The phrase “uncanny valley” originally referred to the uneasy, faintly repelled feeling we get when faced with human-like entities, be they androids, computer-animated characters, or lifelike dolls. New Yorker writer and former startup survivor Anna Wiener has titled her memoir Uncanny Valley (Fourth Estate) and this world is every bit as unnerving and faintly repellent.
Wiener was just 25 when she gave up her lowly job in publishing in New York. “After three years the voyeuristic thrill of answering someone else’s phone had worn thin.” Badly paid in what she believed was a sunset industry, she headed west, to San Francisco, and a very odd valley indeed.
It was 2013, aeons ago in tech terms, when she began work in customer support at a data-analytics startup. It was the era of audacious startups and apps, “A year of new optimism: the optimism of no hurdles, no limits, no bad ideas.” It was the age of disruption — a new word, then — and everything, she notes, was ripe for it. “An app for coupon-clipping enabled an untold number of bored and curious urbanites to pay for services they never knew they needed, and for a while people were mainlining antiwrinkle toxins, taking trapeze lessons, and bleaching their assholes, just because they could do it at a discount.”
It was a delirious time, when, as it was famously said, “software was eating the world”, and Silicon Valley was its snapping maw. Wiener writes vividly about San Francisco, sharply dismantling the romanticism around it. Visitors from all over the world trooped through her neighbourhood, the storied Haight-Ashbury, looking for something that may never have existed. They bought tie-dyed skirts, shopped in kitsch vintage stores, and took photos in front of murals of long-dead musicians. Perhaps they thought that the teenagers lying on the pavement or people curled up in doorways on secondhand camping gear were part of the hippie aesthetic, she says, “Perhaps the tourists just don’t think about the city’s homelessness epidemic at all.” She has a sardonic eye for the contrasting city workplaces, where boy geniuses roam barefoot, shoot up in their thighs with testosterone, wear Burning Man pelts and help themselves to free keyboards, headphones, and cords from foyer vending machines.
With so much young money around, the property market goes berserk. The culinary scene, too. Chefs, she observes, were not competing against each other but the apathy inspired by upscale office cafeterias and delivery apps. “The food was demented: cheese courses hidden beneath table candles and revealed, perfectly softened, at the end of the meal; whole quail baked into loaves of bread.”
Corporate breakaways and parties are manic. She avoids the hot tub at a spa-themed party — “a sous vide bath of genitalia”.
Wiener has a boyfriend, but we begin to sense her loneliness on a different level. “The platforms encouraged a cultural impulse to fill all spare time with everyone else’s thoughts. The internet was a collective howl, an outlet for everyone to prove that they mattered. Grief, joy, anxiety, mundanity flowed. People were saying nothing, and saying it all the time.”
She points to what she calls a unique psychic burden shared by people who work in technology, because their work does not physically exist. Her own psychic burden, she says, was that she could command a six-figure salary yet she did not know how to do anything. Whatever she learned in her late 20s came from online tutorials: “How to remove mold from a windowsill; slow-cook fish... self-administer a breast exam.”
Most ominous of all is that Wiener gradually, belatedly, realised just what data analytics does, and what it is capable of. At first she was in awe of the technology, how it harvested information, “Anything an app or website’s users did — tap a button, take a photograph, send a payment, swipe right — could be recorded in real time, stored, aggregated, and analysed in those beautiful dashboards.” She and her colleagues even believed that those wielding the software would never pry. “We’re the good guys,” her supervisor reassured her.
Five years on and post Cambridge Analytica, we know what a very bad idea that was, after all.
I wasn’t sad to leave this alien and alienated world or its neurotic narrator, but, knowing more about how it operates, it will be fascinating to watch how Silicon Valley and its soft gods respond to the cataclysm of 2020.
• From the May issue of Wanted 2020.