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‘Uncanny Valley’ and the Meaninglessness of Writing About Tech


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‘Uncanny Valley’ and the Meaninglessness of Writing About Tech

Throughout her career, Rebecca Solnit has been dogged by comparisons to Joan Didion. Never mind that the writers have peanuts in common beyond a geography—California—in which Didion didn’t even remain. As a woman writing semi-journalistic sentences of quality, Solnit is doomed to her Didion descent. (They all are. Virginia Heffernan, Anna Quindlen, Meghan Daum, Katie…

‘Uncanny Valley’ and the Meaninglessness of Writing About Tech

Throughout her profession, Rebecca Solnit has been dogged by comparisons to Joan Didion. By no approach mind that the writers contain peanuts in current beyond a geography—California—wherein Didion didn’t even remain. As a lady writing semi-journalistic sentences of quality, Solnit is doomed to her Didion descent. (They all are. Virginia Heffernan, Anna Quindlen, Meghan Daum, Katie Roiphe, Rebecca Traister, Susan Orlean, Rachel Cusk, Michelle Orange, Maureen Dowd, Roxane Homosexual, Leslie Jamison, Sarah Nicole Prickett, Jia Tolentino—Didion’d, every closing one.) So what’s a Solnit to realize when given the exchange to sum up the virtues of a new memoir, Uncanny Valley, by a younger girl writing semi-journalistic sentences of quality? Be aware tradition, of direction, and achieve in force the homology down the generations. “Treasure Joan Didion at a startup,” Solnit declares. It’s factual there, indelible on the ebook jacket.

The victim of the quasi-reward is Anna Wiener, who moved to San Francisco at age 25 for a job in tech and lived to write about it. For extra than four years, between 2013 and 2018, she toiled and lounged in customer improve roles, first at a recordsdata analytics company and then at GitHub. Uncanny Valley is her fable of that duration, written with the roughly exciting ambivalence that triggers a salivary response, followed by spitting cries of Didion’s umpteenth coming, in so many contemporary readers. Wiener is a rock-secure writer, which Solnit’s miscalibrated, publicity-oriented blurb doesn’t commerce. What it does attain, unfortunately, is whisper the ebook’s foundational stir. Didion prized her vantage as a social observer, the neurotically perceptive outsider. Wiener, who lived within but lines to secret agent from without, will not be any longer continuously obvious the place she stands—an irresolution that’s less Didion at a startup and extra the ditherings of an upstart.

Wiener recognizes the sphere, or fragments of it. She makes contemporary of identity crises; she frets about her stance and space. Early on, as she’s packing up her Brooklyn home, forsaking a nascent profession in publishing for something as anti-literary as cellular analytics, a terminate ultimate friend wonders if she’s making the factual decision. Wiener takes the 2d to deem on her split consciousness:

There had always been two sides to my persona. One facet became vivid and organized, upright at math; appreciative of whisper, success, authority, solutions. The assorted facet did everything it would possibly perchance well perchance well moreover to undermine the first. I behaved as if the first facet dominated, however it did no longer. I wanted it did: practicality, I believed, became a secure hedge against failure.

Wiener is constantly at odds with herself, consumed by warring impulses that her time in tech ideally suited involves exacerbate. She feels indulge in a “babysitter” or “concubine” on the job; she feels “indescribably lucky” on the job. She hates EDM (“decadent and cheaply made”); she loves EDM (“indulge in I factual railed cocaine, except for glad”). She takes pleasure in finding out a microscopic of coding; she realizes “there became nothing I well-known or desired from tool.” She does it within the same sentence: “I hated the success metrics,” she writes, “however I liked being the one who monitored them.” In diverse areas, on biohacking: “I wanted to be above it, however I wasn’t above it.”

Treasure/detest, indulge in/dislike, interior/exterior: Wiener’s formulations attain for rigor, for some deep truth about knowability, however no longer sleep wimping out. She starts arguments she can’t to find, no longer ideally suited with herself however in conjunction with her new colleagues. She’s surprised at any time when one-on-one interactions admit of nuances disallowed by her current-train assumptions. Billionaires are grisly, except for the one who befriends her. Tech bros assume the same approach, except for her roboticist boyfriend. More than seemingly these conflicts are supposed to echo the Bay Online page itself, a land so riven by self-contradiction it’s on the verge of non secular collapse, however the conclusion is aloof unenlightening. Used to be Didion ever so flimsy or indulgent? Her moralities had been nonnegotiable. Wiener, perfecting that New York–nourished millennial mode, can’t to find new meaning, ideally suited evidence, everywhere in the place, of meaninglessness.

To tackle sane as each person around her drinks the Kool-Again (or butter espresso), Wiener never relinquishes her outsider space. As an exchange, she tells herself she’s making upright on her school level and doing sociology—tech as her laboratory. Right here would possibly perchance well well moreover be the availability of the fight. Though she lives within the glass cage, she walks round it as even supposing from the assorted facet, mistaking reflections for embodied reality. She’s dominated by appearances, by taking a look and seeing. Watching the ruggedly dressed team: “They regarded tantalizing to preserve kindling and form a lean-to … They regarded in costume to LARP their weekend selves.” Watching commuters: “They regarded tired, resigned, sheepish. Mostly, they checked out their telephones.” Watching businessfolk within the Monetary District: “They regarded lots older than we did … They regarded straight out of 1 other generation, indulge in the nineties.” No quantity of something, alas, makes it advance alive. (Unless you’re on medication. Which Wiener is, at one point. You’re glad for her.)

