Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
Uncanny Valley, a Member by Anna Wiener is “a coming of age story set agains the backdrop of our generation’s very own gold rush. It’s a story about the tension between old and new, between art and tech, between the quest for money and the quest for meaning – about how our word is changing forever …”
It is also deeply personal, incredibly human, and down-right outrageous.
Published by 4th Estate books, Uncanny Valley was one of my most anticipated releases of January 2020 – so obviously it jumped straight to the top of my TBR pile the minute it arrived at my front door. In short, I was not disappointed!
I loved Wiener’s tone throughout the book. She felt like my friend, a confidant, a fellow sister in arms. Initially, I had been nervous about Uncanny Valley. Despite spending the majority of my professional life in the charity sector, as a graduate I spent 12 months as a manager in a startup backed by one of the UK’s largest venture capitalists. Knowing that Weiner would cover casual sexism, poor work practices, and shady technology I was concerned that it might resurface uncomfortable memories. However, each topic was treated with upmost respect and sensitivity.
There is not denying that Big Tech/Big Data is HOT right now. It feels like every week there is a new story about its impact on politics, health, and society. This is reflected in recent publications including ‘Mindf*ck’ and ‘Everybody Lies’.
Wiener states what the rest of us are feeling “[n]ot everyone knew what they needed from big data, but everyone knew that they needed it”. The unknown of this phenomenon is so intriguing. But she also covers another point; the hidden, darker side. ‘God Mode’ – the untold open secret. Some tech workers have access to all your data, ALL of it.
There is no longer any doubt that Big Tech companies are harvesting our data; you only have to look to the Cambridge Analytica scandal to see the impact first hand. What is currently in doubt, is just how far they’re prepared to go. Wiener’s first-hand account is eye-opening, shocking, and frightening.
As a slightly humorous side note, I loved the fact that she referred to the Big Tech companies as “the open-source startup” and “the data-analytics startup” as if we didn’t know who she was referring to.
Something that we cannot ignore about Uncanny Valley is the discussion around casual sexism in Silicon Valley. This isn’t an isolated area. Books like “Misogynation’ and ‘Invisible Women’ show us that everyday sexism features in all parts of the world, and all professions. However, Wiener provides a first hand account stating “I was most effective when I removed myself. Men, I saw, simply responded differently to men. My male pseudonyms had more authority than I did”.
Later in the book she says “I would work twice as hard as my male counterparts to be taken half as seriously” – something that I feel all women will relate to.
I feel that Wiener covered the topic of casual sexism with respect, but also didn’t try and cover it in frills. It is a serious topic that deserves serious discussion.
Finally, that last issue raised by Wiener that I want to touch on is work environment. Wiener states “[r]esearch showed little correlation between productivity and extended working hours, but the tech industry thrived on the idea of its own exceptionalism; the data did not apply to us”.
Whilst work at the UK tech startup presentism was valued above all else. I knew 6 weeks into the job that the culture was not right for me, however, I felt compelled to stick it through and prove that I was good enough. Ultimately, this type of management is incredibly damaging for employees physical and mental health.
I think what really hit home for me was when Wiener said “I still clung to be belief that I could find meaning and fulfilment in work – the result of over two decades of educational affirmation, parental encouragement, socioeconomic privilege, and generational mythology”.
Uncanny Valley is a timely and much needed exploration into the secretive world of Silicon Valley. I hope that it will open up conversations in companies around the world, to open their eyes, and begin to make real practice to tackle discriminatory recruitment and employment practices.
Wiener creates a compelling character and narrative. Uncanny Valley is equal parts memoir, investigative journalism, and a journey of self-discovery. I highly recommend this to anyone looking to further explore Big Tech/the modern-day fascination with Silicon Valley.
‘Uncanny Valley’ in Facts:
Author: Anna Weiner
First Published: 2020
Publishing House: 4th Estate