‘Uncanny Valley’

 

Anna Wiener, MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27. “Uncanny Valley” is Anna Wiener’s memoir about working for Bay Area startups in the 2010s. Wiener, who reports on technology for the New Yorker, fills out our worst-case scenarios with shrewd insight and literary detail. Everything over there is as absurdly wrong as we imagine. The book begins across the country, where 25-year-old Wiener is a low-paid assistant at a small New York literary agency, “oblivious to Silicon Valley, and contentedly so.” She comes across an article about an e-reading startup promising “to bring a revolution to book publishing.” After a “series of ambiguous and casual interviews,” she accepts a three-month trial position. When her trial period ends, she’s not asked to continue — she is, in the words of the C.E.O., who accidentally posts this comment about her in the company chat room, “too interested in learning, not doing.” Next up: the customer-support team of a data-analytics startup. Wiener becomes part of the ecosystem and gives a nod to her co-workers’ more positive attributes. But the real strength of “Uncanny Valley” comes from Wiener’s careful parsing of the complex motivations and implications that fortify this new surreality at every level, from the individual body to the body politic. By the end of the book, she shows that technologists are not interested in “systems” thinking only because it can fix what’s broken; they are “settling into newfound political power,” with armies of trolls now serving as foot soldiers in what founders call a “war” for market share.