Uncanny Valley: A Memoir

By Dan Clendenin

Anna Wiener, Uncanny Valley: A Memoir (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), 279pp.

Anna Wiener was twenty-five when she left her poorly paying job in the New York publishing industry that always felt “on the brink of collapse,” and moved to San Francisco, where she took a job at an e-book startup for $20 an hour and no benefits. She was older than the company founders. She later moved to a data analytics company, and then to a startup that hosted software development. This best-selling memoir about her four-year experience was named a “top ten” book by numerous outlets like the NYT, WaPo, NPR, LA Times, Elle, and Amazon. Not bad for your first book.

I did my dissertation on a sociologist of technology (1985), and lived at ground zero of Silicon Valley for twenty-five years (Palo Alto), and concur with the effusive praise. I actually find it hard to imagine a person so young being so perceptive about her experiences, and then having the remarkable skill to write about it with insight and sardonic humor.

Wiener is a humanities person who calls herself “affectedly analog,” and her three jobs were in the non-technical end of these startups (eg, customer support), which is to say that she was at the bottom of the technocratic meritocracy. Strike one. As a woman, she experienced the misogynous bro-culture that is endemic in Silicon Valley. Strike two. Then, as a perceptive critic, she calls out the many incantations of the subculture’s techno-optimism, wealth creation, inflated self-importance, and especially its insider jargon (unicorn, ecosystem, disruption, work fast break things, ask forgiveness not permission, pitch deck, pivoting, first-mover advantage, reducing friction, growth-hack, and my favorite, Down For the Cause). Strike three.

Eventually Wiener “started to realize we were swimming in the Kool-Aid.” In fact, she observes, “an entire culture had been seduced. I understood my blind faith in ambitious, aggressive, arrogant young men from America’s soft suburbs as a personal pathology, but it wasn’t personal at all. It had become a global affliction.” And so she left San Francisco and returned to Brooklyn.

For more on this important subject, see my two essays on “Techtopia” (part 1 and part 2), which include my reviews of a dozen books on our technological society. And finally, a funny footnote to Wiener’s book title, which, as the British say, might be too clever by half. I didn’t understand it until after reading the book, but the title “uncanny valley” is a clever double entendre by Wiener that I suspect the vast majority of readers will miss. I can only quote from the Wikipedia article on “uncanny valley.”

In aesthetics, the uncanny valley is a hypothesized relationship between the degree of an object’s resemblance to a human being and the emotional response to such an object. The concept suggests that humanoid objects which imperfectly resemble actual human beings provoke uncanny or strangely familiar feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers. “Valley” denotes a dip in the human observer’s affinity for the replica, a relation that otherwise increases with the replica’s human likeness.

Examples can be found in robotics, 3D computer animations and lifelike dolls. With the increasing prevalence of virtual reality, augmented reality, and photorealistic computer animation, the “valley” has been cited in reaction to the verisimilitude of the creation as it approaches indistinguishability from reality. The uncanny valley hypothesis predicts that an entity appearing almost human will risk eliciting cold, eerie feelings in viewers.

Dan Clendenin: dan@journeywithjesus.net

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