Uncanny Valley


I spent all day Thursday, i.e. Thanksgiving, finishing John Boyne’s book “The Heart’s Invisible Furies”: https://amzn.to/2V9VhyS It’s not new, as a matter of fact it came out in 2017, but it was rated one of the best books of that year and I’m all about research and I discovered it and reserved it at the library. I’ve seen the light, Libby is a great resource. Not for new books, not usually anyway, I’ll get to that, but for the old. Sure, you can’t get every book immediately, then again how necessary is instant gratification when the book’s in the rearview mirror anyway? And a few months after I reserved “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” it became available, and I started reading it and loving it, told Felice she had to dive in, and then I got to the dinner party scene and I was wondering… But then the book picked right up again and I was caught up in its world, I could see why it had a four and a half star rating on Amazon, with 3,271 reviews. If you’re on the fence, if you’re not sure, the number of reviews crossed with the star value is a good indicator of whether something is worth reading. For the record, most books are not worth reading, even the vaunted ones. And I won’t say everything popular is worth your while, but if you’re interested, data is helpful. Once again, I don’t want to waste any time with substandard fare, ergo my research re books and streaming series. I’d like to say the same thing about music, but that doesn’t square, maybe because the barrier to entry is so low, you can hear songs in a matter of minutes and everybody has an opinion and few can articulate it eloquently.

So, if you’re looking for something to take you away, remove you from this rough and tumble world, with insight and fun and even gravitas at times, check out “The Heart’s Invisible Furies.” But it is not a must-read, whereas “Uncanny Valley” is. After completing the Boyne book I picked up “Uncanny Valley” and read it in a day, could not put it down, not that I believe everyone else will feel the same way, because if you’re not part of the educated elite, or the tech-driven dropout cohort, if you don’t follow the Silicon Valley comings and goings on a regular basis you will not know what Anna Wiener is talking about. But ain’t that today’s America, a dividing line between those who know and those who do not. But in this case, those who do not are employing all the tech Silicon Valley and its ilk are purveying, so…

“Uncanny Valley” came out nearly a year ago, January 14, 2020. And it was reviewed everywhere, but I wasn’t sure I needed to read it, because the premise was not new, woman in tech world tells her story. But for some reason, newspapers are now releasing their Top Ten book lists, even though there’s a month left in the year, then again what books are yet to be released, and the “New York Times” put “Uncanny Valley” in their Top Ten.

Not that I wanted to buy it. So I went to Libby and I could download it IMMEDIATELY! That confounded me, wasn’t this a hot book? Or was it that readers hadn’t caught on to the “Times” endorsement yet or..?

And on really hot books, you get a week, but I could have “Uncanny Valley” for twenty one days. But, needless to say, I didn’t require that entire window.

So, Anna Wiener is in book publishing. A more backward, self-righteous entertainment enterprise you cannot find. And what immediately endeared me to this book was that Wiener admitted it! She and her fellow liberal arts majors had moved to Brooklyn where they were employed as assistants in publishing, an industry which felt it held the moral high ground, which felt felt superior to the moneygrubbers, where paying your dues was seen as part of the process. However, Wiener was broke, and there was no upward mobility on the horizon, she’d been an assistant for three years already, so, she decided to dive into tech. “Uncanny Valley” is her story.

At times I was prepared to wince, because it seemed Wiener was about to embrace the highfalutin’, elitist attitude of those who work in publishing in New York City, wherein their suffering is admirable and their viewpoint is superior to everyone else’s and tech is the devil. But she never quite fell off the precipice. This was very much a personal journey, Wiener was giving her own personal perspective…was she fulfilled, was she missing out on life working so hard, BUT SHE DID LIKE THE MONEY!

Bottom line, do you sacrifice your powers of soft analysis, about people and feelings, to get on the tech gravy train, to have disposable income, to feel part of something?

And Wiener acknowledges that the tech peak is past. But she also delineates all those from other walks of life, like lawyers, who took entry level jobs just to get in the door. Then again, who wants to be a lawyer?

But Wiener has no technical skills, she doesn’t know how to code, so she constantly feels like an impostor, and is seen as a second-class citizen by the tech bros.

Not all of them are bros, Wiener makes this clear, but most of them…

For about ten years there, especially after the launch of Apple’s App Store, everyone felt like they could do it, they could create something that would lead to endless riches. But Wiener talks about how hard it truly is. Most of the tech leaders decided on their path in high school and have been following it ever since, working nearly 24/7 and not always succeeding. The CEO of one of the companies she works for, who is a soft-voiced Vince Lombardi, ultimately walks away from the company he started as a result of burnout. Oh, did I tell you the VCs who invested in his company also invested in a competitor? Talk about loyalty.

So, Wiener starts on the east coast. At a startup, she’s one of the earliest hires. But she doesn’t get it, at this level the honchos expect you to create your own job and execute it. For those used to education, jumping through hoops, this is a challenge they can’t even see. Work is different from school. Those people with all the money without college degrees, never mind graduate degrees, have something special that too often the highly educated do not. You can’t teach entrepreneurship. And if you don’t know how to pivot, to sacrifice sunk costs, you’ll have a hard time running a tech business. Students invest in their education, it’s a timeline for a resume. Then again, entrepreneurs need no resume, they’re starting from scratch, operating by their wits.

