In early 2020, Anna Weiner released Uncanny Valley, a memoir about her experience working in the tech industry in her 20s. Wiener turns an empathetic but critical eye on an industry that’s found itself deep in ethical quandaries in the past few years. She doesn’t mention any companies or moguls by name. Instead, she documents a culture of young people, mostly men, who come to Silicon Valley enraptured with founder mythology and determined to change the world. The culture they built in the middle of the last decade was hellbent on changing the world, but often insular and out of touch. That sense was only solidified in 2016 with Trump’s election, where Wiener’s book concludes. “People in tech really felt like, without reserve, that they were on the right side of history,” Wiener told me. “It was a horrifying shock to know that maybe they weren't, and that they weren't received by the culture at large with positivity and optimism and welcome.”
Of course, a lot has happened since the conclusion of Wiener’s book, and since it released to major acclaim in January. So I called to hear how self-isolation has impacted Wiener, who’s been home in San Francisco, and the world she writes about so well.
GQ: How’s self-isolation in San Francisco going? What do you make of Big Tech’s response to COVID-19?
Anna Wiener: It’s a strange time to be in San Francisco, but it’s a strange time to be anywhere. A lot of tech companies were early in their response to COVID-19. There are lots of conversations around what it means to be remote, and what it means when Facebook says it won’t require anyone to return to the office. There’s a lot of chatter about whether people will leave the Bay Area. In tech, every crisis is an opportunity, so I think people are trying to turn this into a way to get excited about the future of work.
Any thoughts on last week’s congressional hearing with the four big tech CEOs?
I suppose my takeaway from the hearing was that it was heavy on spectacle, but at least seemed to gesture toward the possibility of accountability down the line.
Uncanny Valley covers the gold rush to Silicon Valley in the last decade. Do you think we’re past that period?
I think something ended in late 2016. I wouldn't say that the gold rush part of it ended. I think we're still in a gold rush phase, but I do feel like some chapter came to a close, and we're still seeing what's coming next. It's not about money. I think the money is there and will be there for a while, at least with certain types of businesses. I think that it's more of a cultural shift.
The book ends in 2016 with pessimism and criticism starting to mount against the tech industry.
Spoiler alert. That was a hard year for some people.
Do you think that criticism is particular to the industry, or is it a pessimism is something affecting the country more broadly?
I think the industry is experiencing the first wave of real criticism, not just on the cultural level but on an ethical level: an interrogation of the business model, the whole industry's model of venture capital, and the goal of monopoly, disruption. The end of disruption is monopoly. I think that criticism is specific to the tech industry. I don't think it's just some transference of some misdirected anger. It feels like a new thing because it is sort of a new thing.
If you look at tech coverage from 2013, it's kind of embarrassing in hindsight, because no one was questioning power or concentration of wealth or the ethical framework of this industry. The stories were about culture, like, “Everyone in this office wears wacky socks,” or “Mark Zuckerberg wears the same t-shirt to minimize the number of decisions he has to make every day.” These are interesting, to a point, but they’re not really looking at this ambition of scale and rapid growth. Is that ethical? Is the idea of a global digital community something that a hydro startup in Silicon Valley really knows how to build or should be building? It's that "change the world" rhetoric. I don't know why it's so hard for people to just be like, "I have a company and I'd like to make some money."
That attitude is a big part of the book—how important it was for employees to be “down for the cause.” Do you think that’s still the case? Is everyone still down for the cause?
That depends on the company, obviously. There's probably slightly less expectation to be down for the cause or to be totally committed to some company cult-like culture. But I also think in a lot of these companies, there's this feeling, especially with this increase in criticism, of being victimized or embattled, returning to this underdog narrative that people really love to tell about themselves, which is kind of what got us in trouble in the first place. You're not an underdog if you have $12 million in funding to start a company. You're not an underdog if you have a monopoly on search. As there's been an increase in criticism, there's been this sort of defensive crouch.
Is that sense of embattlement specific to companies that have come under criticism?
No. I feel like we're experiencing a sort of widespread crisis of accountability, not just in tech, but in general. We're experiencing a push to discredit and undermine the free press. People are very upset with the New York Times. I think there's a sentiment that the Times overstated Facebook's role in the election in 2016. There's this feeling that tech is being picked on unfairly, which you could dissect psychologically for a decade.
It seems like many of these companies have seemed to avoid moderating content altogether, because they fall back on this argument that their product is a neutral platform and it’s not their place to litigate speech.
