A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
"A definitive document of a world in transition: I won't be alone in returning to it for clarity and consolation for many years to come." --Jia Tolentino, author of Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice and a January 2020 IndieNext Pick. Named one of the Best Books of 2020 by ELLE and Good Housekeeping. An Amazon Best Book of January. One of Vogue's 22 Books to Read This Winter, The Washington Post's 10 Books to Read in January, ELLE's 12 Best Books to Read in 2020, The New York Times's 12 Books to Read in January, Esquire's 15 Best Winter Books, Paste's 10 Most Anticipated Nonfiction Books of 2020, and Entertainment Weekly's 50 Most Anticipated Books of 2020.
The prescient, page-turning account of a journey in Silicon Valley: a defining memoir of our digital age
In her mid-twenties, at the height of tech industry idealism, Anna Wiener—stuck, broke, and looking for meaning in her work, like any good millennial--left a job in book publishing for the promise of the new digital economy. She moved from New York to San Francisco, where she landed at a big-data startup in the heart of the Silicon Valley bubble: a world of surreal extravagance, dubious success, and fresh-faced entrepreneurs hell-bent on domination, glory, and, of course, progress.
Anna arrived amidst a massive cultural shift, as the tech industry rapidly transformed into a locus of wealth and power rivaling Wall Street. But amid the company ski vacations and in-office speakeasies, boyish camaraderie and ride-or-die corporate fealty, a new Silicon Valley began to emerge: one in far over its head, one that enriched itself at the expense of the idyllic future it claimed to be building.
Part coming-of-age-story, part portrait of an already-bygone era, Anna Wiener’s memoir is a rare first-person glimpse into high-flying, reckless startup culture at a time of unchecked ambition, unregulated surveillance, wild fortune, and accelerating political power. With wit, candor, and heart, Anna deftly charts the tech industry’s shift from self-appointed world savior to democracy-endangering liability, alongside a personal narrative of aspiration, ambivalence, and disillusionment.
Unsparing and incisive, Uncanny Valley is a cautionary tale, and a revelatory interrogation of a world reckoning with consequences its unwitting designers are only beginning to understand.
Hardcover, MCD × FSG, 2020read an excerpt
A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
An excerpt from Uncanny Valley
Depending on whom you ask, it was either the apex, the inflection point, or the beginning of the end for Silicon Valley’s startup scene—what cynics called a bubble, optimists called the future, and my future coworkers, high on the fumes of world-historical potential, breathlessly called the ecosystem. A social network everyone said they hated but no one could stop logging into went public at a valuation of one-hundred-odd billion dollars, its grinning founder ringing the closing bell over video chat, a death knell for affordable rent in San Francisco. Two hundred million people signed onto a microblogging platform that helped them feel close to celebrities and other strangers they’d loathe in real life. Artificial intelligence and virtual reality were coming into vogue, again. Self-driving cars were considered inevitable. Everything was moving to mobile. Everything was up in the cloud. The cloud was someone else’s computer, in an unmarked data center in the middle of Texas or Cork or Bavaria, but nobody cared. Everyone trusted it anyway.
It was a year of new optimism: the optimism of no hurdles, no limits, no bad ideas. The optimism of capital, power, and opportunity. Wherever money changed hands, enterprising technologists and MBAs were bound to follow. The word “disruption” proliferated, and everything was ripe for or vulnerable to it: sheet music, tuxedo rentals, home cooking, home buying, wedding planning, banking, shaving, credit lines, dry cleaning, the rhythm method. A website that allowed people to rent out their unused driveways raised four million dollars from elite firms on Sand Hill Road. A website taking on the kennel market—a petsitting and dog-walking app that disrupted neighborhood twelve-year-olds—raised fifty million. An app for coupon-clipping enabled an untold number of bored and curious urbanites to pay for services they never knew they needed, and for a while people were mainlining antiwrinkle toxins, taking trapeze lessons, and bleaching their assholes, just because they could do it at a discount.
It was the dawn of the era of the unicorns: startups valued, by their investors, at over a billion dollars. A prominent venture capitalist declared in the op-ed pages of an international business newspaper that software was eating the world, a claim that was subsequently cited in countless pitch decks and press releases and job listings as if it were proof of something—as if it were not just a clumsy and unpoetic metaphor, but evidence.
Outside of Silicon Valley, there seemed to be an overall resistance to taking any of it too seriously. There was a prevailing sentiment that—just like the last bubble—this, too, would eventually pass. Meanwhile, the industry expanded beyond the province of futurists and hardware enthusiasts, and settled into its new role as the scaffolding of everyday life. Not that I was aware of any of this—not that I was paying any attention at all. I didn’t even have apps on my phone. I had just turned twenty-five and was living on the edge of Brooklyn with a roommate I hardly knew, in an apartment filled with so much secondhand furniture it almost had a connection to history. I had a fragile but agreeable life: a job, as an assistant at a small literary agency in Manhattan; a smattering of beloved friends on whom I exercised my social anxiety, primarily by avoiding them.
