Startups have become the epitome of innovation, technological progress, new work culture, and quick scaling of game-changing solutions on the market. And what does this world look like from the inside? In the “Uncanny Valley,” Anna Wiener unmasks the uncontrolled ambitions of young companies, along with their struggle for domination and influence coupled with recklessness.
Big money as a breeding ground for pathologies
Usually, technology has nothing to do with a mission to change the world for the better. It’s just pure business, admits Anna Wiener. In her best selling book, she documents personal experiences from Silicon Valley. As an insightful observer, she presents the world of small tech with its desire to become as soon as possible big.
Pictures of everyday life in San Francisco, descriptions of convos with colleagues and the boss, shortsighted management strategies, and subsequent stages in the development of high-tech companies create an authentic picture of Silicon Valley, which has grown wealthy thanks to the promises of a better future and ideals that turn out to be only the fuel for uncompromising development.
In offices that look like anything but offices, everything seems to be progressive, democratic, and simply better than what traditional companies have to offer.
In this culture of unbridled appetite for success, decisions are driven by particularistic interests, and business ethics are stretched to the limit. “I understood my blind faith in ambitious, aggressive, arrogant young men from America’s soft suburbs as a personal pathology, but it wasn’t personal at all. It had become a global affliction”, says Anna Wiener while skilfully showing the transition of the technology industry from being the world savior to becoming a windfall profit machine with no accountability whatsoever. From the perspective of a bystander, it is a very subtle, hardly perceptible process. Besides, the author is not into preaching. She herself is a part of Silicon Valley and its beneficiary. After all, every day she sees homeless people on the streets — those who have come there along with a wave of other young people looking for a better future. Her friends are ordinary people with their dreams and fears, coming from different parts of the world. Over time, they have just become part of the ecosystem that drives change with no sentiments interfering. When you immerse yourself in this world, plunging into the ocean of ever-increasing salaries, you quickly bargain your ideals away for a comfortable life.
Dreams vs. merciless forces of the economy
Anna is 25 years old and she feels stuck. Her dream job in a book publishing house is a disappointment. At the same time, the fast-growing digital economy lures with new opportunities and the possibility to co-create a better tomorrow for everybody.
If you enter the game, there is no other option than to follow its rules.
So she moves from New York to San Francisco and accidentally finds a job in a startup that develops Big Data solutions. For a non-scientific mind, a person not having the faintest idea about new technologies, this reality is almost surreal. On the one hand, it is a laid back business environment, devoid of conservative organizational structures and reporting lines, but on the other hand, it is a reality made up of domineering novice entrepreneurs, desperate for progress and greedy for increasing amounts of investor funding. In offices that look like anything but offices, located in alternative districts, everything seems to be progressive, democratic, and simply better than what traditional companies have to offer. Everything but one thing: the rules of the business game. In the struggle for power, there is no room for sustainable development, equality, honesty, or the transparent and ethical use of data.
Startups, however, are not like that by definition. They only become like that when fresh idealism and healthy ambitions get crushed by the merciless forces of common economic processes. If you enter the game, there is no other option than to follow its rules. The “Uncanny Valley” has two faces. It is a comfortable place to live for the beneficiaries of new technologies, but at the same time ceases to be home to those who find themselves on the streets because of rapidly rising rents. Don’t the globally exported innovations “made in Silicon Valley” turn into an alien force that introduces a new order on a worldwide scale?
Every success casts a long shadow
In Anna Wiener’s memoirs, we can find a deep sentimental attachment to social change and a better, democratic future, both introduced through the back door with the use of new technologies. But technologies only replicate the values that their creators represent.
Today’s world needs a more sustainable and responsible development of technology.
Anna Wiener raises the curtain, which used to hide an apparently perfect world of high-tech startups, and by this, she means well, as she shows who is now becoming the designer of the future. In the “Uncanny Valley,” some will find a carefree picture of Millenials, 20- and 30-year-olds who both use and create technological innovations. Others will find the criticism of male domination in Silicon Valley — a motif that runs through all of the chapters “I liked men — I had a brother. I had a boyfriend. But men were everywhere: the customers, my teammates, my boss, his boss. I was always fixing things for them, tiptoeing around their vanities, cheering them up. Affirming, dodging, confiding, collaborating. Advocating for their career advancement; ordering them pizza. My job had placed me, a self-identified feminist, in a position of ceaseless, professionalized deference to the male ego”, criticizes Wiener.
In the author’s opinion, however, the world of startups is neither black nor white. Her diaries do not reveal any big frauds or scandals either. What we will find in the book, though, are bits and pieces of everyday life and the message that there is something spooky lurking behind all great successes. And this ambiguity requires the reader to be extremely creative in selecting the good from the bad. Indeed, today’s world needs a more sustainable and responsible development of technology (slow technology) rather than fast innovations that can be scaled instantly on the market (fast technology).
Originally published at https://aboutdigitalhealth.com/2020/09/11/memoirs-of-digital-dystopia/