By: Michael Beiter
Uncanny Valley by Ana Wiener was an enjoyable read I had a hard time putting down. Memoirs seem to be that way. This one reminded me of Hillbilly Elegy and Educated.
Wiener describes her time in Silicon Valley during the tech boom of the early 21st century. This place churned out new millionaires daily. Billionaires were also made from new software offerings. That fact was wild to me. Billionaires, which Wiener says "Shouldn't be a level of wealth that is attainable." have been made multiple times over by creating things that don't exist in the real sense. Software doesn't occupy physical space like hardware.
In the history of our country the richest, most profitable companies have all been energy, hardware, or service companies. Think Rockefeller and oil, General Electric, banking. In one fell swoop the internet created new wealth that toppled the titans of theses previous industries and now has us asking who the first trillionaire is going go be. The two front runners; Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, are products of Silicon Valley and have amassed an honestly incomprehensible amount of wealth that was newly created. That is a mind-blowing point in itself because studies have shown most wealth is inherited. Think royalty and the Waltons.
Throughout the book Wiener eludes to both Amazon and Facebook but not directly. They are "the retail giant and social network everyone hates." I sort of hate them both for their monopolistic practices but can't pry myself away from their services. This book helped me generate more disdain for them. Maybe some time soon I'll go back to shopping in a physical retailer and finally shut down my social media.
What I found fascinating was her millennial perspective on work life balance, start ups, money, and human interaction. Being a millennial I have had to navigate my own issues with these things. Seeing my struggles and beliefs shared by someone at the epicenter of what we believe to be the forefront of technology and wealth generation was comforting.
She talked about the feeling of not knowing what her job was, being asked to do more than she thought she probably should be, and buying in to a culture that focused on growth at all costs. The founder of the first start up she worked at had DFTC plastered all over their emails, message boards, and work space. An acronym for "Down For the Cause." I was eerily reminded of the workplace I spent a couple years at that threw their acronym in everyones face: FTDI. Which meant "Follow the Damn Instructions."
I worked in a very lucrative but unethical, immoral gym for a couple years. We served far more people than what we had capacity for and the owner shared the sentiments that seemed a necessity in Silicon Valley where venture capitalists were breathing down the necks of business owners to ensure they drove a profit and return on investment. That sentiment was: money over everything.
For us that meant focusing on 'maximizing customer value' (how much could we get people to spend), reducing churn with sketchy contracts and just generally being snake oil salesman. Rather than help people learn how to eat and exercise in sustainable ways we deliberately wanted them to be dependent on our cyclical programs, supplements, and gym membership. This meant guaranteed revenue as the client bounced and rebounded from one shitty program to the next - never quite understanding that the means we used to help them would never get them to their desired end.
I was shocked at how similar this felt to what Wiener was describing in her work with thousands of client serving tech products. At least I had the benefit of human touch. Her elaboration on remote work and the detriments to psychological well being were interesting. Especially as we continue to plow through the 'new normal' or social distancing, remote work, and Covid. Put simply: humans evolved to interact in person, with touch, eye contact, and physical presence necessary for maximal effectiveness. Forcing everyone behind a screen and into hours of keyboard hammering has a short timeline before it frays the participants.
I realized this lesson when I dabbled with making my service entirely internet based. This was a common drive for coaches in my industry but I realized without an anchoring of human contact our service would be ineffective and my mind would have burnt out.
Winer's experience with tech, the people, and the dilemmas of mid life in a blossoming industry was both entertaining and intriguing. I appreciated her dry humor and writing style. It made for an enjoyable page turner I'll return to again.