The Empty Promises of the Tech Industry: a review of Uncanny Valley

By Amy Walters | 19 Oct 20
Photo by David Skyrius from Pexels

Uncanny Valley

Anna Weiner

Harper Collins

A few years ago, ‘innovation’ became a government buzz word. We were told that ordinary citizens, our employers and our educators needed to ‘pivot’ to embrace the potential of a looming digital future. Children needed to be taught coding. Press conferences were called so that words such as ‘productivity,’ ‘efficiency’ and ‘disruption’ could generate soundbites. We needed to prepare ourselves for the jobs of the future before we even knew what those jobs would be.

In 2015, the Turnbull government released an Innovation and Science Agenda, which emphasised connections between science and industry to increase the focus on commercialisation of research. The year before, I had moved across the country – exchanging, in the process, the plains of Perth and its high-vis values for the eucalyptus-shaded campus of ANU – where I was embarking on postgraduate study. I knew a master’s degree in the social sciences would not make me more attractive to employers, but being ’employable’ was not my aim. I was clinging to my values, pursuing my dreams. The release of that Agenda only made my future look increasingly grim.

I was twenty-five, the same age as Anna Weiner, the author of Uncanny Valley, was when she abandoned her job as an assistant at a New York literary agency to enter the tech industry in California. She had the same questions I had; would I always be broke, employed on temporary contracts, living in dysfunctional share houses and exploited by landlords? When was my life actually going to start? 

A sociology major and arts enthusiast, Wiener chose to work in the publishing industry following college because it was a way to be close to her passions. Three years later, with no opportunity for career progression in sight, Wiener was tired of a culture that regarded “low pay a rite of passage, rather than systemic exploitation.” Wanting her life “to pick up momentum [and] go faster,” she joined the tech industry.

Initially, Wiener worked for three months at an e-book start-up; when this didn’t work out, she headed west to San Francisco and landed a customer support role at an analytics start-up. After a year, she moved to an open-source company, which also provided customer support. Becoming further and further embedded in the ‘ecosystem,’ Wiener made new friends and connections, acquired an ethically-minded boyfriend who also worked in the industry, changed the way she dressed and started taking Vitamin B supplements. Her eventual disenchantment with tech comes as no surprise, but it is her lucid engagement with the structural inequalities and forces that led her to the industry, and which are in turn perpetuated by it, that makes this book valuable.

The concept of the uncanny was popularised by Freud, and refers, at its most literal level, to a home that has become unhomely. The doppelganger is a key trope of the uncanny; if you spot a close friend in the distance, only to realise as you approach them that it is actually someone else, you will experience that characteristic prickly feeling at the back of your neck. This is the uncanny.

The term ‘uncanny valley’ refers to a graph that researchers have produced of human subjects’ emotional responses to lifelike robots. Up to a certain point, subjects respond positively too artificially intelligent mannequins but develop a sense of unease when they pass a certain threshold of verisimilitude. Past this point, subjects can regain their positive feelings towards the mannequin; the dip in their emotional response is referred to as the uncanny valley.

Weiner invokes the term to describe the tech industry’s tendency to hollow out everything it touches. Her deadpan prose mirrors the emptiness of her new reality. Though the mission of start-ups is to be unique, they end up being generic. Wiener doesn’t name any of these platforms, instead referring to them more generically, such as “a microblogging platform that helped [people] feel close to celebrities and other strangers they’d loathe in real life.” She describes an industry that is “trapped in nostalgia for its own mythology,” and lets readers in on the “running joke that the tech industry was simply reinventing commodities and services that already existed.”

Periodically, for example, start-ups would return to ‘first principles,’ which notionally consists of examining a system and its constituent parts then redesigning it. In tech, however, this process is often a “long and tedious process of returning to the original format.” Ultimately, Wiener realises that:

“the mark of a … true entrepreneurial spirit, was creating the job that you wanted and making it look indispensable, even if it is institutionally unnecessary.”

This homogenising effect is also transforming San Francisco and surrounding areas. Wiener calls out the blatant hypocrisy of the ‘ecosystem,’ the term the industry uses to refer to its tentacular reach into tertiary education, government, healthcare, property development and urban design. Those in the bubble are blind to the moral and structural ramifications of their work; as the newly rich move into property development, gentrification rapidly accelerates, further marginalising the homeless and endangering rent-controlled accommodation for those not on hefty salaries. As Wiener notes, “technologists’ excitement about urbanism wasn’t just an enthusiasm for cities,” but “phase one of settling into newfound political power.”

A central myth of the industry is that anyone can pursue their own start-up; its figureheads are college dropouts who, having taught themselves to code, become millionaires in their twenties. Despite a culture that prides itself on being egalitarian, many start-ups are intensely hierarchical, with status defined by chronology (for example, being the fifth or tenth hire is more prestigious than being the fiftieth), and how much equity an employee is offered. Discourse around technology is dominated by its purported mission to make life easier, but on their blogs venture capitalists denigrate the notion of work-life balance and extoll the virtues of working eighty-hour weeks. Wiener notes the irony:

“[r]esearch showed little correlation between productivity and extended working hours, but the tech industry thrived on its own exceptionalism; the data did not apply to us.”

Your chances of developing a successful start-up are also drastically higher if you are male. In her book Brotopia, journalist Emily Chang points out that women-led start-ups garner only two per cent of venture capital funding. This unwelcoming culture is reflected in entrenched misogyny. Wiener makes numerous references to start-ups that have been engulfed in sexual harassment scandals and also experiences harassment and misogyny firsthand. While male employees are compensated for taking on extra duties, she is requested to do so out of love. Attracting (mostly male) talent is a priority; building a culture in which workplace grievances can be effectively managed is not.

The influence of the tech industry is now so great that we are all implicated whether we like it or not. The buzz words of tech have made it into everyday parlance – in my government day job I often hear the words ‘pivot’ and ‘innovation’ bandied about, usually in an attempt by management to create hype about us addressing problems that we should be addressing in the normal course of our work. Most of us use the platforms and apps that the industry is famous for: Facebook, Google, Airbnb, Uber.

As Anna Krien has recently documented in The Monthly, the Australian public education system has developed a questionable alliance with the tech industry, which has accelerated since the COVID-19 pandemic. This is despite a paucity of evidence on the positive effects of technology on learning; Krien encounters instances where children sitting in a classroom surfing the internet qualifies as education.

Back in Silicon Valley, there are more egregious examples of the industry’s puffery, such as Theranos, a medical start-up founded by Stanford drop-out Elizabeth Holmes, the downfall of whom is documented by journalist John Carreyrou in his book Bad Blood. Holmes attracted $1 billion of investors’ money on the promise of revolutionising blood testing, despite knowing that the technology used by her company was not fit for purpose. She is now awaiting trial for fraud. This is what makes Silicon Valley the Uncanny Valley: from a distance, it is full of promise, and up close it is full of hot air.