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Breakingviews

Breakingviews - Review: Trapped inside Big Tech’s “Uncanny Valley”

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and San Francisco is seen in Oakland, California, U.S., October 5, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - At least Alice got to leave Wonderland. Anna Wiener isn’t so lucky. In her memoir “Uncanny Valley,” she describes falling down a rabbit hole into Silicon Valley’s strange world of six-figure salaries, unbridled optimism and ersatz meritocracy. She attacks the technology industry’s godlike power to monitor and control consumers of its wares. But along the way Wiener remains stuck in one tech trap: treating most Bay Area denizens as a collection of consumer habits and posts – not as people.

The memoir’s premise is part of the problem. It follows Wiener as a twenty-something former publishing assistant who begins a career in the Valley despite having no knowledge of computer science and little interest in technology. She’s attracted to the industry because it has a future, a hopeful workforce and jobs that pay more than $30,000 a year. She’s genuinely excited to see a new company develop when she first joins an e-book subscription startup in New York. But she ends up mostly spending her days ordering snacks.

Next comes a move to the Bay Area and a customer-support role with an analytics firm before she takes another support job at a beloved open-source software firm that is almost certainly GitHub, later acquired by Microsoft. Wiener initially experiences the excitement of a steep learning curve. Yet when she’s given the opportunity to actually learn to code, she almost immediately gives up. She’s just not that into it.

This lack of curiosity about tech products shows. The author acknowledges the thrill of problem-solving, but spends little time describing what most of her co-workers actually do. Instead she talks a lot about their clothing, eating and exercise habits. A solutions group is categorized by their Australian work boots, penchant for electronic dance music and tendency to drink Pedialyte to counter hangovers. An emigre from Wall Street is defined by his wardrobe, including a fondness for “fluffy oversized sweaters.” Biohacking workers drink butter coffee and take testosterone shots. There are lots of endurance athletes.

These observations may be influenced by Wiener’s training in sociology, but her study doesn’t go deep. She is repeatedly shocked when she gets to know someone and finds they’re more than a tool of late-stage capitalism. The book becomes more engaging when she does delve below the surface – for example, when she ponders the psychology of her second firm’s chief executive or when she starts a friendship with another company founder who wrestles with the industry’s contradictions. But these moments are too fleeting. The upshot is that the book mostly comes across as a collection of vignettes an algorithm could have designed to reinforce East Coast readers’ opinions of Silicon Valley.

It’s not that these anecdotes are untrue. And it is tempting, and perhaps fair game, to mock the cluelessness of the young and affluent. But Wiener’s focus on mostly surface-level descriptions often reduces people to a collection of consumer choices or data points – not unlike predictive advertising. Such stereotypes obviously predate web-based data analytics. But Wiener’s make her seem stuck in the shadow of the very industry her memoir purports to examine from a distance.

This is disappointing because Wiener is such a good writer. Her descriptions are witty even when they are reductive: working in a startup loft is like being “in a perpetual board meeting,” company hoodies and t-shirts are called “startup twinsets,” and venture capitalists are like “two ATMs in conversation.” And she perfectly evokes the image of a tiny San Francisco bathroom by saying the shower made her “feel like a Damien Hirst cow.” The book sadly lacks many ideas that are as well crafted as her sentences.

The material is there for a book that would leave a more lasting impression. On the back of the book the author is compared to Joan Didion – who chronicled an earlier era in California – but that would have called for a style far moodier and more timeless. Or Wiener could have zeroed in on one company like a digital-era Ida Tarbell, the journalist who skewered John Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, the trust that was eventually broken up. Or she could just have made the satire more extreme like the HBO comedy “Silicon Valley.” The show is intended to be hyperbolic and evoke stereotypes, almost caricatures, yet it still offers characters who leave an imprint.

It’s true Wiener does at least consider the larger social implications of the Valley’s rise. She is right to criticize the hubris of tech types who want to change the world yet rarely stop to consider what people, given the choice, might actually want. She’s right to highlight the danger of addictive products and the industry’s endemic sexism. But these complaints aren’t new, and nor is her evidence for them. And her knee-jerk tendency to categorize and make broad generalizations seems uncannily similar to the environment she’s criticizing. She’s no longer working in the Valley, but it’s still in her head.

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