A Trip Down The Uncanny Valley

Thought piece on Anna Wiener’s memoir Uncanny Valley — a great read for anybody who lives, or wants to live in San Francisco. This book will make you think, learn, and relearn various aspects about the Silicon Valley, and the tech and startup ecosystem.

I recently finished reading Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener and can I say how absolutely mesmerizing it was? Wiener moved from the East Coast to San Francisco, from the publishing world to the tech industry, from a traditional company to a ‘startup’. The book is about the journey and perspective of a complete newcomer experiencing Silicon Valley and the tech ecosystem.

I lived in San Francisco for a little over three years, ran a tech startup, and mingled with many others. Reading the Uncanny Valley was like taking a trip down memory lane. I was reminded why I fell in love with the place and why others don’t at all. It is a well written book with a raw, passive and subtle banter which is extremely thought-provoking if you have as much to relate to as I did.

People say the best kinds of books are the ones you find hard to put down. I think the best ones are those that make you pause, put the book down, and ponder a little more before picking it back again.

Following Wiener’s journey as she adjusts in this foreign, and a little bizarre, world is riveting. However, as the story progresses, so do the judgements and jabs. If you are familiar with the ‘Valley Culture’, you are probably aware of the many extremes, disparities, and quirks it has to offer. While the Silicon Valley has many upsides, there’s much that is frowned upon. I do tend to take the bitterness a bit personally, I’m not too sure why. The concept of ‘black and white’ has made sense to me only when things are truly binary, i.e. inside a computer. We live in a relatively subjective world. Every person, thing, or concept has pros, cons, and repercussions. One cannot enjoy a pizza and not put on the fat too. One cannot be part of the Valley’s driven and innovative culture and not experience the cut-throat and competitive nature alongside.

It’s all about what you want, want more of, or absolutely don’t want at all if that makes any sense. I personally enjoyed the drive, innovation, the can-do attitude, and hustle so much that I did not mind the competition and the all-consuming lifestyle. Of course, the outrageous prices, homelessness, and the quite-literally shitty streets are not preferred by anybody who wants to live there. That lifestyle is not for everyone. No place is for everyone.

Yes, Silicon Valley is quite a substantive bubble. Everything is inflated. Before the tech industry took over, it was a place loved and valued by artists, creatives, and the free spirited, and because the latter quite sadly but frankly don’t make enough to keep up with the inflation, they’re being forced to survive instead of thrive and be free to create. And oh, don’t get me wrong, even the tech is quite the bubble.

Let me take a moment to share an encounter I had with a gentleman I found myself sitting next to at a networking event back in San Francisco. Let’s call him Spencer. Spencer was in his mid-thirties and had just quit his well-paying marketing job two weeks prior to work on his startup full-time. He had just hired an engineer and was investing all of his savings to make this work.

If you know me at all, you can probably picture my gleaming eyes as a huge smile spread across my face with excitement. My second favorite thing to hear after “would you like some ice cream” is “I quit my job!”. People quitting their miserable jobs and taking a risk, a leap of faith, to pursue a dream makes my day, any day!

There I was, listening to Spencer who himself looked excited and proud. I asked what the startup was about and he pulled out his phone out of his pocket to show me the app prototype. I held Spencer’s phone in my hand and watched an animated 2D cat meow at me as the screen loaded. It was a messaging app with no keyboard, only cat emojis. I was confused. He went on to explain, “Words can be very unnecessary. These stickers of cat expressions mostly convey anything and everything you ever need to say. I love cats, so I thought I should make a messaging app with just a cat keyboard.” Still confused, I inquired if there was more to the app. Turns out, nope. The big idea Spencer quit his job for was a bunch of cat stickers on a keyboard. Absolutely perplexed, with the most genuine concern, I asked if it was too late for him to get his job back.

Going back to my original thought, yes Silicon Valley is inflated in every sense of the word. It is full of of “Spencers” jumping on the startup bandwagon just for the heck of it. It is fairly aggravating to say the least.. but hey, who are you and I to judge?

I commend Wiener’s writing style wherein her skeptical view of the Valley presents itself in an unbiased manner that prompts one to pause, speculate, and unearth new realizations. Is it all elitist? Why are the rich so rich and the poor so poor? How is this all fair? Why does capitalism exist? Is Silicon Valley the Valley that Ayn Rand’s John Galt created? Was it resented because some weren’t hip enough to make the cut? Is it partly because there’s too much money in the Valley than seems fair? Well, let’s take a look around. It is those tech startups driving the world we live in today. If there was ever a doubt, the pandemic should have made much of it clear.

My point is not to bash the non-West Coasters (I live in the Mid-West myself now). Uncanny Valley just made me think, and rethink, quite a few aspects of the Silicon Valley, its ecosystem, my journey and the view on it all. It is fascinating that some things certain people find atrocious are also the very things some others find equally admirable.

It’s uncanny how the world works in mysterious ways, eh?



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Rumaisa Mughal

Design Strategist | Anime Fanatic — People & Stories Make My Day!