n— layout: post title: “BookNotes: Uncanny Valley” date: 2020-04-13T14:00:00Z — By Anna Wiener, Picador, January 5, 2021, 1250785693
A well-written, funny, and thought-provoking book. I connected with many of her views on the tech industry. She articulates them so well with really clever wording. For example, she never names companies, but uses Rowling’s he-who-must-not-be-named, e.g. “the social network everyone hated”.
Weiner’s memoir is full of self-discovery. It’s always hard to tell how much is real and made up, but it rings true to me. Do you want money and things or work with meaning? That’s something we all go through, and she documents her thought process. She’s a writer so she must have kept a journal, because the book contains a lot of details, which I enjoyed.
What did she end up doing? Leaving the tech industry, and now she now writes about it. I guess it’s a tension that helps her be creative.
Definitely a fun read, especially if you are techie like me.
[k348] I was not particularly excited about customer support, but it was an entry-level job that required no programming knowledge. As a sociology major with a background in literary fiction and three months of experience in snack procurement, I assumed I was not in a position to be picky.
[k575] Many startups didn’t have a revenue model to begin with, optimizing instead for market penetration. In these cases, venture capital served as a placeholder for profit: companies acquired more users without bringing in more money, as if they were simply an intermediary between us and their investors’ bank accounts. Our payment structure was straightforward, simple, canny. It would have been logical, too, if logic–or basic economics–had any governance over the venture-backed ecosystem.
[k610] San Francisco was an underdog city struggling to absorb an influx of aspiring alphas. It had long been a haven for hippies and queers, artists and activists, Burners and leather daddies, the disenfranchised and the weird. It also had a historically corrupt government, and a housing market built atop racist urban-renewal policies–real estate values had benefited as much from redlining as from discriminatory zoning practices and midcentury internment camps–but these narratives, along with the reality that an entire generation had been prematurely lost to AIDS, undercut its reputation as a mecca for the free and freakish, people on the fringe. The city, trapped in nostalgia for its own mythology, stuck in a hallucination of a halcyon past, had not quite caught up to the newfound momentum of tech’s dark triad: capital, power, and a bland, overcorrected, heterosexual masculinity.
[k638] They stood in line for the shuttles with their backpacks and reusable coffee cups; some slung bags of dirty laundry over their shoulders. They looked tired, resigned, sheepish. Mostly, they looked at their phones.
[k835] Listening to EDM while I worked gave me delusions of grandeur, but it kept me in a rhythm. It was the genre of my generation: the music of video games and computer effects, the music of the twenty-four-hour hustle, the music of proudly selling out. It was decadent and cheaply made, the music of ahistory, or globalization–or maybe nihilism, but fun. It made me feel like I had just railed cocaine, except happy. It made me feel like I was going somewhere.
[k864] There was a small part of me that relished their frustration: I knew that I would fix it. There were no unsolvable problems. Perhaps there were not even problems, only mistakes.
[k866] Step by step, I would begin to debug their processes. Sometimes this involved looking at a customer’s source code or data, where, once inside, I could begin to untangle the errors. This was like working a pin through a snarled necklace: slow, deliberate,
[k870] I apologized, over and over, for mistakes that they had made.
[k904] Programming was tedious, but it wasn’t hard. I found some enjoyment in its clarity: it was like math, or copyediting. There was an order, a clear distinction between right and wrong. When I had edited or vetted manuscripts at the literary agency, I moved primarily on instinct and feeling, with the constant terror that I would ruin someone else’s creative work. Code, by contrast, was responsive and uncaring. Like nothing else in my life, when I made a mistake, it let me know immediately.
[k953] Weekends, once I ran out of work, were a challenge. Sometimes I met up with coworkers, but mostly I spent time alone. I felt free, invisible, and very lonely.
[k1413] Being the only woman on a nontechnical team, providing customer support to software developers, was like immersion therapy for internalized misogyny.
[k1416] My job had placed me, a self-identified feminist, in a position of ceaseless, professionalized deference to the male ego.
[k1738] My inbox and personal voice mail were full of demands from entitled, stubborn unknown men.
