Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

You know when you meet someone, like through a mutual, for the first time, and then with awkward small talk you find something bizarre that you have in common. You were at the same gig once at a 30-person venue in 2008. Or you grew up a few streets away from each other. You both dated your mutual, once, and only or a few weeks. That feeling of boundedness that isn’t enough to make you friends, but is perhaps enough to remind you how tiny and weird the world is. That’s what Uncanny Valley felt like to me: a conversation I won’t forget with a stranger I’ll never speak to again.

I have very little in common with Anna Wiener, but her memoir of work in Start-up Land resonated with me, as I’m sure it has for countless others who spent even part of their twenties there. Her skateboards under the desks and CEO-sponsored retreats to Lake Tahoe would not have gone amiss at one of the places I’ve worked at, with hammocks strung between whiteboard walls and swings bolted into the ceiling. With wages bound up in equity, meaningless Google Sheets-based tasks and the actually dangerous naivety of bootstrapping co-founders. Parts of this book were like flashbacks to a bad trip.

My adventures in Start-up Land were not in San Francisco – the capital of that world – but her visceral descriptions of the Bay and its innumerable injustices, those made homeless by the crusades of Facebook and Salesforce, were perhaps the most important thing about this book. I spent a significant period of time in San Francisco and Berkeley last year, and have found it hard to put into words just how dystopian, how jarring the poverty and pain and illness embodied in San Francisco’s streets is. All in a city that boasts the world’s richest companies by market cap. I remember conversations with friends that I had in the weeks after coming back, where I tried to tell them how fucked up the city had felt, simultaneously wanting to do justice to the de-homed people I’d met and the injustice of their de-homedness. Trolleys full of possessions. Bodies on the pavement seizing from legal opioids that half the financial district probably had shares in. Human faeces outside tall, glass buildings, which could have been an act of rebellion but were more likely the desperate shits of someone that had nowhere else to go. I once took a ride-sharing app taxi from the Mission to Berkeley and the driver told us he was living in his car. San Francisco is sick. Silicon Valley is the parasite.

I left the Bay in September last year thinking I could never move here. How the fuck can anyone live here, go to work for one of these predatory companies, walking around like there aren’t people dying and pushed out of their homes?. In Uncanny Valley, Wiener reminds us why so many people (albeit the kind of people that know how to move in predominantly white and middle-class circles) take jobs at Silicon Valley-based companies: the money. The money, and its scale, and its rambunctiousness, and its banality, and its absurdity, and its destructiveness, and how all of these facets of money under late capitalism come to a head in the Bay of the 2010s penetrate the book, sometimes in subtle ways – though the author is self-aware, at least with hindsight, of how ridiculous the wealth inhabiting the Bay is. The money, and that “founders” of data analytics companies can become billionaires aged 28, and that GitHub customer service employees extracted $200,000 each with the company’s IPO, to say nothing of the amounts harvested by programmers and developers who had been with the company since the early days. The money in the Valley is obscene, and Wiener knows this.

I found it refreshing that Anna doesn’t insist on referring to the well-salaried employees of the companies she works for as “workers” in the book. This seems like a minor thing, but I think it’s important, and is unfortunately overlooked too often in tech industry organizing, where “workers” is used all the time as a catch-all term for everyone who holds a paid/equity-based position within a company but isn’t a founder. One of the sickest things about Silicon Valley is that it has rendered so much of its human/labour-base ‘capitalist’ (in the Marxian sense); but any individual that makes $100,000+ a year and holds significant stock in the company they work for is no more a worker than the executive manager of a European pharma company whose salary relies on share value increases. I get that it can maybe be useful in some tech organizing circles to use this term as a means of building solidarity across different employee groups in a tech company, but to outsiders of that world it comes across as disconnected from reality – and that is probably because it is. In the text, Wiener develops an understanding of such employees’ relation to capital in a way that mirrors her journey through Silicon Valley, with sardonic accounts of colleagues’ proposed demands in discussions about unionization. Like the rest of the book, in this way she offers us a relatable ‘insider’ account of the ravages of the tech boom’s start-ups, that is funny and witty and beautiful all at the same time.

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