In her mid-twenties, at the height of tech industry idealism, Anna Wiener―stuck, broke, and looking for meaning in her work, left a job in book publishing for the promise of the new digital economy. She moved from New York to San Francisco, where she landed at a big-data startup in the heart of the Silicon Valley bubble: a world of surreal extravagance, dubious success, and fresh-faced entrepreneurs hell-bent on domination, glory, and, of course, progress.
Wiener was, and maybe still is, one of us; far from seeking to disabuse civic-minded techno-skeptics of our views, she is here to fill out our worst-case scenarios with shrewd insight and literary detail ... Wiener is a droll yet gentle guide ... Wiener frequently emphasizes that, at the time, she didn’t realize 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 ... It’s possible to create a realistic portrait of contemporary San Francisco by simply listing all the harebrained new-money antics and 'mindful' hippie-redux principles that flourish there. All you have to do after that is juxtapose them with the effects of the city’s rocket-ship rents: a once-lively counterculture gasping for air and a 'concentration of public pain' shameful and shocking even to a native New Yorker. Wiener deploys this strategy liberally, with adroit specificity and arch timing. But the real strength of Uncanny Valley comes from her careful parsing of the complex motivations and implications that fortify this new surreality at every level, from the individual body to the body politic.
... a different sort of Silicon Valley narrative, a literary-minded outsider’s insider account of an insulated world that isn’t as insular or distinctive as it and we assume. Wiener is our guide to a realm whose denizens have been as in thrall to a dizzying sense of momentum as consumers have been ... Complicity is Wiener’s theme, and her method: She’s an acute observer of tech’s shortcomings, but she’s especially good at conveying the mind of a subject whose chief desire is to not know too much. Through her story, we begin to perceive how much tech owes its power, and the problems that come with it, to contented ignorance ... For all her caustic insight and droll portraiture, Wiener is on an earnest quest likely to resonate with a public that has been sleepwalking through tech’s gradual reshaping of society ... Wiener is wittily merciless in portraying how susceptible she was to 'the sense of ownership and belonging, the easy identity, the all-consuming feeling of affiliation' that start-up culture promotes ... Her real feat is exposing her own persistent failure to register the big picture.
For a twentysomething memoir, Uncanny Valley is remarkably chaste. Although there are hints of San Francisco’s legendary perversions, our otherwise curious narrator never dabbles ... Throughout the book, she declines to use the proper names of companies and brands. This works to defamiliarize tech monopolies that we take for granted (Google is 'a search-engine giant down in Mountain View,' Facebook 'the social network everyone hated'), but it sometimes goes too far ... Instead of limping back to the literary world full-time after the snack thing, Wiener returned as an author and a West Coast contributing writer for The New Yorker, cartoon headshot sketch and all ... These details belong to a story that Uncanny Valley doesn’t quite want to tell. If selling out is 'our generation’s premier aspiration,' why does she play down her success? ... But without the frisson of shame, Uncanny Valley would be a completely different book, and not nearly as good. This story isn’t about the history of the region or labor in the tech industry; it’s a self-conscious account of how it feels to climb up near the top of the barrel, where you occasionally lose sight of what it’s like for the crabs down below.