Anna Wiener's "Uncanny Valley" Wants to Know—Are You Down For the Cause?

The much-anticipated book takes a closer look inside the booming Silicon Valley startup culture of the 2010's.

by michael seidlinger
Jan 5 2020, 10:30am

In the early 2000's, the writer Anna Wiener was working in the publishing industry, thinking that meaning in her job, along with job satisfaction, would come from the often-romanticized world of literature. When she realized it was not meant to be, and tempted by the developments in Silicon Valley, she switched gears and took a temporary job out West.

Wiener found what she was looking for—and so much more—in the tech industry. Being ensconced in Silicon Valley culture made the impossible seem possible, especially to someone young, talented, and ambitious. It's so easy to be blinded by the energy and the hustle of tech culture that you don't see the underlying power dynamics at play until you're right in the middle of it. You could say it's like a scene right out of the worst of Wall Street

The resulting memoir, Uncanny Valley, out January 14th, chronicles the rise of Silicon Valley as much as it subjects the readers to an insider look at all the catastrophic effects of the business model, and “culture,” it has created. The end result is nothing short of crucial, a memoir that has crystalized the essential ingredients of what made the digital economy what it is. She spoke with GARAGE about hustle culture, social media, and which Drake song she keeps coming back to.

I imagine it took some time and distance to be able to process everything. How long did it take for you to be able to start writing about the experience?
I was hoping, very much, to write a somewhat nontraditional memoir. My hope was to write a book that was a memoir of a time and place––Silicon Valley, circa the 2010s. Of course, this is all told through my perspective, with its inherent blind spots and tendencies, or tics, but my hope is that the personal story illuminates a more important, structural narrative. This isn’t a universal story, but I think much of what I experienced was incredibly common, from the desire to find meaning in work to the managerial style of twenty-something executives endowed with millions of dollars in venture funding. I first started writing about my time working for startups in late 2015, for n+1, almost by mistake: the piece was meant to be a review of a book called Lean Out, but morphed into a series of snapshots and anecdotes from my previous startup job, from which I was still recovering (emotionally). I had a lot of fun writing it, and knew I would want to do more, but I put it on the backburner for a while, feeling that the material would benefit from distance. In 2017, the idea took on a new urgency for me. I spent much of that year working on the first half of the book, which covers 2012 to early 2014. I started writing the second half, which covers late 2014 to 2016, in 2018, after leaving my last tech job.

"I would never have guessed, in my twenties, that I would become someone who wrote full-time, let alone someone who wrote about tech." Anna Wiener, author of "Uncanny Valley, A Memoir."

“The mark of a hustler, a true entrepreneurial spirit, was creating the job that you wanted and making it look indispensable, even if it was institutionally unnecessary.” I feel like this quote captures one of the essential aspects of the “uncanny valley” that is/was Silicon Valley: Its culture thrives on that hustle, but do you think this is the case? It seems like for everything a person does to add to their CV, it only exists within that bubble, the tech culture that finds value in its terminologies and hustle.
I don’t think that “hustle culture” is unique to Silicon Valley, but there is a particular flavor here that tends to be popular among some founders and venture capitalists. There’s a sense that committing the bulk of one’s time and attention to a company is morally superior. I understand why an investor, founder, someone in an executive role, even an early employee with a lot of equity might be incentivized to commit their lives to a company. But I think it’s a pernicious, exploitative narrative when it comes to be applied more broadly, especially for employees who don’t stand to see much upside. It should not be taboo, in white-collar workplaces, to understand one’s job as an exchange of time and labor for money. But this is a culture where grand narratives, missions, are part of the packaging, and packaging––branding, marketing––is important in tech, not just in terms of the stories people tell about themselves and their labor, but also when it comes to the companies themselves. (Think of all the “everything old is new again” products that have emerged over the past decade, especially on the consumer-tech side.) A more generous read, I suppose, is that perhaps the people who are chattiest and most enthusiastic about giving one’s all to a corporation are trying to justify their own decisions and circumstances.

As for the jobs themselves, I think that many of the jobs in tech are quite similar to jobs elsewhere, but, again, with different branding––and a slightly different orientation that's shifted toward a digital product, if that makes sense. A “solutions architect” is a client manager with some technical skills. A “sales engineer” is a salesperson with some technical skills. A “happiness engineer” is a customer support representative with some technical skills, etc.

