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Monday, August 24, 2020

Review: Uncanny Valley

I came across Uncanny Valley from various reviews --- as a book about Silicon Valley, you can't avoid the reviews. Anna Wiener is a decent writer --- the prose is readable, though her affectations are annoying: for instance, she never refers to any company by name, calling Microsoft "The litiguous conglomerate in Seattle", and Google "the search engine company." If you did this for a short article it's cute. In a novel, it's annoying and an affectation, as though this was a person who knows she came to Silicon Valley for money, but wants to pretend that she's still above it all.

The book describes the author as she got tired of "paying her dues" at a East Coast publishing company working with letters, and takes a flying leap into an ebook startup, gets laid of and then goes on to an analytics company in San Francisco before joining Github. Getting paid $30,000 a year in New York and then moving up to $100,000 a year (remember, she does not have a STEM background) ought to be a life changing experience that someone is grateful for, but not for Weiner, who turns up her nose at Silicon Valley every chance she gets.

As I read the book, I realized that I was getting an education in "White Privilege." She spent about 4 years in San Francisco, makes sweeping statements about the startup ecosystem (and tech in general), generalizes about all the men and technologists as being all cookie-cutter icons of privilege and self-aggrandization, gets a boyfriend whose startup gets bought by Google, and at no point did she ever mention meeting, sitting down, or talking to the immigrants who came to Silicon Valley to make a life for themselves and their family. That's one heck of a bubble to put yourself into, despite living in one of the most diverse places on the planet.

That utter blindness and unawareness (or perhaps meeting people who actually appreciate the opportunities that Silicon Valley gives them would ruin both her self-image and the thesis of her book) runs so much through the book. I've met many immigrants in the valley, including my wife, and they all have great stories and interesting lives and perspectives, but it would take someone with more curiosity and less privilege to sit down and listen to such people. Heck, if she'd taken some time to listen to the people behind the counter in the corporate cafeterias she'd frequented she would have heard even more stories that would have enlivened her book as well.

But that's what makes this book so educational for me. It'd never occur to me that someone could triple their income in 4 years (not including the stock options), and then claim that they were above it all. But there you go. The book is an exercise in white privilege, and as an immigrant it helped me understand it more. The Santa Clara County Library has 17 copies available in ebook format, so you'll have no problem reading it without having to pay for the privilege behind it.

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