Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

I knew that I wanted to read this book almost as soon as I heard about it. There were at least three podcasts featuring Wiener in my queue, and at least a couple of newspaper features I’d come across. But I’ve yet to listen to or read any of them, because I knew that I wanted to read her book first.

TL;DR It’s fantastic. Read it.

The book is a memoir of Wiener’s early career, beginning in the New York publishing business, where nobody earns much money, and seems to mostly be supported by their parents. In due course she moves to an ebook startup, and from there across the US to San Francisco and a full-on startup world.

Wiener is the arts graduate in a world where everyone else seems to be a technologist. She throws herself into the

I say that this is a memoir, but it’s as much a meditation about the world of startups, their founders, and the reality of a twenty-something who’s never had a real job before, suddenly being in charge of people and spending millions of dollars of venture capital. It’s about the always-at-work ethos; you’re always on call, lying in bed clearing a queue on your laptop or in the company’s chat app. It’s about the housing crisis on the West Coast, where people are paying 60% over the market to buy property (We’re told that there can be a real rush to buy ahead of an IPO, because it creates lots of cash-rich equity holding employees who are all out to buy having previously rented).

Most people and companies go unnamed. It’s not as though it’s hard to work out which companies she’s talking about. Facebook is the “social network that everyone hates”, Twitter is the “micro-blogging website”, and her own employers are similarly only a very quick Google-away if you really care.

There are sections of this book which read like a JG Ballard novel – I’m thinking of something like Super Cannes or Millennium People. Wiener is a dispassionate observer just reporting early 21st century life, catching the behaviours of wealthy but time-poor, with superfluous things to spend their money on, and nobody over-thinking the perils of the “God mode” they’ve built into their software products.

There’s sexism too, of course. As a woman, Wiener is pretty much always in the minority wherever she works, and men treat her different to other men. In her support roles she has to think carefully about the persona she presents to clients. Company trips – which startups love – can be particularly problematic. The heady mix of alcohol on tap and distant hotel rooms. In one place, where the doors don’t lock, Wiener places bags against the door prevent any uninvited intrusions.

Corporate branded clothing abounds – it seems that if you’re not wearing a branded hoodie or t-shirt, you’re not invested in your company. They become the uniform. When she reports seeing a homeless man wearing her employer’s branded hoodie to a colleague, his response is to wonder who gave their garment away, because employees are supposed to keep them!

Mostly, this book is archly exposing so many for what they don’t know. Just because you’ve built a multi-billion pound company, it doesn’t mean that you truly understand everything. Her ebook employers didn’t seem all that interested in books. Her code repository employer didn’t seem all that interested in the fact that people weren’t just housing open source software on the site, but were using it as file storage for much less savoury fare.

But really, the book exposes just how much people don’t know. The crassness, the lack of awareness, thought or even history. Is it any surprise that Facebook and it’s ilk doesn’t truly understand how it has been a facilitator for so much misinformation, when so many people working for it, don’t have that grounding either?

This is an important, and beautifully written book, capturing something with a kind of veracity that’s hard to replicate unless you were somehow part of it. If it was fiction, I think it would clean up at awards. The fact that it’s non fiction makes it scary.