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Disillusion With A World of Infinite Possibilities

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The term “uncanny valley” refers to a concept that’s simple enough: We like artificial beings to look like us — until they look too much like us; then we reject them, with revulsion.

The valley refers to the point in the graph when things go beyond being recognizably “robot” and become almost human, but not quite.

Anna Weiner’s provocative memoir “Uncanny Valley” is not a direct exploration of this phenomenon, but rather of the environment that frequently forces confrontations with it.

In her 20s, Anna Weiner was working at a literary agency. She liked working with books; she found occasional flares of inspiration in good writing, and she took heart from conversations with other editorial assistants who burned to discover it. 

But publishing was populated by industry stalwarts who weren’t going anywhere anytime soon, as well as an inexhaustible supply of humanities majors, some of whom could afford to work for free under the guise of getting industry experience.

The glamour of this world was glitching.

Riddled with doubt and more than a little guilt, she accepts a job at an ebook startup company. Though she is let go, she finds her interest in the culture has been piqued, and she moves to Silicon Valley as it is rapidly solidifying its place as one of the most influential business centers in the world.

She moves around San Francisco and takes a a few tech jobs — including doing customer support at a data analytics start-up  — and she gets a behind-the-screens look at an industry that has become somewhat mythic to many people in the country and the world.

“Uncanny Valley” chronicles Weiner’s painful realization that the artistic dreams of her peers — who had graduated into the global recession of 2008 with her — were giving way to the reality of a shrinking job market.

She also feels a guilty surprise at finding certain aspects of the tech world almost enjoyable.

Yet her initial distrust grows into total disillusionment as she observes a culture rapidly losing its grasp on power.

She becomes disenchanted with executives in their 20s who loudly boast of their dedication to causes such as diversity and wellness but often do nothing more than establish committees with long names and dubious job titles. It becomes apparent that they are either in way over their heads, drunk on their own power, or both.

She began to see that the tech world had made a fetish of efficiency and optimization. It considered “transparency” a shrewd business move. It recycled players thriving on the idea of their own exceptionalism, and tried to drown legitimate critiques of the sexism that pervaded it with “quota hires.”

Weiner never names specific companies, yet her clarity makes it impossible to mistake her subjects.

“Uncanny Valley” is decidedly not a polemic; she extends the benefit of the doubt when others would have withheld it, though her criticism is unmistakable.

“Uncanny Valley” is the story of an industry and a generation whose heyday may have come and gone, but that shows no sign of slowing down, despite a cultural fatigue that pervades it.

Social networks, once glorified for their ability to bring people together, are weathering criticism from those who question the collection and sale of consumer data; viral videos featuring middle-grade children creatively raising money for lifesaving treatments are now treated with the bewilderment they deserve rather than the optimistic adoration they garnered in the past.

“Techlash” is growing as people question what could possibly thrive in the environment Weiner so evocatively describes. She doesn’t purport to offer any concrete answer, but her hint is clear: something almost human — but not quite.

 

Sophia Kaufman was a part-time resident of Salisbury for close to 10 years and was a Lakeville Journal intern for three summers. She is now working in the bookselling and publishing industries in New York City. You can reach her at sophiamkaufman@gmail.com or on twitter: @skmadeleine.

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