"Data is just another form of narrative. I suppose I found the storytelling potential soothing––a way to affirm, or confound, what I believed to be true."

In the book, you extensively discuss the inequality of skills. There are "soft skills" like etiquette and communication, and then there are "hard skills" that can be taught like math and reading. Within startup culture, what did you find most desirable and what did you find surprising that was least desirable given that it might be in fact equal or more valuable in another industry or culture?
Hard skills, specifically engineering skills, are the most valued in the industry, full stop. Software engineers are obviously necessary to make a software product, but the current valorization of programming skills seem to be mostly about economics. Right now, engineers are expensive; there’s a reason investors get excited about coding bootcamps. A lot of the workplace perks that I mention in the book––the steaming vats of catered food, the lavish offsites, the flexible hours, the goofy offices––are designed with engineers in mind. (The jury is out on whether this is actually what engineers want.) The division has always struck me as upside-down: at one company, I was tasked with finding a content strategist, and finding someone who could write well about data was incredibly hard––much harder, I would argue, than finding a site reliability engineer, or even a full-stack engineer. The content-strategist salary, of course, was probably half the average engineer’s salary (at best), and the role would be held to a strict set of revenue-related KPIs, perhaps stricter than those the engineers were working toward. Classifying a job, or person, as “nontechnical” (soft-skilled) is also used often to discredit or undermine underrepresented groups in tech; there’s an entire inherited tradition of sexism and racism embedded in these descriptors. The idea that soft skills and hard skills are distinct also strikes me as a false dichotomy: good communication is, or should be, an engineering skill. I’d love to be proven wrong about all this, but show me the company that’s taking its well-paid, insured, reasonably worked customer support team on a special holiday to Maui, you know?

You mention that data can be really comforting. Even after many years with Google Analytics and social media, I still find data headache-inducing. What is it about data that makes it so alluring?
Data is just another form of narrative. I suppose I found the storytelling potential soothing––a way to affirm, or confound, what I believed to be true.

"In general, I think it’s a shame that all of the dominant social networks are corporate, centralized, dependent on advertising, oriented toward global scale, and atomizing."

It's compelling to see how much of tech is adrenaline-fueled—the common belief in tech is to “ask forgiveness, not permission,” the drive to experiment and “own” things before anything else—did you think the same rush that generates quick results also has an effect on the potential of various products and initiatives simply because the developers couldn’t wait?
Everything is a mess. There’s an acronym that’s often used in tech: MVP, or minimum viable product. It’s a version of a product that has just enough features to release publicly, allowing a company to begin acquiring customers, collecting data, testing new features, whatever. This approach is fine for some software products, and egregious, unethical for others. In 2018, one of Uber’s self-driving cars struck and killed a middle-aged woman, Elaine Herzberg, in Arizona. The software hadn’t been designed to identify jaywalkers, among other issues. This isn’t like having a bug in your productivity app; this is an unforgivable oversight for an autonomous vehicle. Another example, with different stakes, might be the lack of internal permissions at small companies: in a rush to develop the core consumer product, internal tools aren’t prioritized, leading to situations where employees can see all sorts of customer data, from credit card information to mailing addresses to passwords.

Having been in the trenches of tech culture, where validation and visibility are about as pivotal as anything else, what do you think of how people are documenting every aspect of their lives through the apps and networks built and provided by tech companies?
I think people have a lot of different reasons for documenting their lives on social media: for pleasure, for validation, for community, for promotion and branding. I’m not particularly good at it, because I always run up against questions of whom it’s for, and to what end. In general, I think it’s a shame that all of the dominant social networks are corporate, centralized, dependent on advertising, oriented toward global scale, and atomizing. Setting aside the obvious problems, like harassment and disinformation, and I think it’s all very unimaginative, and we should be wary of treating any of it as inevitable.

The jargon in tech culture is... something to say the least—"Down for the Cause?" What are some of the best and worst you’ve heard while in the thick of it?
I do love corporate jargon, its contortions. “Learnings”––what? “Let’s double-click on that”––sir. There are some great definitions, by the way, of “down for the cause” on Urban Dictionary. Now I just think of the Drake song. (“Are you down for the cause / Are you down / Are you down / Are you down / Are you down for the cause? … You still down / You still down / You still down?”).

Silicon Valley
Anna Wiener