How a flawed mentality led to Silicon Valley’s meteoric rise 10 February 2020
Looking out to Palo Alto in Silicon Valley at sunset
There is perhaps no better precis of the tech industry than the dictum, “Ask forgiveness, not permission”. Facebook’s erstwhile internal motto, “Move fast and break things”, was a variation of this theme – although it changed in 2014 to the comparatively anodyne “Move fast with stable infrastructure”.
The attitude has enabled the unprecedented expansion of tech companies into global giants, but the mantra is double-edged. The process of building digital conglomerates more powerful than nation states has been possible only because they have played fast and loose with the rules.
Tech companies have been fined for (, 2019, $5.7 million by the US Federal Trade Commission) and breaching anti-trust laws (Google, 2018, an eye-watering ). They have, in the case of , been implicated in mass data harvesting that critics say undermines the tenets of democracy. The list goes on.
In the memoir Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener explores the collective hyperconfidence and laudatory self-narratives that have enabled the tech sector’s meteoric growth. Wiener, who now writes for The New Yorker, spent several years working in the tech industry: first at an e-book company in New York, before moving to San Francisco to work at a data analytics firm, although it remains unnamed in the book.
None of the big tech companies are named, either, but the sobriquets are unequivocal: there’s the “social network everyone hated”, the “search-engine giant”, and the “online superstore that had gotten its start in the nineties by selling books on the World Wide Web”, to name a few.
One of many people drawn to Silicon Valley’s financial opportunities, in a few years Wiener triples the salary she used to make as a publishing assistant, earning $100,000 a year. Simultaneously, she is resentful to be “stuck in an industry that was chipping away at so many things I cared about”.
Wiener touches on the casualties of the technological gold rush: an influx of moneyed tech workers has driven housing prices up in San Francisco to unaffordable levels and worsened California’s homelessness crisis. Her colleagues tell her, only half-jokingly, to “buy a house before the next IPO”, because “the overnight-wealthy were bidding 60 percent over asking on million-dollar starter homes, and paying in cash”.
Wiener has a discerning eye and writes frankly about her complicity in a “globally extractive project”. Eventually, she becomes both desensitised to and ambivalent about tech companies’ cavalier attitudes to data privacy. Knowing it was then common in the industry for employees to have access to customer information, she is reluctant to use dating apps: “It wasn’t the act of data collection itself, to which I was already resigned. What gave me pause was the people who might see it on the other end – people like me.”
She articulates well a familiar love-hate relationship with big tech: we are at once dependent on what tech has done for us and resentful about what it has done to us.
“The platforms, designed to accommodate and harvest infinite data, inspired an infinite scroll,” she writes. “I read whatever the other nodes in my social networks were reading. I listened to whatever music the algorithm told me to.”
Surrounded by high-achieving tech workers, Wiener also details a microcosm in which the prevailing ethos of efficiency encompasses the desire to optimise everything, from entire industries down to individual productivity.
“The word ‘disruption’ proliferated, and everything was ripe for or vulnerable to it: sheet music, tuxedo rentals, home cooking, home buying, wedding planning, banking, shaving, credit lines, dry cleaning, the rhythm method,” Wiener writes. Biohackers administer electric shocks via wearable tech, take smart drugs for cognitive performance and use tech to optimise their sleep cycles.
The start-ups that Wiener worked for were overwhelmingly male, and sexism ubiquitous: “like wallpaper, like air”, she writes. She details exasperating examples: women demoted after maternity leave, fired for reporting sexual assault, or told that diversity initiatives are discriminatory against white men.
These instances are emblematic of a wider problem with the tech world, which the book doesn’t explore: the gender imbalance and racial disparity in tech employees has bled into the products it creates. Facial recognition algorithms have , for example. While the book gives revealing insights into the mentality of the few who have shaped the digital lives of millions, it focuses more on the inner workings of the tech bubble than on the tech industry’s global effects.
Uncanny Valley is both a chronicle of the emerging entrepreneurial class and a counterpoint to the narrative of tech exceptionalism. It is a memoir as compelling as it is disconcerting.
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