Saturday, June 19, 2021

Uncanny Valley: A Memoir by Anna Weiner

 Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner is a memoir by a technology writer for The New Yorker who in her mid-twenties left a job in book publishing for one in tech, moving first to a New York-based startup and then one in San Francisco. It's an interesting look at a culture she portrays as centered around work and the ideas of growth, disruption, and scale along with absolutism, self-aggrandizing, and pseudo-intellectualism.

Weiner was 25 in 2013 when she left a role as an assistant at a small literary agency in Manhattan to take a 3-month trial job at an e-reader startup working with the three founders and an engineer. She then took a customer support job in San Francisco at a data analytics tech startup, where she employee number 20, and the 4th woman. 

She describes in the book how the job, and overall culture of tech in San Francisco, was all about confidence and a never-ending focus on work. People didn't really have outside lives, but they liked to talk about outside lives, how their work would change the world and how that work was about and created a philosophy of life, one with lots of "opportunities," "revenue," and "strategy." Everything was wrapped in the language of business. If you could spew philosophy wrapped in business, the ideas of stoicism, people as operations systems, or war analogies tied to company growth, all the better.

People claimed they craved authenticity, but it’s described by Weiner as craving an authenticity and community about them. The mantra was work and good faith, believing in the rightness of their own actions, with the phrase the CEO used being “Down for the Cause.” He was also noted as talking about things like "wanting more women in leadership roles," rather than actually putting them in leadership roles. Weiner also had male colleagues described to her as "strategic" and that she someone who "loved their customers." Also, when the data analytics company released a new feature about user website engagement, it was named Addiction.

Weiner then left to do support at a different company, a 200-employee open-source startup tech company with channels where people shared information online. Part of her new role was content moderator, with she and her team as the arbiters of what was acceptable on the platform, and four of them overseeing content from nine million users. People were in enormous positions of power, but everything was "trust the system." Weiner also notes that her high-paying job existed for, and on, the internet and left the open-source startup in 2018.