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BOOK REVIEW

Examining endemic ills of tech bros in ‘Uncanny Valley’

Anna Wiener writes an absorbing, unsettling, gimlet-eyed memoir of her time working for a series of startups.
Anna Wiener writes an absorbing, unsettling, gimlet-eyed memoir of her time working for a series of startups.Ellen Weinstein for The Boston Globe

The bingo cards were handmade, hundreds of them, circulated among the audience by some renegade engineers. This happened in a place so deeply boring that I hesitate to mention it — OK, it was a convention center in Phoenix — at a conference for women in computing. And if any of that makes you want to doze off, stay with me.

Because these were women in a boys’-club field, and some of them were feeling mischievous. So as the Male Allies Plenary Panel assembled, the bingo cards got passed around. Their squares were filled not with numbers but with wait-for-it words and phrases certain to tumble from the tech execs’ mouths.

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“Mentions his mother.”

“Asserts another male executive’s heart is in the right place.”

A simple “Pipeline” — a wry nod to the claim that if enough qualified women existed, of course the tech sector would snap them right up. Why else would an industry that’s such an engine of wealth creation for its own employees, and that pays such obeisance to the ideal of meritocracy, remain so stubbornly, overwhelmingly male?

The entrenched sexism of Silicon Valley is one of several endemic ills that Anna Wiener examines at unsparingly close range in “Uncanny Valley,” her absorbing, unsettling, gimlet-eyed memoir of time served in tech. Briefly first in downtown Manhattan, then in San Francisco, she spent about five years working for a series of startups, despite being a former “sociology major with a background in literary fiction” and no particular digital skills.

It sounds, actually, like the premise for one of those gimmicky memoirs, the kind where the author upends his life to go off and do something he never would have done (and it is usually a he) if not for his fat advance on a book about that very adventure.

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But Wiener, whose circle of artsy Brooklyn friends rather surprisingly did not stage an intervention, was apparently just seeking professional traction and decent pay when, in early 2013, halfway through her 20s, she jumped industries. She left slow-moving, tradition-bound publishing, where she’d been treading water as an assistant at a literary agency, for a professional milieu where hoodie-wearing baby CEOs her own age and younger often ran the show.

It was an industry hurtling forward at thrilling speed, touting utopian values and dreamy open-mindedness even as it chanted a mantra of disruption, a word whose dystopian potential comes into focus when you consider some of its synonyms: derangement, dismemberment, disordering; breach, break, fracture.

Whether despite or because of its gospel of heedlessness — of seeking forgiveness for harm done rather than permission to do it in the first place — tech has become what Wiener calls “the scaffolding of everyday life.” In “Uncanny Valley,” she peeks behind it.

At a data analytics startup — where she and other staffers are free to peruse the finely detailed intel that their customers gather on their own users — Wiener’s job is to help stymied clients with the software. At an open-source startup that she joins shortly after its headline-grabbing sex-discrimination scandal, she addresses complaints about troll campaigns and other alarming eruptions, though she and her colleagues have no expertise in this. What to police and what to leave alone is not always clear. (“We debated what to do about code for a game in which players competed to kill Jews.”)

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We get a sense of just how much Kool-Aid Wiener has ingested from her reaction to heat maps displayed on monitors at one of her workplaces, showing by avatar where each employee is: like Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map, but not child’s play. “The heat maps felt like a violation,” she writes, noting that they tracked her to the bathroom, yet they also “almost offered a feeling of company cohesion.” A bit of a lopsided bargain, no?

“Uncanny Valley,” which takes its title from the phenomenon in which a computer-simulated human is creepily close to seeming like the real thing, catalogs various such imbalances. San Francisco’s epidemic of homelessness, for example, weighed against its boom in neomillionaires. And, of course, the ease with which we all search and chat and consume online, so much of it for free, because we’re generating vast troves of lucrative data about ourselves and our everyday movements — a tradeoff we make whether we know it or not.

Wiener, who now contributes writing about Silicon Valley to The New Yorker, still lives in San Francisco. In the book, we watch her fall in love with a gentle roboticist named Ian and make a place for herself in her adopted city, whose culture is so different from what she knew in New York.

Yet the world the tech bros are molding is the one we’re all living in.

The most valuable question Wiener asks is why we are allowing that to happen — why we have such blind faith in these “ambitious, aggressive, arrogant young men from America’s soft suburbs,” why we’re so seduced by their confidence that we assume their priorities should be our own, why we defer to them when we ought to be saying no.

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For a long time, she says, she simply assumed that they knew better. Then she woke up.

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes@gmail.com.

UNCANNY VALLEY: A Memoir

By Anna Wiener

MCD, 279 pp., $27