I generally think that the neutral platform argument is disingenuous—. I think that it doesn't account for what these companies advertise to their actual customers, which is amplification and a certain degree of targeted reach.
Explain the conflict there. What’s the difference between selling reach to an advertiser and being a neutral platform? Why are those incompatible?
I just think that it provides a way for fringe ideology, propaganda, disinformation, whatever you want to call it, to be amplified and to circulate. You also have a situation where, because of targeted advertising, people get stuck in their own limited sense of reality, where the concept of truth is really flexible.
This is a problem that these companies have created because of this ambition to grow quickly and to achieve a certain scale. It manifests itself in obscene ways. We have these companies that have monopolies, and their argument is you don't want a private company litigating speech, determining what's within the bounds.
I get really worked up about this, because it just feels like it's disingenuous. There's just no sense of accountability or moral framework that these companies are operating under.
Do you think the “neutral platform” argument is made in bad faith?
No. And I don't want Facebook determining the boundaries of fair and legitimate speech. But we need to start breaking the problem down. I don't really know what that looks like. But I think it's a crisis that they can't address without completely undermining their business model. That's the thing. For the most part, I think people are arguing in good faith, but I think that if they were to really address what's wrong with these platforms, the whole thing would fall apart. They're stuck. I don't envy them, but I also don't think that should let them off the hook.
Twitter flagged some of Trump’s tweets for the first time this year. Is that a meaningful step?
To me it seems largely gestural. It’s a step, probably, in the right direction, but the content is still visible. They dropped a curtain over it and said, “Don’t look behind the curtain.” Obviously people are going to look behind the curtain. I don’t think this is the sort of thing that can be addressed on the one-to-one level. I don’t think what Jack Dorsey is saying to Donald Trump on Twitter is the sort of change we should be pushing for.
Your book talks about gender discrimination in the industry. With all the new criticism the tech industry is receiving, do you see things changing?
Maybe? No? I don't know. I haven't worked in the industry in two years, and I feel like a lot of the criticism has really not amplified, but intensified in the last two years. I do see a lot of bullshit about men being scared of women now, which is the laziest and most cowardly response you can have.
There are things in the industry that are sort of structural that serve to protect certain types of people. It tends to be men. I know a lot of women, and some men, but mostly women, who have signed really restrictive non-disparagement agreements upon leaving a company after being sexually harassed. That’s a decision that people have to make at that exit point where they're basically being kicked out of the company.
They are being offered a ton of money to be silent, and they don't know what their job prospects are, in part because it's a very small network. People talk. If you are seen as making any trouble, especially if you happen to have been sexually harassed by someone who's a rock star executive or some other valued reputation, your hands are tied, right? You take the money, especially if you have no other source of income or dependents. It's really taking advantage of people who are facing some uncertainty.
There's sexual harassment. That's pretty clearly defined. Then there's the sort of ingrained sexism that can manifest itself structurally, in terms of managerial personal development or career trajectories or opportunities that people offer. That is about power—and so is sexual harassment obviously—but I don't think this is a moment where anyone wants to relinquish any power. So I don't know how much traction we're going to see, but I could be wrong. I'd love for people to read it and be like, "You cynical fuck. Things have gotten so much better for women since 2018." I don't see it.
Has the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement accelerated any changes?
I think everyone is behaving as you might expect given their structural position. One of these venture firms has spun out a nonprofit fund to cultivate black entrepreneurs. It seems like a generous gesture, several million dollars, but the criticism is, if you’re actually interested in having more black founders, put them in your normal pipeline. Don’t make this part of a nonprofit venture where you’re crowdfunding. People are doing a lot of things that bolster their corporate identities, but among the rank and file employees are pushing for more significant change inside of their workplaces, as they should. A lot of what people are talking about is not new, but attention paid to it and the collective effort behind it is new. In some ways it’s the same as it was before. Nothing at these companies will change until people in power cede some of that power and actually embolden employees to affect change.
How is that change going to happen?
I’m excited about some of the collective action we’re seeing inside of tech companies. If we’re going to see change in tech it’s going to come from the bottom up. There’s been quite a bit of discussion inside of Facebook since the conversation about racial justice and police brutality started, and with respect to the way companies handled posts by people like Trump and figures on the right. That’s heartening in part because it’s incredibly hard to organize remotely. I think collective action is hard enough as is at these companies. The fact that people are engaging at a distance is really impressive to me.
Originally Appeared on GQ