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener | Rating on Amazon

Courtesy of FSG

What makes this the entire extra nerve-racking is that Wiener can write an immaculate sentence. Treasure the very first one, an instantaneous classic: “Reckoning on whom you place a matter to, it became either the apex, the inflection point, or the starting place of the tip for Silicon Valley’s startup scene—what cynics called a bubble, optimists called the long high-tail, and my future coworkers, high on the fumes of world-historic doable, breathlessly called the ecosystem.” Rhythmical, urbane, and secret agent at that aesthetic “whom”! (Excessive on her to find fumes, even supposing, she lets the merciless pronoun outline her, utilizing it within the ebook no longer decrease than 15 times.) In sections on the ephemerality of tool, the exigencies of telecommuting, and thought-developments in tech—rationalism, metropolis-building, UBI—Wiener’s smartly-honed phrases pierce thru the aged chatter.

She’s moreover a master of the descriptive arts. A hot bathtub at a spa-themed celebration turns into “a sous vide bath of genitalia.” Standard shoes she buys however never wears are a “monument to the tip of sensuousness.” Jeff Bezos is a “chelonian ex–hedge funder.” She never if truth be told names Bezos. Surely, she uses just a couple of correct nouns. In its place of the occasional first name of a great friend, every character or company, these she’s labored for as smartly as these each person is aware of, is glossed with a pithy phrase. The coy ploy, in subversive deference to NDA tradition, ranges from efficient (“the social network each person hated”—Facebook) to distracting (“a computer-animation studio smartly-known for its high-dwell teenagers’s entertainment”—Pixar?).

Sentence-level flourishes never add up to text-level sophistication, even supposing. Nor attain they form this memoir literary, a descriptor Wiener is clearly chasing. Previous Didion, Wiener’s diverse major impact appears to be Ellen Ullman. Ullman, who fell into programming within the unhurried ’70s and stayed at it for 20 years, wrote a masterpiece of a memoir called Discontinuance to the Machine. Correct because they’re each and every ladies in tech doesn’t validate the comparison, of direction, however Wiener actively invitations it. She profiled Ullman for The New Republic in 2016, announcing that she learn Discontinuance to the Machine for the first time at 25, the same year she moved to San Francisco. Right here is even handed one of Ullman’s extra startling passages, talking a couple of guy she dated:

His lovemaking became tantric, algorithmic. I once thought that indulge in would possibly perchance well well no longer be programmed, however now I wondered. This sex became formulaic, had steps and positions and intervals, all tried and perfected, indulge in a martial arts kata or a smartly-debugged program. My to find role in it became indulge in a particular person-exit subroutine, a protracted-established branch the place something else would possibly perchance well well moreover happen however from which we must return, tracing abet to the mainline job. I felt again as if I’d advance in on a non-public job, something that Brian had labored out all on his to find and which, in some unheard of expression of have confidence, he had made up our minds to point out me. I will need to contain felt upset. I will need to contain called it off. For a time, I even regarded fondly at the magnificent monogram on my pajama pocket the place it lay on the dresser high. Nevertheless again I gave in to curiosity and tenderness. He has been with himself too long, I believed.

Wiener lacks this technoliterary lyricism. More than seemingly because never she cracked coding, never obtained terminate to the machine, became ideally suited adjacent to it, extra looker or lurker than elephantine-bore liver, she can’t to find connections, these new strategies of seeing. As an exchange, she produces a dishy, readable story, elephantine of celebrated doubt and factual-so anecdotes, that largely reiterates the smartly-established buffooneries and blindspots of Valley tradition.

Leisurely within the ebook, Wiener turns to up-to-the-minute literature for some solace, to pull herself out of the get-fueled spiralings of her filter bubble. It affords no respite, and she dismisses it all as “gleaming descriptions of microscopic substance, arranged in vibrant vignettes.” It’s this kind of fresh summation of her to find memoir one wonders if she’s along side herself within the critique. Uncanny Valley indeed started existence as a sequence of vignettes within the pages of n+1, with the same canny title and a clearer sense of reason. There’s lots extra to the elephantine-dimension ebook. There’s moreover, correct to its core ambivalence, lots less. Read it. Don’t learn it. Treasure it. Abominate it.

Extra Reading

  • Lurking by Joanne McNeil

    Though it never pretty sustains the momentum of its knockout first chapter about Google, this interior most historic previous of the get, drawing terminate in February, manages a unruffled sharpness to which extra tech critics must aloof aspire.

  • How to Disappear by Akiko Busch

    If you happen to’re tempted, as many appear to be, by Jenny Odell’s How To Maintain Nothing—a ebook-dimension non-argument for stopping to scent literal roses—take this up as an exchange. It be stranger and extra radical, a reminder that invisibility is what retains us alive.

  • Discontinuance to the Machine by Ellen Ullman

    Has tech ever been written about so lyrically, ahead of or since? A programmer, a memoirist, an essayist, a novelist, Ullman’s a poet at a computer, whatever the medium.

  • Magic and Loss by Virginia Heffernan

    She’s been called the Didion of tech writing, which is ridiculous. Heffernan (a WIRED contributor) is entirely her to find. Loopy and hyperliterary, she can write circles round anybody and something else.

  • Political Fictions by Joan Didion

    Overshadowed by the flashy early work and her extra somber unhurried part, this center-duration series of essays would possibly perchance well well moreover be Didion’s truest triumph. She never tells you what she thinks—but by the tip you watched exactly what she does.


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