Book Review: Uncanny Valley

“Fish do not see water.” (Count Hayashi)

I first came to Silicon Valley in the Fall of 1990, when I started my freshman year at Stanford. Since then, other than a five-year stint in Boston (or rather, Cambridge), I have lived in Silicon Valley, all within a five mile radius of my original freshman dorm.

In other words, I have been ensconced in the heart of Silicon Valley for the majority of my life, and the vast majority of my adult and professional life.

I have been a happy fish.

So when I first started reading the press coverage of Anna Wiener’s new memoir, Uncanny Valley, I was worried that it would be yet another example of the traditional media’s current love of attacking Silicon Valley.

After reading the entire book, however, I am pleased to report that Wiener’s memoir, while it certainly reflects her personal point of view as a member of the traditional media (she had worked in publishing before moving to the Bay Area, and currently writes for The New Yorker), does a good job of presenting life in Silicon Valley (or more precisely, the startup scene in San Francisco) in an honest and even sympathetic way.

Very little in the book surprised me, from her conversations with hyper-rationalists, to a random party-goer’s desire to build a minimum viable city from shipping containers, but by presenting her experiences from her point of view, and in a highly concentrated way, she gave me a way of seeing the water to which I’ve become so accustomed.

For example, I was struck by the frustration she felt about her career–specifically, that she was being paid increasingly larger amounts for a job (writing support emails to customers) that she felt was less important than creative or civic work that didn’t provide the same economic rewards.

I believe this gets at one of the core issues with Silicon Valley culture, which is what I consider a pathological desire to claim (often quite loudly) that all the work in tech and/or the startup world is a meaningful calling to change the world. There are times that Silicon Valley does in fact change the world–consider the web browser, the smartphone, and social media (hey, I didn’t say that change was 100% positive)–but most companies and products are just trying to make it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Most other industries have the self-awareness to avoid such messianic claims; when’s the last time you heard an accountant or dry cleaner extol the world-changing nature of their work?

If you make “my work is changing the world” a core part of your identity, it’s hard for anyone to avoid feeling like a fraud. Even Mr. Rogers worried that he hadn’t made enough of a difference in people’s lives.

This kind of self-righteous belief can easily be turned to darker purposes as well. One of Wiener’s employers, a data analytics company that is obviously Mixpanel, praises its people for being “Down For The Cause”, or to be precise, putting the company ahead of their own welfare. What’s the point of having a cause, if not to encourage sacrificing for it, or defeating its enemies?

The book takes a number of interesting turns towards the end.

After a Twitter debate, Wiener strikes up an unexpected friendship with a thoughtful founder/CEO named Patrick (who is obviously Patrick Collison of Stripe–the fact that he speaks about intellectual topics in complete paragraphs is a dead giveaway, which is itself a sad commentary on Silicon Valley) and the two have dinners where they debate their views of the industry. One exchange towards the end of the book captures the paradox of Silicon Valley–on the one hand, its optimistic founders, investors, and people are a remarkable engine for progress, and on the other, those same founders, investors, and people are often oblivious to the exclusionary environments and negative externalities they create. Collison muses that perhaps the foibles and self-destructive tendencies are unavoidable outcomes of the process that produces the successes as well. Wiener writes, somewhat to my amusement:

“I did not want two Silicon Valleys. I was starting to think the one we already had was doing enough damage. Or, maybe I did want two, but only if the second one was completely different, an evil twin: Matriarchal Silicon Valley, Separatist-feminist Silicon Valley. Small-scale, well-researched, slow-motion, regulated Silicon Valley–men could hold leadership roles in that one, but only if they never used the word “blitzscale” or referred to businesses as war.”

(Blitzscaling also makes an appearance earlier in the book, when Wiener writes:

“There was no common lexicon. Instead, people used a sort of nonlanguage, which was neither beautiful nor especially efficient: a mash-up of business-speak with athletic and wartime metaphors, inflated with self-importance: Calls to action; front lines and trenches; blitzscaling.”

In the end, I believe that Wiener comes to realize that even the media/intellectual life from which she came, and to which she returned is a sort of water. When she discusses unionization with an engineer, and argues that billionaires are the mark of a sick society, he reminds her that he actually grew up poor and worked on an assembly line, and causes her to feel shame by saying, “It’s a working-class MMOG. We are not vulnerable people. People need unions to feel safe. What would a union protect any of us from? Uncomfortable conversations?”

That, in the end, is the larger takeaway I hope people remember. Silicon Valley, like almost everything else in life, is a mixed bag. It has parts that are good, and parts that are bad. It’s foolish to reject the whole bag after cherry-picking a few bad fruit, but it’s also foolish to chow down on worm-riddled berries because you’re so down for the cause. Common sense argues that you should examine all the parts, and try to fix or throw out the bad ones. I suspect Anna Wiener agrees, since she still lives in San Francisco.

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