Book Review:  Uncanny Valley: A Memoir by Anna Wiener

When she was in her mid-twenties, Anna Wiener left her career in New York publishing to move to San Francisco and work in the tech industry. She worked first at one startup and then another, getting a firsthand glimpse at the overwhelmingly white male entrepreneurs that were driving Silicon Valley’s digital culture. This book alternates between standard memoir passages and Wiener’s wry observations about what makes Silicon Valley tick. It could aptly have been titled Anna’s Adventures in Wonderland, because she drops into a rabbit hole as bizarre and mystifying and adrift from reality as anything Lewis Carroll ever imagined.

She soon found out that Silicon Valley was (and is) unlike any other place on Earth. It had its own language and culture, and it was predicated upon the creation of apps that were designed to lure customers away from reality and onto their screens while at the same time making the creators and CEOs of the tech companies filthy rich. The entrepreneurs Wiener worked for demanded total commitment of their employees, including long hours of work, a constant upbeat attitude, the spouting of pseudo-inspirational platitudes, and a pursuit of the long-term goals of the organization to the exclusion of everything else. At first Wiener went along with it all, somewhat enthralled by the strangeness of the lifestyle, the decent salaries, and the perks and parties. It is easy to discern, though, in the way that she describes her adventures in tech-land, that she is alternatively befuddled, confused, skeptical, and often appalled.

Back in the seventies, San Francisco was one of my favorite cities, a bastion of the counterculture and a fun and inexpensive place to be. However, once the tech industry took over, the Bay Area became a region of contrasts. The rich techies had their overpriced mansions and enormous office spaces, while the streets were crowded with the disenfranchised homeless. There was practically no middle ground. Employees of the tech companies would ride their bikes or minibuses or ride-share cars past the destitute poverty-stricken populace without really noticing them, too caught up in their pursuit of wealth to focus on and care about what was going on all around.

In Uncanny Valley, the owners and CEOs in the tech industry come across as visitors from another world entirely, unable to focus on any reality other the apps they are selling and the money they are raking in. Their employees are like acolytes in some sort of weird money-worshipping cult. In some parts of the narrative, Wiener’s mind seems to be unraveling from the strain of attempting to reconcile what she knows of the world outside of Silicon Valley and the dysfunctional culture within. There are passages of stream-of-consciousness that display the surreal nature of her surroundings better than a traditional description.

All of this makes for a heady trip indeed. From the first paragraphs, Wiener takes your hand and carries you into the rabbit hole with her. You become immersed in an alternate world that cannot exist in our reality – and yet it does. That’s the strange part. As I read this book, I could hardly believe that somewhere on our world people really live like that and have such values. And yet they still do. They are so focused on their tunnel-visioned perspective that they are blind to the emotional and spiritual truths that the rest of us see.

If you read this book, prepare for immersion in an alternate universe that to most people is an abstraction but to a select few is the only reality there is.

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