Life in the Attention Economy

Uncanny Valley: A Memoir

“I was looking for stories. I should have seen a system.”

As far as Millennials go, I must admit I am a bit of a Luddite. The most digital-savvy thing I do with my phone is paying my credit card bills each month. Yet I was intrigued when I heard about this coming-of-age memoir from a young woman who after three years working in publishing and living her entire life on the East Coast (not unlike myself) ups and moves to Silicon Valley to take a job at a tech start-up. At first, it’s all company trips and benefits packages, but soon, darker reality arrives in Uncanny Valley.

Uncanny Valley. By Anna Wiener. MCD/FSG. 2020. Hardcover.

How did I get the book?

Before the world started to end, I traveled to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference in San Antonio. I spent most of my time working the book fair for Columbia Journal where I was Editor-in-Chief at the time (which Kay Ryan brilliantly compares to a Costco in Synthesizing Gravity). On my last day, I snaked around to collect free buttons and swag, stumbling upon the n+1 booth, which was selling this title among others. I remembered having it on my wishlist and decided to pick it up so they had one less thing to ship back to Brooklyn.

You can purchase the book for yourself here and support independent bookstores!

What did I think?

Reading about Wiener’s job at a literary agency where she ate bland salads and wore a mustard yellow cardigan felt a little too pointed as I sat on my couch applying for jobs at literary agencies eating a bland salad and wearing a mustard yellow cardigan, I felt uncomfortably seen. I also pretty quickly understood and sympathized with her struggle: nearing the age of needing her own health insurance, questioning how her salary equated to the cost of a year’s supply of stationery, having baby fat at an age where friends are post-partum. At 25, Wiener just wants a job that will fulfill her both spiritually and financially. So when she hears about a new e-book app, why not reach out to change her path?

Wiener is not certain what she will find as she enters this new arena as an outsider. Her attempts at integrating with her new city (surrendering her New York driver’s license; looking up the name of the San Francisco mayor; buying a vibrator with a USB port it feels more “technical”) are not always successful. A reverberating sense of Wiener never quite settling in this world actually rings throughout the memoir. It mirrors at times the way that Wiener addresses how many women are never really seen as equal in the tech industry, how frustrating this is for her colleagues and other engineers and programmers. However, the anecdotes she gives about this particular problem do not feel as though they are adding much to the conversation, and the debates she strikes up with other characters about—particularly male characters—fall sort of flat. Sexism also does not seem to be the problem that Wiener is mainly facing as she answers customer support cards. Her predicament is something more internal.

One critic has noted that “I did not know” might be the most used phrase in this memoir. It is a necessary retroactive point when evaluating any coming-of-age story, whether in regards to a bad first relationship or a bad job. Wiener does admit frequently that she was naïve to the turmoil slowly bubbling beneath the shiny surface of Silicon Valley. She almost admits to a number of other insecurities from wanting her therapist to laugh at her jokes, to being confused when her partner sees her as someone who would never allow herself to be put down. Understanding such things, as well as trying to figure out the best place where one belongs, are all a part of growing up. Wiener captures some of this unconscious unease, but her transition out of it feels slightly less clear.

Final verdict?

🌟 3/5 — Good

Wiener has an incredible sense of humor that carries the first half of the memoir pretty steadily. Her ability to identify the tech companies without calling them out by name (the social network everybody hates or the rideshare service with the mustache logo) creates a vibe that makes you want to continue reading. She also has a fantastic eye for detail in describing the people she meets in the tech industry as well as their office spaces and the San Francisco neighborhoods she frequents. In some ways, it is slightly Gasby-esque, at least for someone unfamiliar with the scene, though Wiener is often disgusted right alongside being intrigued. She makes it is easy to get caught up in all of it with her and to want to see what is going to happen next. When will the tech bubble inevitably burst?

But therein lies the problem: the payoff, the realization, the big change that is meant to occur when one comes-of-age, even unorthodoxly. There was never a point where I felt that this happened for Wiener, and I don’t know if it happens explicitly enough for the industry around her, either, though she wants us to believe such. The breakdown trying to get us here feels both too slow and too fast, the narrative dropping off post-2016 election. “Everyone engaged in deep and irresponsible magical thinking,” she writes to summarize her time in this particular culture of Silicon Valley (perhaps a nod to Joan Didion whom author Rebecca Solnit compares her to on the jacket cover), but it comes from a retrospective that is never quite earned.

Beyond the book.

I first heard about Uncanny Valley when listening to an episode of the now-defunct The Cut podcast. The show had been exploring what it meant to take on a new, challenging job. Wiener reads the email she sent to land her first tech gig in all its cringe-worthy glory. It also might show you that this title could serve better as an audiobook if you want to dive in.

After listening to this episode (while I might add completing a menial task at my publishing internship), I then wanted to read the piece that inspired the book over at n+1. Some have argued that this was enough on the topic, that this book did not need to be written at all. I will let you be the judge.

See you again soon!

Rachel x