It’s not a polemic, and, despite the many (thinly veiled) references to well-known tech companies, it’s not a dishy tell-all about Silicon Valley.
Instead, it’s a measured, personal, and deeply human look at the tech industry. Wiener moves from a low-paying publishing job to a start-up in New York City, and then takes another job at a data analytics company in San Francisco. In the Bay Area, she finds everything you might expect, including hubris, misogyny, and offensively priced condos.
She also encounters some of that famous Silicon Valley utopianism, often from young men on the cusp of becoming very rich.
“In reality, there was nothing superior about those whom I was trying to impress,” Wiener wrote. “Most were smart and nice and ambitious, but so were a lot of people. The novelty was burning off; the industry’s pervasive idealism was increasingly dubious. Tech, for the most part, wasn’t progress. It was just business.”
“Tech, for the most part, wasn’t progress. It was just business.”
The idea that Facebook and other tech companies are like Goldman Sachs, Coca-Cola, or any other corporation is powerful. Tech as a movement is above the fray, a miraculous force for change that can only be ruined by politicians and journalists who are jealous or just don’t get it.
Businesses, on the other hand, can be regulated. Their founders can be held accountable. And their workers — however they are defined — can organize.
The book was fresh in my mind when I stepped into the Labor Innovation & Technology Summit at CES, held in a modest conference room at Bally’s in Las Vegas. Serious talks about labor rights are not what I expect from CES. Last year, it was home to a speaker with cup holders and a smart toilet.
At the panel I attended, the crowd was dwarfed by the number of people who, a day earlier, watched Samsung unveil a robot ball named “Ballie.”
Still, it was progress. At the end of Uncanny Valley, as the Trump era dawns, mentions of workers’ rights and corporate responsibility starts to creep into Silicon Valley conversations. CES, it turns out, couldn’t ignore these issues forever.
“We’re told technology is inevitable, that we can’t fight the future,” said Louis Hyman, a Cornell professor and author of Temp: The Real Story of What Happened to Your Salary, Benefits, and Job Security. While tech certainly “disrupted” some business models, in his view, companies in Silicon Valley were simply continuing a long American tradition — screwing workers at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy.
“These transformations happened long before we had smartphones, long before Uber,” Hyman said. “It all began in the 1960s and ’70s, when corporations discovered they could outsource their workforce in new ways.”
In the 21st century, automation and outsourcing has been brutal for blue collar workers. And despite the “perks,” like free beer and ping-pong tables, white collar workers are pressured to give their companies more and more of their time and attention, even when its shareholders who take home most of the rewards.
Wiener laments “we had become bureaucrats, punching at our computers, making other people — some kids — unfathomably rich.”
It’s easy to blame Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg for this state of affairs. But, again, tech companies are simply capitalizing on incentives and trends that have been driving income inequality for decades. One of Silicon Valley’s greatest innovations is rebranding the priorities of the rich as something fresh, even revolutionary.
At one point, Wiener talks to a guest at a party in San Francisco, who gushes about the blog of a libertarian economist. Wiener was not impressed. “Most of his ideas were not new,” she wrote, “we had simply, as a culture, moved past them already.”
“You have to take it from them.”
Now, however, the spell is breaking. Young people are smart; they realize that Facebook and Palantir aren’t the places to make positive change in the world.
So how to move forward? Some of the speakers at the CES labor summit called for innovation, in education and how unions organize. For others, it was a matter of pushing tried-and-true methods harder than before.
“Who is going to prosper from technology?” asked D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE!, a labor union that represents hotel, gaming, and food service workers, among others, during the panel. “It’s not going to be workers until we rip it out of the hands of the boss. That might sound old school, but they never give it up. You have to take it from them.”
On the CES showroom floor, sunny optimism was still the flavor of the day. I was sold everything from crypto watchfaces to artificial humans as the bright future of civilization.
Tech companies small and large will hold onto the idea that they are exceptional, because it’s flattering and profitable. They are not homogenous; neither are the problems they fix and cause, and the solutions to those problems. But it’s clear they won’t change, at least in any meaningful way, unless they face public pressure. What happened at CES was a start. Uncanny Valley helps. We can only hope that the tech industry is listening.