Book review: Uncanny Valley

Book cover for Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

When you work in the technology space like I do, reality gets distorted. It’s easy to forget that people outside the industry don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes in the software, websites, and mobile apps they use. For example, I’m careful, some may even say paranoid, about how much information I share on social media, if any at all.

Why the paranoia? I don’t trust that any of those companies have our personal privacy and best interests at heart. As the old saying goes, if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.

Because I work in this echo chamber, I find it interesting when a person outside the industry shares their perspective on what goes on inside of it. That’s why I chose to read Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener.

Wiener grew up in the New York City area and started her professional career in the publishing industry. Long hours and low pay led her to search out other opportunities, which led to a position in a local technology startup attempting to disrupt the book publishing model. After the startup failed, Wiener moved to the West Coast for another technology startup opportunity. Like those who sought riches during the Gold Rush of the mid-1800’s, Wiener was convinced she needed to work in San Francisco if she wanted to strike it rich.

In Uncanny Valley, she recounts her experiences working in two startups during the 2010’s, a time that could be considered a golden age for internet software startups (or a gilded age depending on how you look at it). She expresses her surprise at the excesses, parties, workplace culture, and questionable business practices and ethics she encounters during her tenures. Given my insider’s view of the industry, I didn’t find her revelations so much of a surprise but more so a confirmation of what I already thought was happening inside these companies. It only served to reinforce my views on the industry, how it’s run, and my reluctance and paranoia about what I share online and the companies that I share that data with.

What Wiener’s memoir really brought home for me is that the last 10 years or so has not been a “normal” period for the technology industry, and it makes me wonder how long this current era will last. Those working in the industry tend to be young and brash, which is a dangerous combination. Instead of creating disruption for the common good, they’re creating disruption as a way to line their pockets in their attempt to be the next Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, or Mark Zuckerberg without considering the societal impacts of their actions. Complicating matters are the venture capitalists who promote and enable these behaviors so they can benefit from the willingness of their portfolio companies to play loose, fast, and break things. At some point, if the industry doesn’t acknowledge these questionable behaviors, they will become subject to more onerous regulation and oversight.

However, I digress. This post is meant to be a book review, not a rant, so I’ll stop here. If you’re interested in reading more of my thoughts on the industry, you can start with this post and follow the links down the rabbit hole from there. And now back to our original programming….

Be aware that Uncanny Valley is a memoir, as noted in the subtitle. If you try to read it as a book looking for a story with a structured plot and well-defined characters, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, you have to look at it like reading someone’s journal where they reflect on their day-to-day experiences. Fortunately, Wiener is a talented writer, which makes the recounting of her experiences entertaining and the reflections on those experiences poignant.

I wouldn’t consider Uncanny Valley one of my Must Reads, or even one of my Fun Reads. However, I found it to be enlightening and thought-provoking, kind of like watching a documentary. For those immersed in the tech industry, you’ll see how the industry can be perceived by those outside of it. For those outside the industry, it exposes the excesses, aggressive business practices, and questionable business ethics employed by startups that get masked under the guise of creating disruptive technologies. In addition to being enlightened, you could get flat out spooked. You might find yourself reconsidering how you engage with some of your favorite websites and mobile apps. In fact, you might even end up understanding and agreeing with my paranoia when it comes to how you use and engage with them.

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