Living An Everyday Life Amid The Disrupters In 'Uncanny Valley'

Jan 11, 2020
Originally published on January 13, 2020 9:46 am

When Anna Wiener was a 20-something, she left her job at a literary agency in New York and moved to California to join the high-tech world of "inflection points," "designpreneurs," "blitzscaling," "upleveling," and "disrupters." A world she came to see from the inside as destructive, intrusive, dominating and dangerous. And she writes about it in a new memoir, Uncanny Valley. "I think the stories that are told about the industry are largely on the industry's own terms," she says. "They tend to be these sort of triumphalist narratives about innovation and baby geniuses. But I haven't heard too much from just ordinary employees specifically in this time and place."


Interview Highlights

On describing the Internet to a medieval farmer

This was a standard interview question at one of the startups that I worked for. It's a question that I asked many a young person looking for a job that had nothing to do with farming, or really understanding how the Internet functions. A question like that reveals how people see the world, and whether they explain things with a systems view or in terms of a social dimension or, you know, whether someone says it's like a gigantic book or if they start explaining packets that actually tells you a lot about how someone thinks.

On how someone with a literary background ended up in Silicon Valley

Backwards. I was working in book publishing, and at 25 was sort of just trying to find my place in the world, and trying to find a career path that felt like it had momentum. I wanted to be in an industry that felt exciting and felt like there was a future. And tech ticked all of those boxes.

I think data's fascinating. I think it's in large part because of its storytelling potential. I found that looking at these data sets for different products really showed me what people were doing on the Internet in these digital spaces. And it told a story about how people were engaging with otherwise intangible products.

On whether using data that way can be voyeuristic

Oh, absolutely. And I think that that is one of the questions that I want to raise in the book. And also one of the things I want to highlight, which is that I think not only do most people not know that their data is being collected and stored indeterminately, but that there are these third-party tools like the company that I worked for, that if you're using an app, the app is sending that data to these other companies. And so some of them could be quite small and could have employees who can access those data sets.

On the work environments she describes

I think data's fascinating. I think it's in large part because of its storytelling potential. - Anna Wiener

I think there are two dimensions to the workplace environments. One is about values, and one is more superficial and it's about perks. And obviously, what you see first are the perks, you see, as there were in my office, skateboards and rip sticks and go-karts and all of these snacks. You know, as if we couldn't feed ourselves or something. That is largely about attracting employees and retaining them. It's also, I think, about this idea that things are done differently in Silicon Valley. It's sort of a way not to recognize that these are businesses rather than, you know, fun endeavors. There's also the value system which is informed by the business. So the business model favors speed and rapid growth and dominance, you know. And acceleration and imperfection and iteration. And so they're not totally unrelated, but I do think that the playground dimension tends to be more superficial. And if anything, it sort of is a cover for some of the somewhat darker side of these companies.

On the treatment of women in her workplaces

I feel like I had a relatively positive experience, given the range of things that have happened to women that I know. I think that I was subject to quite a bit of sexism, but I don't think that I experienced sexual harassment and, you know, God forbid, sexual assault the way that some other women that I have met in the industry have experienced. But I do think that you see it everywhere, you see it from sexist asides to the undervaluing of soft-skilled labor, what's understood to be emotional work rather than strategic work.

There's also the sense of a boys club that is impenetrable and you are just constantly trying to prove yourself. You have to prove yourself doubly. And even if you have all of the right skills, you know, the hard skills, programming knowledge or expertise or advanced degrees, there is a culture that tends to undermine and undervalue and discredit women. So there's also this culture of like having an open bar in the office, and taking employees on largely unsupervised vacations, and a sort of rowdy, irreverent culture that doesn't always acknowledge people who might be vulnerable in those spaces.

On what made her start to doubt her career path

I was working at this data analytics startup and I enjoyed that work to a certain extent, but I wasn't paying much attention to the economy or the ecosystem that that company was a part of. And obviously, there's a big distance between product analytics and the NSA. But when Edward Snowden's revelations came out and I had been on the job for a few months and I didn't connect the dots, that there was something that has now come to be understood as surveillance capitalism, and that it might have echoes in the government — or does have echoes, you know, in the government. That to me, in hindsight, was a moral test for the industry, the Snowden revelations, and the fact that nothing happened sort of tells you everything about where we are now.

But I sort of gradually just began to feel that what the end game of optimizing digital experiences for monetization, I do not feel that the end game made the world better in many respects. So there was that, and then for me, it was also the election, I think — the sense that I thought the world was going one way and I was completely insulated from any grasp on reality. And that started me on a more critical path, I think. I just started to feel that there was such a gap between my expectations and the narratives that Silicon Valley was promoting and what I actually saw on the ground that it made me feel like I was foolish or wrong. And then when the election happened, and suddenly there was all this scrutiny on tech, I started to feel that my instincts and my sort of unsettled feeling about the industry was, perhaps there was more reason for that.

