When Anna Wiener graduated from college in 2009, she did what so many ambitious young women who cared about books and intellectual culture did before her: She moved to New York to try to make it in publishing.
But publishing, then in the middle of a profound contraction, was not a welcoming industry. A few years after graduation, Wiener found herself stuck in a job as an assistant at a literary agency with no clear path for advancement. She came to the conclusion that the best place for ambitious and bright young people not in publishing. It was in tech instead. She packed up and moved to San Francisco.
Wiener, who is now a contributing writer for the New Yorker, spent her years in tech working on the soft skills side, helping companies interact with human beings. Those years provide the raw material for her critically acclaimed new memoir Uncanny Valley, which paints a portrait of Silicon Valley in the boom period of 2013 through 2016. The book covers the myopic solipsism of the tech world — but it also captures its best and most utopian impulses.
I spoke with Wiener over the phone about Uncanny Valley, covering everything from the false narrative of the scrappy tech upstart to why narratives are important, Silicon Valley, and whether Mark Zuckerberg should revisit his college major (psychology, who knew). Our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.
You paint a really vivid picture in the book of how tech companies position themselves as underdogs who are disrupting the modern workforce. That positioning then allows them to get away with enormous abuses of power, generally organized in ways that reinforce our existing hegemonies of power. Do you think it is reasonable at this point for these enormously wealthy corporations to call themselves underdogs?
That’s a story that they tell themselves. It’s a fundamental story they perpetuate, because it’s incredibly flattering for power and it’s a cover for any sort of analysis.
And how do tech companies create that story?
The idea of disruption is based on the premise of unseating incumbents and doing things differently: better or more quickly. It’s funny now to think about, with respect to something like Google or Facebook, but a lot of [tech companies] start out as small companies that are scrappy and built to speed. And so the business culture around this is one of irreverence.
There’s an unwillingness to think about power at every level. People who are funding or founding a small startup are not thinking about structures of power and the ways in which they have been selected to be the people on whom the ambitions of disruption rest.
One of the things that’s so striking in the book is that you are someone who has been trained to think in the humanities, and you’re surrounded by people who were trained to think from an engineer’s perspective. How did you see that difference play out through your time in the tech world?
I don’t even know if it has to do with education, because there are so many people that I have worked with who are software engineers from humanities backgrounds, who have very similar education profiles to my own. Which is also a conversation about privilege, and about who gets to participate in this industry.
It has to do more with the value system of the industry, and the frameworks for argument and for logic that are appealing to people. Analysis and context and history and reflection can be quite slow. And there is an emphasis [in tech], due to the constraints and incentives of the business model, to accelerate and move quickly and iterate, and not so much to reflect but to adjust and tweak.
There are corollaries there in terms of the logical frameworks that are appealing to people. So you have people applying economic frameworks to social problems. You have certain types of logic that have social currency here.
Historically, the intellectual culture here [in Silicon Valley] is also quite anti-academic. It’s a very self-flattering intellectual culture that is really more like a business culture or a management philosophy. It’s less the engineering mindset alone and more the values of software and how those are emphasized inside an organization, and the way that is tied to the business incentive.
You also seem to play a little with the idea that the split between humanities skills and engineering skills is gendered. I’m sort of haunted by the passage in which, during a staff retreat, the engineers start going through the customer service request queue, with no training, while drunk. Where does that sense that communication skills and humanities skills are feminized and therefore lesser come from?
In an industry so oriented toward speed and acceleration and growth, the people who can most quickly affect that are the people who are building the technology, the people who are actually making the products rather than selling or supporting or marketing them. That’s the purest expression of the business.
To paraphrase a CEO who’s quoted in my book [Wiener uses no proper names in Uncanny Valley], Silicon Valley is a culture focused on doing, not reflecting or thinking. And the people who can do, who can actually ship product, are engineers. They are also the hardest to come by, so you tend to get a culture that’s oriented towards them both as a recruiting and retention strategy.
This distinction between technical and non-technical employees is often deployed to keep people out, to undervalue or undermine the work that they’re are doing. To call someone’s work’s non-technical is often not quite honest, given what it means to work at a tech company for a lot of people. You do have to have some amount of technical knowledge, particularly if you’re working at a B2B company rather than a consumer-facing company. There’s a gendered, racialized valence around those terms.
There’s this sort of recurring idea that comes up after most tech scandals, like every time Facebook has a new privacy scandal, that these problems are a consequence of the tech world being run by people who have not been trained to think critically about how human beings behave and what our responsibility to each other is, who have no real training in the humanities. Is that an idea that you see some credence for?
I know people like to say things like, “Engineers should get a humanities degree,” or, “Everyone needs to read sociology.” I do think that engineering culture probably could use sociology, but I generally find that condescending, knowing so many engineers who are as well-rounded as a person could be. I think it has more to do with the structural interests of the industry and the organization.
It’s not inspiring to see someone like Mark Zuckerberg speak about the consequences of Facebook. You sort of wish he would potentially have reconsidered getting his bachelor’s degree, [and getting it] in something else. Well, he was a psychology major, so I don’t know, maybe that could still be useful.
It has to do with who’s empowered internally, who has a voice and what’s valued. Because of the way these businesses are set up and because of what the endgame is for a lot of them, it’s not in your best interest as a business to deliberate, to make decisions based on years of research or overly contextualize the work.
Uncanny Valley is coming out after a year full of major books arguing that the way we use technology now is not just harmful to us personally, but can in fact be immoral and destructive to the whole world — books like Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror and Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing. How do you see Uncanny Valley fitting into that conversation?
My hope for the book is to express a perspective that isn’t often shared in stories about Silicon Valley. Certainly books exist: there is Ellen Ullman’s book Close to the Machine and Kate Losse’s book The Boy King. These are both memoirs of women who worked in the tech industry in different decades than I did.
Sharing my own experience as a pretty low-level, “non-technical” employee, my hope is that there is value there. That it is useful to people both inside and outside the industry. To explain to people outside the industry some of the customs and manners of speech and value systems that are common here. And to share with people who are in the industry what it looks like also from the inside, and how it feels to be, and how these products feel, and how it feels to be building them in this workplace environment.
The stories that tend to come out of Silicon Valley are either academic, and that’s great, or they are triumphalist and they are business stories about innovation told by an executive who has a ghostwriter. My hope is to provide an ordinary employee’s perspective, which is one that for many different reasons is harder for a lot of people to share publicly.
There are more, I should add. There’s a book coming out in April by Wendy Liu called Abolish Silicon Valley, which is about her experience as a startup founder, her growing disillusionment, and some potential political solutions to the state that we’re in. Susan Fowler also has one coming out.
This is becoming a genre, and it’s one that I’m really excited about. Narrative is really important to tech. When the industry tells stories about itself, people have really engaged with them on the terms of the industry. To expand that literature can only be useful.