And Wiener moves to San Francisco and is coasting. Making that buck, primarily providing customer support. But you have to be DWTC at the company, or you’re gone. DWTC is “Down with the cause.” If you’re not committed, 110%, if you’re not willing to work on the weekends, sacrifice your personal life, there’s no room for you. So Wiener keeps working harder and harder until she jumps.

Meanwhile, she lives the life of a twentysomething. She has a boyfriend, in tech too, she does Ecstasy, she attends raves…if you’re not willing to test limits, you probably shouldn’t live in San Francisco, California at all.

And her friends back in Brooklyn are still broke, cheering each other on in their low-level arts endeavors. Then again, so many are living on the dole, daddy’s money, that income is secondary, it’s hard to compete with those with endless unpaid internships.

So Wiener keeps questioning herself. Is this life working for her or not? Are the people involved good or bad? One thing’s for sure, most of the tech bros are one-dimensional, they can do this and little more. But they believe they’re well-rounded and know everything.

So Wiener doesn’t excoriate the tech business, she just wonders if it’s for her. Does it fit her needs and desires. But, and here’s a big but, MOST PEOPLE DON’T GET TO ASK THIS QUESTION!

I’m not putting Wiener down for this whatsoever, I’m just drawing a line between those highly educated, the so-called “elite,” and everybody else. Once again, I don’t think everybody else can even read this book, they won’t get the references. For whatever reason, Wiener doesn’t name names. Probably for fear of lawsuits, as a result of NDAs and such. And even if you’re paying attention to techworld, you still might not be able to figure out what companies she’s actually talking about at times. In other words, “Uncanny Valley” will go over most people’s heads. But never forget, these are the people creating modern America. The government is truly clueless when it comes to tech, even candidates, all these years on many Democrats still don’t know how to employ the web to get their message out, never mind get ahead of the curve and regulate it.

I don’t want to tell you the entire story. Then again, “Uncanny Valley” is less about facts than feelings, in a world where you’re supposed to stuff your feelings down and follow the money. Of course there are those who do the opposite of this, reject technology in general, but they’re just taking themselves off the game board of life. If you’re not familiar with the landscape, you have no impact upon it.

And, of course, as you read the book you start to wonder, to what degree are you caught up in the techies’ web.

Let me give you some quotes.

“‘Look up sick systems,’ said Noah. ‘Look up trauma bonding. It’s the culty thing: keep people busy until they forget about the parts of their life they left behind.'”

One of the best parts of the book is when Noah stands up for himself, tries to get what he deserves. But his point here is you can drink the kool-aid and feel good about yourself as part of the cult, but in the end is that all you have, your role at the company?

“‘…all the money from the internet comes from surveillance.” 

And there you have it folks. You surf, anywhere and everywhere, and people get rich by hoovering up your movements and slicing and dicing and selling the data. Forget entering your credit card info, all the stuff you think is personal, you’ve already sacrificed your IDENTITY by going online.

“The endgame was the same for everyone: Growth at any cost. Scale above all. Disrupt, then dominate.”

Domination doesn’t get enough ink. If you’re not dominant in tech, you’re about to be disrupted, overthrown. Apple built its colossus by owning the portable music player sphere. Google owns search. Amazon owns commerce. Try and compete with them and they’ll either buy you or shut you down. This is not art, this is a zero-sum game.

“People whose default conversational mode was debate.”

This is what I miss in life, especially in a world where money trumps all. Wiener attributes this to males, but I attribute it to elite education. Anyone can know the facts, but what do you have to say about them?

“The internet was a collective howl, an outlet for everyone to prove that they mattered.”

BINGO! Never articulated better. There used to a higher class, those above you, but the internet flattened society and gave you access and everyone is pissed and taking others down.

“Everything was simultaneously happening in real time and preserved for posterity, in perpetuity.”

That’s the internet, there’s a permanent record. Most people never check it, but if they have a need or desire to, there it is.

“My brain had become a trash vortex, representations upon representations.”

We surf endlessly. The apps are created to maintain our attention. We can’t resist. We’re collecting info 24/7, do we need to know all this, will we fall behind if we don’t, are we addicted?

“I was always looking for the emotional narrative, the psychological explanation, the personal history.”

That’s me! I want to gather the facts, but then I want to create context, how did this happen, what does it mean, where do we go from here? Once again, they teach this in elite institutions, that’s all they’re about. Most of America is never exposed to these concepts of analysis, and pooh-pooh them when the arrive. But, in a world of zeros and ones, soft skills like this are sidelined, they’re seen as having little value.

“The person with the yearning was me.”

Can you stifle it? Your feelings, your needs, who you are? Do you have the courage to jump ship?

That’s what “Uncanny Valley” is ultimately about. Sure, you get an inside look at tech startups and how they work, in detail, but now that you’re in the belly of the beast you must ask yourself, is this where I want to be, are these the people to be lionized and followed?

So, once again, this is not a beginner’s book, this is not “Tech Startups for Dummies,” this is not a 101 class, but more like a 301. You don’t have to be an expert, but to fully appreciate it you must have some miles under your wheels. And if you do, reading “Uncanny Valley” will be a very rewarding experience. If you don’t…I advise you get up to speed and read it, because it’s these people who are steering not only our country, but our entire world.

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