[k1975] To ensure that all employees were on equal footing regardless of geography, the majority of business was conducted in text. This was primarily done using a private version of the open-source platform, as if the company itself were a codebase. People obsessively documented their work, meetings, and decision-making processes. All internal communications and projects were visible across the organization. Due to the nature of the product, every version of every file was preserved. The entire company could practically be reverse engineered.
[k1986] My coworkers were fanatics for emojis and deployed them liberally, as a substitute for language and a lever for passive aggression.
[k1989] The archive of institutional knowledge, however, was fascinating. Absent any formal onboarding program, I made up my own.
[k2778] I felt a familiar loneliness, participating in something bigger than myself and still feeling apart from it.
[k2783] With a measure of reluctance outdone only by the exhaustion of precarity, Noah and Ian’s friends had begun moving into the industry; the ecosystem found a way to absorb those with college degrees and fluency in middle-class social cues.
[k2997] I’d believe in an AI renaissance as soon as venture capitalists started enrolling in pottery classes; as soon as they were automated out of a job.
[k3013] I couldn’t imagine making millions of dollars every year, then choosing to spend my time stirring shit on social media. There was almost a pathos to their internet addiction. Log off, I thought. Just email each other.
[k3020] The intellectual culture of Silicon Valley was internet culture: thought-leadership, thought experiments. Message-board intellectualism.
[k3110] What were we doing, anyway, helping people become billionaires? Billionaires were the mark of a sick society. They shouldn’t exist. There was no moral structure in which such a vast accumulation of wealth should be acceptable.
[k3113] He had grown up poor, he reminded me; he had spent years working on actual assembly lines before teaching himself to code. “It’s not about a means of solidarity or longevity for them. It’s just about personal leverage. When I was exposed to asbestos, nobody doing comp-sci at an Ivy League was showing up to help.” I had not chosen the right audience. I was not prepared for this argument.
[k3118] I felt ashamed about my own class privilege, everything I took for granted. My closest brush with manual labor was breaking down cardboard boxes in the basement of an independent bookstore. I retrieved additional seltzer waters for us,
[k3122] “People need unions to feel safe,” the engineer said. “What would a union protect any of us from? Uncomfortable conversations?”
[k3162] All these people, spending their twenties and thirties in open-plan offices on the campuses of the decade’s most valuable public companies, pouring themselves bowls of free cereal from human bird feeders, crushing empty cans of fruit-tinged water, bored out of their minds but unable to walk away from the direct deposits–it was so unimaginative. There was so much potential in Silicon Valley, and so much of it just pooled around ad tech, the spillway of the internet economy.
[k3192] It was rare for me to hear him talk about computer science. He was so reticent when it came to his job that I easily forgot how much he loved the work, the puzzles, the magic of it.
[k3233] The private person was funny, thoughtful, open-minded. But the public persona, with whom I often disagreed, had growing amplification, influence, and power.
[k3239] Working in tech had provided an escape from the side of my personality that was emotional, impractical, ambivalent, and inconvenient–the part of me that wanted to know everyone’s feelings, that wanted to be moved, that had no apparent market value.
[k3248] Tech, for the most part, wasn’t progress. It was just business.
[k3269] My obsession with the spiritual, sentimental, and political possibilities of the entrepreneurial class was an ineffectual attempt to alleviate my own guilt about participating in a globally extractive project, but more important, it was a projection: they would become the next power elite. I wanted to believe that as generations turned over, those coming into economic and political power would build a different, better, more expansive world, and not just for people like themselves. Later, I would mourn these conceits.
[k3286] In the grand tradition of affluent white Americans living in coastal cities in times of political crisis and social upheaval, I had turned inward.
[k3381] My interlocutor leaned in conspiratorially. “There are no adults in the White House,” he said, with a trace of a smile. “We’re the government now.”
[k3392] In early 2018, I left the open-source startup. I wanted a change, and I wanted to write. My impulse, over the past few years, had been to remove myself from my own life, to watch from the periphery and try to see the vectors, the scaffolding, the systems at play. Psychologists might refer to this as dissociation; I considered it the sociological approach. It was, for me, a way out of unhappiness. It did make things more interesting.