I first figured that Uncanny Valley, from its back-of-the-book description, is just another tech industry exposé. As a 20-year resident of this area, I’m not exactly its intended audience, and so the shock value of reading about our many foibles would be lost on me.
Then I saw it made the New York Times best books list of 2020, and picked it up anyway to give it a fair shot. Turns out my initial instincts were on point.
The book is a personal memoir, an exposition of the personal experiences of someone who migrated from New York to San Francisco, in the same tradition as American settlers of yore, in search of fame and fortune. The author admits to lacking a background in technology; though, in spontaneity reminiscent of the dot-com boom, they were able to find and build a career for themselves within startups and their customer support teams. To me, that’s actually testament to one of the most positive aspects of Silicon Valley: those with little background or connection can still persevere, and with a little luck, muscle their way into the ecosystem. It’s strange, then, that the author takes an almost adversarial stance1 on their career here; they consistently pine for the cultural richness of the east coast, question the impact that bits and bytes can actually have on the world, and constantly feel guilty about how much they’re getting paid to do a job they don’t actually feel qualified to do.
Along the way, there’s the familiar set of observations and judgements that always seem to crop up these past few years, whenever someone writes critically about the tech industry. Of course, we are currently residing on the darker half of the press narrative clock, where most news are either nefarious or incompetent or both. The well-trod criticisms are presented with an Alice-in-Wonderland style of curiosity and wonder via an employee’s ground-level perspective:
- A real and disappointing lack of diversity at startups, particularly within engineering teams;
- The singularity of technology as a topic of discussion and chatter, in professional and social gatherings;
- A proliferation of money, and how it’s interleaved into life within the city itself;
- Juxtaposed onto the homelessness and poverty visible and experienced on the streets and in certain neighborhoods.
All that said, what Uncanny Valley has in genuineness, it lacks in higher-level perspective. In comparison to other books about Silicon Valley and a number of company exposés2, there isn’t much effort put to contextualizing these problems and how we got here. Since the author had already made the forgone conclusion that the tech startup world is a soulless and desolate place, the story drags on—with scenes that highlight the above problems with our field, interspersed with condemnation and doubt and guilt even when something good happens. By the end, I was tired from the utter joylessness of their experience; it felt like they were already predisposed to disliking tech culture, and so the exercise of joining startups and hanging out with engineers seemed like a painful formality to affirm existing attitudes.
Oh, and one quirk that I found really annoying throughout the book: the author avoids using proper nouns to identify companies and places and things—but they’re perfectly fine naming the people along the way. There is a “social network that everybody hates,” an “open source startups for developers with an octocat as a mascot,” and a “search giant who buys up other companies,” but you as the reader gets to guess at what they’re referring to. Worse, they’ll drop actual technical terms (e.g., PHP, Site Reliability Engineering) without explanation in the middle of a paragraph. It feels like a cheap stylistic gimmick, albeit one I haven’t seen before.
Uncanny Valley was not written for someone who has lived a lot of what the book ends up unveiling. Even if you are looking to get a critical take of the tech industry, I just think there are better stories that provide more of the surrounding context and that multitude of perspectives necessary to triangulate towards better-informed opinions.