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Losing Humanity and Finding The Self in ‘Uncanny Valley’

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Cover of "Uncanny Valley."
Cover of "Uncanny Valley." By Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
By Cassandra Luca, Crimson Staff Writer

Two aspects of Anna Wiener’s memoir, “Uncanny Valley” immediately make themselves apparent: its understated observations and attention to detail. She notes, as if in passing, the smallest of minutiae of the food she sees at a party; she comes to define life in Silicon Valley as everyone optimizing their bodies for longer lives, which could then be spent productively. These observations do double duty: They demonstrate her incredible ability to write nonfiction, and they further highlight why she felt so out of place in Silicon Valley in the first place.

Wiener begins the memoir in New York City, working in a publishing job that does not pay well but which enables her to say that she’s doing a job with some meaning attached to it. She first works for an ebook startup that is essentially constructing a digital library without the feeling of being in one. She then decides to leave for a job at a data analytics startup in San Francisco, despite having qualms about the implications of working there.

Wiener is continuously struck by the self-assuredness of the men she works with and for, and by the contrast between their innate feeling that everything they contribute to society is valuable, and her own feelings of having something to offer without being able to do so. It soon becomes clear to her, and to the reader, that those in Silicon Valley do not value those things.

Once in San Francisco, Wiener struggles to understand the motivations of those around her. Yes, there’s the money, but there’s also an insatiable desire to make everything efficient: apps, meals, experiences, and even people themselves. It is, as she says, “a world freed of decision-making, the unnecessary friction of human behavior, where everything — whittled down to the fastest, simplest, sleekest version of itself — could be optimized, prioritized, monetized, and controlled.”

Partway through the memoir, you might start to wonder why Wiener doesn’t pack her bags and leave. But it isn’t quite that simple. There’s the money at stake (a recurring theme), in addition to perhaps a larger reason. It almost feels as though Wiener is hypnotized by the tech bros around her, with their limitless desire to optimize even that which should not be optimized. There is a pervading sense of coldness to the world she paints for us; it almost feels like the book takes on the qualities of marble or icy steel. There is no humanity to her workplace, and only the barest modicum of it in her personal life. Wiener’s desire to know herself and other people deeply is, ironically, the thing that keeps her in San Francisco: With the keen eye of a writer and humanist, she inspects not only what drives these people, but how they can live with themselves in the soulless world they have constructed.

“Uncanny Valley” also brings up the now-infamous heartbreaking moments of what it’s like to be a woman Silicon Valley. There’s the story of how Wiener’s mother advised her to never put a complaint about sexism in writing, or the short and snappy one-sentence descriptions of women who see job offers rescinded when they negotiate for more pay — who are raped and forced out by the company after they report the incident to human resources, who are let go after getting pregnant.

The memoir’s most ludicrous moment is when Wiener recounts the story of a startup founder who thinks books should be shorter — you know, to make things more efficient. Such a statement would be funny if it weren’t tragic. Leo Tolstoy is turning in his grave.

What, then, do sexist incidents, a passionate yet soulless desire to improve everything under the sun, and the implied proposal that books like “Anna Karenina” are too long to be “efficient” have to do with each other?

Wiener tells us: People are disposable unless they show their loyalty to the abstract concept of optimization. When all of the above are rationalized and viewed as normal, and when an entire “community,” if it indeed can be called that, collectively ignores the harms that data mining and social disconnect have on the self, the result is Silicon Valley.

Indeed, she presents us an alternative over and over again — and it is an alternative that cannot be dismissed. She says, “My desires were generic. I wanted to find my place in the world, and be independent, useful, and good.” She says, “I wanted work to be intellectually engaging, and I wanted to do it alongside smart, curious people. I wanted long-term projects. I wanted it to matter.” And when it comes to her own health data, she says “I wanted to better understand my own desires, what I wanted; to find a purpose. But nonmedical monitoring of heart rate variability, sleep latency, glucose levels, ketones — none of this was self-knowledge. It was just metadata.”

The memoir’s beauty lies in Wiener’s ability to convey her desires in little packets, cleanly interspersed throughout the memoir. Wiener does not hit the reader over the head with her thesis, which is that something has gone awry in Silicon Valley. She even goes so far as to say that “the part of my brain that took some pleasure in coding also thrived on obsessive-compulsive behavior and perfectionism. It wasn’t the part of my brain that I wanted to nurture.”

Wiener wonders what it would be like to live in a world that values intellectual discourse and emotional complexity, a world in which people’s holistic depths are desired, encouraged, and developed. The entire book is an elegant argument for the urgent need to do so.

But there’s more to it than that: She asks what is really so bad about not wanting to “hack” everything, to not optimize, to not quantify everything. What’s wrong, she asks, with wanting something simple? That something simple is, of course, being seen as a fully-actualized human being, and seeing others in the same way too. It’s a refusal to reduce a person to numbers, goals, and metrics.

To do so, however, would require eliminating the Valley’s money- and efficiency-based “value” system, a system upon which this world thrives. Wiener’s deeply-felt, expertly-expressed discomfort with this world exposes the way in which it stifles and dismisses truly fulfilling human connection — even as it repackages that destruction as meaningful. The deception is perhaps the biggest con of our generation.

—Staff writer Cassandra Luca can be reached at cassandra.luca@thecrimson.com, or on Twitter @cassandraluca_

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