But the corners seemed to be coming up. The wheels were coming off. I thought, every day, about applying to graduate school. My job was running its course. There was no room to grow, and after three years the voyeuristic thrill of answering someone else’s phone had worn thin. I no longer wanted to amuse myself with submissions from the slush pile, or continue filing author contracts and royalty statements in places where they did not belong, like my desk drawer. My freelance work, proofreading and copyediting manuscripts for a small press, was also waning in volume, because I had recently broken up with the editor who assigned it to me. The relationship had been fraught, but reliably consuming: the editor, several years my senior, had wanted to get married but wouldn’t stop cheating on me. These infidelities were revealed after he borrowed my laptop for a weekend and returned it without logging out of his accounts, where I read a series of romantic and brooding private messages he exchanged with a voluptuous folk singer via the social network everyone hated. That year, I hated it extra.
I was oblivious to Silicon Valley, and contentedly so. It’s not that I was a Luddite—I could point-and-click before I could read. I just never opened the business section. Like anyone else with a desk job, I spent the majority of my waking hours peering into a computer, typing and tabbing through the days, the web browser a current of digital digression running beneath my work. At home, I wasted time scrolling through the photos and errant musings of people I should have long since forgotten, and exchanged long, searching emails with friends, in which we swapped unaccredited professional and dating advice. I read the online archives of literary magazines that no longer existed, digitally window-shopped for clothing I could not afford, and created and abandoned private, aspirational blogs with names like A Meaningful Life, in the vain hope that they might push me closer to leading one. Still, it never occurred to me that I might someday become one of the people working behind the internet, because I had never considered that there were people behind the internet at all.
"Extraordinary . . . Wiener’s storytelling mode is keen and dry, her sentences spare—perfectly suited to let a steady thrum of dread emerge." --Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times"[Wiener] is here to fill out our worst-case scenarios with shrewd insight and literary detail . . . Wiener is a droll yet gentle guide . . . The real strength of Uncanny Valley comes from her careful parsing of the complex motivations and implications that fortify this new surreality at every level, from the individual body to the body politic." --Lauren Oyler, The New York Times Book Review (cover review)"Biting and funny . . . Uncanny Valley will speak to you as well as any book about millennial culture. Its humor is a proxy for the despair Wiener feels about tech culture’s predicament and her helplessness at doing anything about it . . .Uncanny Valley ought to be read by policymakers just as closely as any set of statistics." --Mark Athitakis, Los Angeles Times "[Uncanny Valley] defamiliarize[s] us with the Internet as we now know it, reminding us of the human desires and ambitions that have shaped its evolution . . . Wiener’s book is studded with sharp assessments." --Sophia Nguyen, The Washington Post "[Wiener] was seen as dispensable; her memoir is anything but. If Silicon Valley had seen her potential, she would not have become one of the finest, most assured writers about the internet today. I read it in one sitting, overcome with the eerie sensation that my own life was being explained to me." --Kaitlin Phillips, Bookforum "[An] excellent memoir . . . what makes Uncanny Valley so valuable is the way it humanizes the tech industry without letting it off the hook. The book allows us to see the way that flawed technology is made and marketed." --Charlie Warzel, The New York Times Privacy Project"Uncanny Valley is a different sort of Silicon Valley narrative, a literary-minded outsider’s insider account of an insulated world that isn’t as insular or distinctive as it and we assume . . . Through [Wiener's] story, we begin to perceive how much tech owes its power, and the problems that come with it, to contented ignorance." --Ismail Muhammad, The Atlantic "Wiener has the two talents that every memoir needs: A devastating eye for detail . . . and the ability to map her experience onto a cultural shift much larger than herself . . . I deadened my phone and laptop while reading this so I could give it my Undivided Attention. I’m recommending not only the book but also this reading method." --Molly Young, Vulture "Hyper-self-aware . . . Wiener’s book transcends the model of a tech-work memoir . . .Throughout the memoir, Wiener sustains a piercing tone of crisp, arch observation. It’s revelatory to see her navigate the subjects one generally reads about in newspaper headlines, about sexism at Google or the unregulated forums behind events such as Pizzagate." --Antonia Hitchens, San Francisco Chronicle"Equal parts enchanting and subversive . . . [Wiener's] account of living inside the Bay Area bubble reads like HBO's Silicon Valley filtered through Renata Adler; Wiener is a trenchant cultural cartographer, mapping out a foggy world whose ruling class is fueled by empty scripts: 'People were saying nothing, and saying it all the tine.' The book's author does the very opposite." --Lauren Mechling, Vogue "Beautifully observed . . . Someone like Wiener makes for a good spy in the house of tech . . . Wiener excels at . . . the texture of life for people in a particular and pivotal time and place." --Laura Miller, Slate"An achingly relatable and sharply focused firsthand account . . .the literary texture of Wiener’s narrative makes it particularly valuable as a primary document of this moment. Her voice, alternating between cool and detached and impassioned and earnest, boasts an observational precision that is devastating. It is whip smart and searingly funny, too . . . a feat." --Kevin