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Code Red.

Uncanny Valley

By Anna Wiener

New York, NY; MCD/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2020, 288 pp., $27.00, hardcove

In May 2018, I graduated with a BA in English and no job. My sister also graduated that year, but with a degree in computer science engineering and a six-figure job offer at one of the most powerful tech companies in the world. I was proud, yet slightly jealous, of her early career success. I wondered how different my life would look if I had the tech skills that contemporary society values. If I could face a complex line of code and not flinch, then maybe the world would show me--in dollars--how much it values me.

Instead, I scrounge around with other creative millennials as we try to attain the impossible: financial stability and personal fulfillment. We shun opportunities at profitmaking entities in the name of integrity and art. It makes us feel good; it makes us exhausted. Every day I avoid the same question: should I have gone into corporate PR?

In her impressive debut, Anna Wiener asks herself a similar question and then trades the "cultural capital" of a career in book publishing for the actual capital of a tech start-up. Confessional and wily, Uncanny Valley muses over the implications of "selling-out" in the internet age and just who can claim the moral high ground in monstrously capitalist and tech-obsessed America.

The book begins with Wiener's first job after college. She is an assistant at a New York literary agency, which turns out to be monotonous, poorly paid, and devoid of promotions. "After three years, the voyeuristic thrill of answering someone else's phone had worn thin. I no longer wanted to amuse myself with submissions from the slush pile." She is "privileged and downwardly mobile," in publishing, "ashamed that I couldn't support myself, and ashamed that my generous, forgiving parents were effectively subsidizing a successful literary agency. I was still on their health insurance." She is unfulfilled, too, by living in hipster-saturated Brooklyn, "moaning about [her] impossible future" with her publishing friends in dive bars.

Like any good millennial, Wiener's ambitions are abstract yet principled. She says she wants to find her "place in the world, and be independent, useful, and good." Reconsidering how she might actualize those goals, she is drawn to "the sense of possibility" in tech: "In publishing, no one I knew was ever celebrating a promotion. Nobody my age was excited about what might come next. Tech... promised what so few industries or institutions could at the time: a future."

On a whim, she reaches out to an e-book startup in New York and the founders offer her a position. After a few eye-opening months working there, Wiener is offered a $65,000 salary at a data analytics start-up in the Bay Area. Her friends in New York wonder whether she is worried that the work will be "soul-ruining" but Wiener wants her life to "to pick up momentum, go faster":
It seemed, among my countercultural and creative friends, shrewd and
cynical to be curious about business. I was selling out. Those who
understood our cultural moment saw that selling out--corporate
positions, partnerships, sponsors--would become our generation's
premier aspiration, the only way to get paid.

Uncanny Valley begins in 2013, before the founder of the "on-demand ride share" app resigned in disgrace over the company's sexist culture and before the "social network that everyone hated" was hijacked by Russian hackers to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (Throughout the book, Wiener never refers to any tech giants by name--this trick underscores their Voldemort identity and interrupts their brand dominance.) In 2013, people are mostly excited for the ways that tech companies make our lives more efficient and enjoyable.

Our present is very different, of course. Nearly 6000 riders were sexually assualted in Ubers in the last two years, and Facebook unwittingly helped Russia disrupt our last presidential election, to name a few problems. Our current jaundiced view makes it strange, but intriguing, to watch Wiener become an enthusiastic participant of the new technological revolution.

During her job training, she learns the basics behind the company's codebase. She writes, "The first time I looked at a block of code and understood what was happening, I felt like nothing less than a genius." Tech workers, she observes, are more "adaptable and opportunistic, happier" than her bohemian friends struggling to make a living. She admires "their focus, their commitment, their ability to know what they wanted and to say it out loud." Wiener finds acceptance amongst their ranks. She befriends hackers and encounters engineers working on the first self-driving cars. She meets a software engineer, Ian, and they fall in love. "I was happy; I was learning. For the first time in my professional life, I was not responsible for making anyone coffee."

The analytics start-up she works at for her first eighteen months is a "unicorn," a privately-owned start-up valued at over a billion dollars. Perks at unicorns include kombucha on-tap, in-house massage therapists, and free ski trips to Tahoe. The excessiveness is a bit sickening, but in an industry in which "profitability is a bragging right," Wiener and her team are puffed up with power: "Society valued our contributions and, by extension, us."

The tension in Uncanny Valley is whether Wiener actually is made for this world. Sure, she is good at her job, enjoys the financial benefits without shame, and even believes tech is an industry that earnestly wants to promote "human rights, free speech and free expression, creativity and equality." After the data analytics start-up, Wiener works for GitHub, an open source software hosting platform that allows developers to share the code they've created with anyone who wants it, for free. "Everyone from the office-park incumbents down on the Peninsula to the United States government used offered unfettered access to the tools, knowledge, and online communities of the elite." GitHub's mantra of accessibility makes it a "redemptive" corner of tech to Wiener. She writes, "1 could see how it might actually make the world a better place."

While Wiener is initially "down for the cause," she soon realizes that tech's progressive exterior has duped her into ignoring Silicon Valley's sexist bullshit. Her co-workers are mostly men in their early twenties. Wiener's first boss, a "genius" whose employees idolize him, offers her a promotion, saying that they "need more women in leadership roles." She writes, "I didn't think to mention that if he wanted more women in leadership roles, perhaps we should start by hiring more women...I told him I would do whatever he needed."

It becomes increasingly clear to Wiener why those who don't fit into its "bland, overcorrected, heterosexual masculinity" weren't flooding into the Valley. "They whined that the women in San Francisco were fives, not tens, and whined that there weren't enough of them." The HR women who organize seminars on intersectionality and sexual harassment are less valued than her coworkers in the engineering department: "She quietly ran the show. I didn't know why this skill set should be any less valued, culturally or monetarily, than the ability to write a rails app." The injustice gnaws at the empathetic Wiener. Where was "a lack of respect for your gender and skillset" listed in the job description when she signed on?

Wiener hits a low when she joins a new team, "Terms of Service, created to deal with the overflow of semi-legal concerns and complaints about objectionable material that choked the support queue." Her job is to scan the publicly shared platforms of GitHub (chat rooms, forums, etc.) for content like "harassment, spam, revenge porn, child porn, and terrorist content" and take it all down. The work did take a toll." An epilogue begins with news of the 2016 election, and the growing issue of online extremism that follows. "There was Nazi iconography in the ToS team inbox, and Nazi rhetoric in the news." But there's not much her team can do besides take objectional posts down one by one. She writes, "no one was equipped to adjudicate speech for the millions of people spending their lives online." Wiener dissociates in order to get through her days investigating reports of abuse and harassment on the web, disconnecting from the disturbing trends:
My impulse, over the past few years, had been to remove myself from my
own life, to watch from the periphery and try to see the vectors, the
scaffolding, the systems at play...I considered it the sociological
approach. It was, for me, a way out of unhappiness.

Ultimately, GitHub becomes a victim of its own outrageous stock market valuation, loses its invigorating start-up culture, and is bought by Microsoft. After four years giving her all to startups, Wiener gleans that she is expendable--to her company and to the industry as a whole. "The young men of Silicon Valley were doing fine...they were ecstatic about the future. The person with the yearning was me."

So she leaves, without sentimentality and with a story to tell.

Reviewed by Jacqueline Zeisloft

Jacqueline Zeisloft is a writer based in New York City. She works in publishing.
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Title Annotation:Uncanny Valley
Author:Zeisloft, Jacqueline
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2020
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