the online superstore or its founder,” she writes. “I only knew that I was expected to loathe both, and I did — loudly, at any opportunity, and with righteous indignation.”

She comes across an article about an e-reading start-up promising “to bring a revolution to book publishing” — one of several proposed “Netflix for books” projects that have thankfully failed to achieve Netflix-level success. Despite suspecting “a lot of fine print,” she finds herself intrigued as much by the possibility of a not-so-bleak future for the publishing industry as by the prospect of making more than $30,000 a year (no benefits). After a “series of ambiguous and casual interviews,” she accepts a three-month trial position, to the consternation of her publishing friends, who see the e-book start-up as the enemy.

Ms Wiener frequently emphasises that, at the time, she didn’t realise all these buoyant 25-year-olds in performance outerwear were leading mankind down a treacherous path. She also sort of does know all along. Luckily, the tech industry controls the means of production for excuses to justify a fascination with its shiny surfaces and twisted logic. She reads the blogs. “It was easier,” she writes, “to fabricate a romantic narrative than admit I was ambitious — that I wanted my life to pick up momentum, go faster.” Even two-thirds of the way through the book, when Ms Wiener, by now established in San Francisco, is poised to “scale” by taking a customer-support job at a cutesily branded “open source start-up” she has not yet realised her “personal pathology” is a widespread affliction. An “entire culture had been seduced” by “ambitious, aggressive, arrogant young men from America’s soft suburbs.”

Book details

Book details

Back in New York, when her trial period at the e-book start-up ends, she’s not asked to continue. Nevertheless, her bosses help her find a new job out West, on the customer-support team of a data-analytics start-up founded by college dropouts that is hyped in tech-world parlance as “a rocket ship” and “the next unicorn.” She finds the analytics start-up’s bizarre interview questions infuriating (“‘How would you describe the internet to a medieval farmer?’ asked the sales engineer, opening and closing the pearl snaps on his shirt, sticking his hand thoughtfully down the back of his own waistband”).

Yet for every “rationalist” she also meets an earnest, talented person who is almost certainly not evil, maybe. On “a microblogging platform,” she picks a fight with a start-up founder whom she sees arguing that should be shorter so people can learn faster; in response, he invites her to lunch. They become unlikely friends, and he becomes “one of the youngest self-made billionaires.” Another friend, a software developer, claims to have leaked a set of documents that served as “an indictment of undemocratic activity perpetrated by the very rich.” So much around her is heady and amazing, and not only because she takes MDMA sometimes.

The real strength of Uncanny Valley comes from Ms Wiener’s careful parsing of the complex motivations and implications that fortify this new surreality at every level, from the individual body to the body politic. By the end of the book, she shows that technologists are not interested in “systems” thinking only because it can fix what’s broken; they are “settling into newfound political power,” with armies of trolls now serving as foot soldiers in what founders call a “war” for market share.

Being skilled at deconstruction is a disadvantage for a customer-support specialist hoping to find “meaning” in her work, and for a millennial who values moving through the world with a clear sense of right and wrong. For a writer, though, it’s a pickaxe, and we’re living through a gold rush, as they might say in San Francisco.

First Published: Sun, January 12 2020. 23:41 IST
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