Though tech had insinuated itself into many facets of Wiener’s life—her waking hours were spent tethered to her computer, working, using the social network everyone hated, writing blog posts, and scrolling her way through images—she hadn’t stopped to think about the people, structures, and forces that had enabled that entwining. Then she got a tech job in San Francisco and discovered that the screens she had been staring at weren’t as transparent as they seemed. Yet she remained, by her own account, remarkably clueless about the larger implications of the industry she’d wandered into.
From March 2017: It’s getting harder to believe in Silicon Valley
We’re not at a loss for in-depth accounts of the tech industry these days. Reporters, cultural critics, academic historians, and tech figures themselves have been busy trying to explain a social and economic paradigm shift that’s affected everything from our dating lives to the security of municipal infrastructure. Books like Alexandra Wolfe’s 2017 Valley of the Gods have fetishized Silicon Valley, offering portraits of tech as a culture apart, rising up to replace the moribund institutions that have failed society—academia, public transit, local news media, government. Other books, such as Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, by Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist and an early mentor of Mark Zuckerberg’s, have taken a far darker view. Where these accounts converge is in portraying tech as nothing less than the catalyst of a radically new social order.
Uncanny Valley is a different sort of Silicon Valley narrative, a literary-minded outsider’s insider account of an insulated world that isn’t as insular or distinctive as it and we assume. Wiener is our guide to a realm whose denizens have been as in thrall to a dizzying sense of momentum as consumers have been. Not unlike the rest of us, she learned, they have been distracted and self-deluded in embracing an ethos of efficiency, hyperproductivity, and seamless connectivity at any cost. Arrogant software developers, giddy investors, and exorbitantly paid employees—all have been chasing dreams of growth, profits, and personal wealth, without pausing to second-guess the feeling of being “on the glimmering edge of a brand-new world,” as Wiener puts it in the middle of her book.
Now, from the vantage of 2020, the unintended consequences of the chase are glaringly obvious. But why was the recognition so slow in coming? Wiener downsizes that question to human scale: How, even half a decade ago—a lifetime in the Valley—could everyone still have been so blinkered, from those at the top down to her and others at the bottom? Complicity is Wiener’s theme, and her method: She’s an acute observer of tech’s shortcomings, but she’s especially good at conveying the mind of a subject whose chief desire is to not know too much. Through her story, we begin to perceive how much tech owes its power, and the problems that come with it, to contented ignorance.