Living an everyday life amid the disrupters in 'Uncanny Valley'

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When Anna Wiener was a 20-something, she left her job at a literary agency in New York and moved to California to join the high-tech world of "inflection points,” "designpreneurs," "blitzscaling," "upleveling," and "disrupters."

'Uncanny Valley: A Memoir' by Anna Wiener
"Uncanny Valley: A Memoir" by Anna Wiener
Courtesy Photo

A world she came to see from the inside as destructive, intrusive, dominating and dangerous. And she writes about it in a new memoir, “Uncanny Valley.” "I think the stories that are told about the industry are largely on the industry's own terms," she says. "They tend to be these sort of triumphalist narratives about innovation and baby geniuses. But I haven't heard too much from just ordinary employees specifically in this time and place."


Interview Highlights

On describing the Internet to a medieval farmer

This was a standard interview question at one of the startups that I worked for. It's a question that I asked many a young person looking for a job that had nothing to do with farming, or really understanding how the Internet functions. A question like that reveals how people see the world, and whether they explain things with a systems view or in terms of a social dimension or, you know, whether someone says it's like a gigantic book or if they start explaining packets that actually tells you a lot about how someone thinks.

On how someone with a literary background ended up in Silicon Valley

Backwards. I was working in book publishing, and at 25 was sort of just trying to find my place in the world, and trying to find a career path that felt like it had momentum. I wanted to be in an industry that felt exciting and felt like there was a future. And tech ticked all of those boxes.

I think data's fascinating. I think it's in large part because of its storytelling potential. I found that looking at these data sets for different products really showed me what people were doing on the Internet in these digital spaces. And it told a story about how people were engaging with otherwise intangible products.

On whether using data that way can be voyeuristic

Oh, absolutely. And I think that that is one of the questions that I want to raise in the book. And also one of the things I want to highlight, which is that I think not only do most people not know that their data is being collected and stored indeterminately, but that there are these third-party tools like the company that I worked for, that if you're using an app, the app is sending that data to these other companies. And so some of them could be quite small and could have employees who can access those data sets.

On the work environments she describes

I think there are two dimensions to the workplace environments. One is about values, and one is more superficial and it's about perks. And obviously, what you see first are the perks, you see, as there were in my office, skateboards and rip sticks and go-karts and all of these snacks. You know, as if we couldn't feed ourselves or something. That is largely about attracting employees and retaining them. It's also, I think, about this idea that things are done differently in Silicon Valley. It's sort of a way not to recognize that these are businesses rather than, you know, fun endeavors. There's also the value system which is informed by the business. So the business model favors speed and rapid growth and dominance, you know. And acceleration and imperfection and iteration. And so they're not totally unrelated, but I do think that the playground dimension tends to be more superficial. And if anything, it sort of is a cover for some of the somewhat darker side of these companies.

On the treatment of women in her workplaces

I feel like I had a relatively positive experience, given the range of things that have happened to women that I know. I think that I was subject to quite a bit of sexism, but I don't think that I experienced sexual harassment and, you know, God forbid, sexual assault the way that some other women that I have met in the industry have experienced. But I do think that you see it everywhere, you see it from sexist asides to the undervaluing of soft-skilled labor, what's understood to be emotional work rather than strategic work.

There's also the sense of a boys club that is impenetrable and you are just constantly trying to prove yourself. You have to prove yourself doubly. And even if you have all of the right skills, you know, the hard skills, programming knowledge or expertise or advanced degrees, there is a culture that tends to undermine and undervalue and discredit women. So there's also this culture of like having an open bar in the office, and taking employees on largely unsupervised vacations, and a sort of rowdy, irreverent culture that doesn't always acknowledge people who might be vulnerable in those spaces.

On what made her start to doubt her career path

I was working at this data analytics startup and I enjoyed that work to a certain extent, but I wasn't paying much attention to the economy or the ecosystem that that company was a part of. And obviously, there's a big distance between product analytics and the NSA. But when Edward Snowden's revelations came out and I had been on the job for a few months and I didn't connect the dots, that there was something that has now come to be understood as surveillance capitalism, and that it might have echoes in the government — or does have echoes, you know, in the government. That to me, in hindsight, was a moral test for the industry, the Snowden revelations, and the fact that nothing happened sort of tells you everything about where we are now.

But I sort of gradually just began to feel that what the end game of optimizing digital experiences for monetization, I do not feel that the end game made the world better in many respects. So there was that, and then for me, it was also the election, I think — the sense that I thought the world was going one way and I was completely insulated from any grasp on reality. And that started me on a more critical path, I think. I just started to feel that there was such a gap between my expectations and the narratives that Silicon Valley was promoting and what I actually saw on the ground that it made me feel like I was foolish or wrong. And then when the election happened, and suddenly there was all this scrutiny on tech, I started to feel that my instincts and my sort of unsettled feeling about the industry was, perhaps there was more reason for that.

This story was edited for radio by Samantha Balaban, produced by Hiba Ahmad and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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