This story was edited for radio by Samantha Balaban, produced by Hiba Ahmad and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When Anna Wiener was a 20-something, she left her job at a literary agency in New York and moved to California to join the high-tech world of inflection points, designpreneurs, blitzscaling, upleveling and disruptors, the world she came to see from the inside as destructive, intrusive, dominating and dangerous. Her memoir is "Uncanny Valley." And Anna Wiener, who writes about Silicon Valley online for The New Yorker and other publications, joins us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANNA WIENER: Thank you for having me. What a delight to hear you say the word designpreneur, Scott Simon.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, it's the first time I've said it. And it does raise the question, how would you describe the Internet to a medieval farmer?

WIENER: Oh, my God. You can run from yourself, but you can't hide.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, we should explain. This was a question you actually got, right?

WIENER: Yes. This was a standard interview question at one of the startups that I worked for. It's a question that I asked many a young person looking for a job that had nothing to do with farming or really understanding how the Internet functions. So (laughter)...

SIMON: So what was the whole idea behind a question like that, or was there an idea?

WIENER: It's actually one of these things that looks absurd on its face but was quite useful to ask people in an interview. A question like that reveals how people see the world and whether they explain things with a systems view or in terms of a social dimension or - you know, whether someone says, it's like a gigantic book, or if they start explaining, you know, packets, that actually tells you a lot about how someone thinks.

SIMON: So how does someone with your literary bent wind up in Silicon Valley anyway?

WIENER: I was working in book publishing and, at 25, was sort of just trying to find my place in the world and trying to find a career path that felt like it had momentum. I wanted to be in an industry that felt exciting and felt like there was a future. And tech ticked all of those boxes.

SIMON: You said that big data just became mesmerizing.

WIENER: Oh, yeah. I found that looking at these datasets for different products really showed me what people were doing on the Internet in these digital spaces. And it told a story about how people were engaging with otherwise intangible products. So I think data is also often used to confirm one's assumptions or confound one's assumptions. And so for me, I just found that actually quite compelling on a storytelling level.

SIMON: Is it also a little - forgive me - voyeuristic? I mean, a lot of people aren't aware of the fact that we're being monitored.

WIENER: Oh, absolutely. And I think that that is one of the questions that I want to raise in the book, which is that I think not only do most people not know that their data is being collected and stored indeterminately but that there are these third-party tools, like the company that I worked for, that if you're using an app, the app is sending that data to these other companies. And so some of them could be quite small and could have employees who can access those datasets.

SIMON: I want to note before we go any further that some of the largest tech companies in America (laughter) - the largest, in fact - are among NPR's funders. I'll just mention a few - Amazon, Google, Lyft, Uber. Why don't you in this book mention the companies for which you worked? I mean, and you can guess a lot of them. I will...

WIENER: (Laughter).

SIMON: Yeah.

WIENER: Yeah. They're not - it's not a secret. It's quite easy to find out where I used to work. And I was hoping that by not naming companies and by referring to their functions it would drive home what these companies actually do, whether it's absurd or frightening. And I also just didn't think it mattered. I do think a lot of these companies, and also executives, are interchangeable in a certain way.

SIMON: The work environment, as we must say these days, that you describe - not even a patriarchy so much as an adolescent boy hierarchy.

WIENER: (Laughter) It's like going to summer camp. First are the perks you see, as there were in my office - skateboards and rip sticks (ph) and all of these snacks, you know, as if we couldn't feed ourselves or something. That is largely about attracting employees and retaining them. It's also, I think, about this idea that things are done differently in Silicon Valley, a way not to recognize that these are businesses rather than, you know, fun endeavors. But I think that - or, you know, world historical missions. And if anything, it sort of is a cover for some of the somewhat darker side of these companies.

SIMON: Which includes its treatment of women.

WIENER: Yes. It's funny. Some people have been asking me, like, what was it like to be a woman in Silicon Valley? And it's sort of like, what is it like to be a woman anywhere? But I think that (laughter) I feel like I had a relatively positive experience given the range of things that have happened to women that I know. I think that I was subject to quite a bit of sexism. But I do think that you see it everywhere. You see it from sexist asides to the undervaluing of soft-skilled labor, what's understood to be emotional work rather than strategic work. There's also the sense of a boys club that is impenetrable. And you are just constantly trying to prove yourself. There's also this culture of, like, having an open bar in the office and taking employees on, like, largely unsupervised vacations and a sort of rowdy, irreverent culture that doesn't always acknowledge people who might be vulnerable in those spaces.

SIMON: What began to shake your belief in what you were doing?

WIENER: I was working at this data analytics startup. And I enjoyed that work to a certain extent. But I wasn't paying much attention to the economy or the ecosystem that that company was a part of. And, obviously, there's a big distance between product analytics and the NSA, but when Edward Snowden's revelations came out, I had been on the job for a few months and I didn't connect the dots that there was something that has now come to be understood as surveillance capitalism and that it might have echoes in the government and - or does have echoes, you know, in the government. That, to me, in hindsight, was a moral test for the industry - the Snowden revelations. And the fact that nothing happened sort of tells you everything about where we are now.

I just started to feel that the - there was such a gap between my expectations and the narratives that Silicon Valley was promoting and what I actually saw on the ground that it made me feel like I was foolish or wrong. And then when the election happened and, suddenly, there was all this scrutiny on tech, I started to feel that my instincts and my sort of unsettled feeling about the industry was - perhaps there was more reason for that.

SIMON: Anna Wiener - her book "Uncanny Valley" - thank you so much for being with us.

WIENER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.