Lozano, The Nation"[A] hyper-detailed, thoroughly engrossing memoir . . . At the intersection of exploitative labor, entitled men, and ungodly amounts of money, Wiener bears witness to the fearsome future as it unfolds." --Adrienne Westenfeld, Esquire"Absorbing, unsettling, gimlet-eyed." --Laura Collins-Hughes, Boston Globe"Incisive . . . inherently timely, [Uncanny Valley] aims for timelessness and achieves it. Its style is of a part with the dry, affectless writing of the period that Wiener seeks to capture but goes beyond the Sally Rooney-Tao Lin axis to deliver something sharper and more complete . . . I tore through Uncanny Valley, riveted by the wit and precision of Wiener’s observations." --Jennifer Schaffer, The Baffler "The quality of Weiner’s on-the-ground observations, coupled with acuity she brings to understanding the psychology at work, makes the book illuminating on a page-by-page basis . . . [Wiener's] empathy makes the portrait all the more damning . . . Weiner’s book isn’t a warning so much as a lament over the damage done and the damage still to come." --John Warner, Chicago Tribune"Wiener shines when she turns her incisive observations on the many entitled men running amok in Silicon Valley ... an engaging summary of every terrible thing you’ve heard about start-ups." --Ines Bellina, The A.V. Club"Eschewing the caffeinated, self-referential keenness that defined the decade’s online writing, Wiener is cerebral and diagnostic in her observance of escalating corporate surveillance." --Pete Tosiello, The Paris Review"A neat time lapse of the past seven years in Silicon Valley ... The author is a gifted writer and presents a clear-eyed account of her own limitations as a tech employee while offering cultural analysis of the sector . . . Uncanny Valley is an artful contribution to the war on tech exceptionalism." --Elaine Moore, Financial Times "[Wiener] carefully, wryly observes everyday life in the Valley . . . a beautifully relatable and tender account." --Angela Saini, The Observer (London)"A thought-provoking, personal, and often surprisingly poetic critique of the far-reaching influence of the tech world . . . Wiener’s narrative is by turns funny, informative, and a perfect time capsule of a rapidly changing city." --Royal Young, Interview"Nothing short of crucial, a memoir that has crystalized the essential ingredients of what made the digital economy what it is." --Michael Seidlinger, GARAGE"Weiner’s book feels destined to be a key and lasting portrait of a crucial moment in our relationship with tech culture: a perfect blend of humor, shrewd insight, and earnestness." --Stephen Sparks, Lit Hub"Equal parts bildungsroman and insider report, this book reveals not just excesses of the tech-startup landscape, but also the Faustian bargains and hidden political agendas embedded in the so-called “inspiration culture” underlying a too-powerful industry. A funny, highly informative, and terrifying read." --Kirkus (starred review)"[Wiener] is an extremely gifted writer and cultural critic. Uncanny Valley may be a defining memoir of the 2020s, and it’s one that will send a massive chill down your spine." --BookPage (starred review) "[An] insider-y debut memoir that sharply critiques start-up culture and the tech industry . . . Wiener is an entertaining writer, and those interested in a behind-the-scenes look at life in Silicon Valley will want to take a look." --Publishers Weekly"A compelling takedown of the pitfalls of start-up culture, from sexism to the lack of guardrails,Uncanny Valley highlights the maniacal optimism of the twentysomethings behind the screens and the pitfalls of the culture they are building.” --Booklist "I've never read anything like Uncanny Valley, which is both a searching bird's-eye study of an industry and a generation, as well as an intimate, microscopic portrait of ambition and hope and dread. Anna Wiener writes about the promise and the decay of Silicon Valley with the impossibly pleasurable combination of a precise, razored intellect and a soft, incandescent heart. Her memoir is diagnostic and exhilarating, a definitive document of a world in transition: I won't be alone in returning to it for clarity and consolation for many years to come."
Jia Tolentino, author of Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion "Uncanny Valley is a generation-defining account of the amoral late-capitalist tech landscape we are fatally enmeshed in. With grace and humor, Anna Wiener shows us the misogyny, avarice, and optimistic self-delusion of our cultural moment, wrapped up in the gripping story of a young woman navigating the blurred boundaries of a seductive world. Insightful, compelling and urgent."
"Uncanny Valley is a sentimental education for our accelerated times, a memoir so good it will make you slow down. Is it too much to say that every sculpted page will be studied by future generations? (No.) Anna Wiener is the Joan Didion of start-up culture and then some."
Ed Park, author of Personal Days
"Uncanny Valley is a generation-defining account of the amoral late-capitalist tech landscape we are fatally enmeshed in. With grace and humor, Anna Wiener shows us the misogyny, avarice, and optimistic self-delusion of our cultural moment, wrapped up in the gripping story of a young woman navigating the blurred boundaries of a seductive world. Insightful, compelling and urgent."
Stephanie Danler, author of Sweetbitter: A Novel
"Uncanny Valley is an addictive combination of coming-of-age story, journalistic memoir, and brilliant social critique. This is a stunningly good book. I loved it.”
Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love
"I've never read anything like Uncanny Valley, which is both a searching bird's-eye study of an industry and a generation, as well as an intimate, microscopic portrait of ambition and hope and dread. This memoir is diagnostic and exhilarating, a definitive document of a world in transition: I won't be alone in returning to it for clarity and consolation for many years to come."
Jia Tolentino, author of Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion