Brow Beat

A Complete Guide to the Handful of Proper Nouns Anna Wiener Uses in Uncanny Valley

Photo illustration of the book cover (A woman's head with the title superimposed over the eyes) with various company logos.
Photo illustration by Slate.

One of the first things you notice about Anna Wiener’s Silicon Valley memoir Uncanny Valley is the author’s elegant elision. Brands, names of apps, titles of movies—Wiener tends to avoid proper nouns. Instead, she describes them: Amazon becomes “an online superstore that had gotten its start in the nineties by selling books on the World Wide Web.” Facebook is “a social network everyone said they hated but no one could stop logging in to.”

It’s a decision that was perhaps birthed in the NDAs Wiener surely had to sign at the three technology companies where she worked. It’s not as if Wiener hides those company’s identities, exactly. I was able to identify two based on their descriptions: Oyster (“an e-reading app for mobile phones that operated on a subscription model”) and GitHub (a company that operated “a public platform with millions of open-source software projects, which anyone could contribute to or download for free”); it took a more tech-savvy co-worker to peg the “analytics startup—just four years old, founded by college dropouts” as Optimizely. (Update, Jan. 8, 2020, at 1:29 p.m.: A reader on Twitter, on the other hand, makes a good case that it was actually Mixpanel.) But if you’re already constrained in what you can say about the primary settings of your memoir, it’s a clever move to coyly soft-focus on the rest of the world, too.

The result is a book that reads as if its audience is not me or you but readers of the distant future; in this respect it reminds me of Choire Sicha’s Very Recent History, a nonfiction book written as if for aliens from outer space. (“Airplanes were like long air cars that flew fast in the sky, and you could buy a seat on one to travel to other cities and countries, or, if you were really outlandishly rich, you could buy your own airplane.”) In Wiener’s case, sometimes the tactic is perfectly and pristinely alienating, creating the uncanniness of the book’s title—as when her team watches a movie that is not named as The Matrix but in which “two men dressed like school shooters flapped around a dystopian universe.” Sometimes the quasi-curiosity gaps in her prose made me roll my eyes, as when Wiener writes “a renowned public university in Palo Alto that was largely considered a feeder for the tech industry” when it would have been just fine to write “Stanford.”

But some proper names do make it through the matrix. Place names, yes—neighborhoods in San Francisco, for example. Wiener employs the trademarked names for a number of whimsical products often seen in Silicon Valley offices: RipStiks, Ping-Pong, Hula-Hoops, Rollerblades. Writers and thinkers are specified, especially ones identifiable by a single name: Hemingway, Chekhov, Dickens, Plato, Milton, Galileo, Jefferson, Foucault, Le Corbusier. Jane Jacobs gets both her names; Slavoj Žižek goes hilariously unnamed; instead he’s “a Slovenian philosopher responsible for reintroducing Marxism to a certain subset of my generation.” Musicians and artists get to be named: Damien Hirst, Arthur Russell, Karen Dalton, Michael Jackson. Some specific works, unlike The Matrix, are apparently universal enough to pass muster: The Thinker, Candide, The Artist’s Way, Feminism Is for Everybody, Soul Train. Other books are named seemingly because the power of what they say about those who carry them around overcomes Wiener’s conceit: Are Prisons Obsolete?, The Power Broker, Season of the Witch.

Wiener seems to have wrestled with exactly how and when to employ the technique, judging from substantial edits she made to the memoir between the pre-publication galleys reviewers were sent in the fall and the final published version. Feminism Is for Everybody replaced a more general mention of the book’s author, bell hooks. Wiener cut a reference to the Rebel Alliance and the Empire—one that Wiener herself, apparently not a Star Wars fan, admitted she had to look up. One reference to a walnut farm owned by the son of a “notorious public servant” who had led the country into war led me to 10 minutes of Googling “kissinger son walnut” and “rumsfeld farm sacramento”; Wiener cut the paragraph entirely.

It’s difficult, after all, to carefully cultivate a tone this specific throughout an entire book. Given that the sentences in many contemporary memoirs feel unconsidered, free of style entirely, Wiener’s choice is a welcome one. Late in Uncanny Valley, Wiener seems to make a specific argument about her adventures in elision. She writes about wrenching herself away from her computer to read something real, but then notes that

Contemporary literature offered no respite: I would find prose cluttered with data points, tenuous historical connections, detail so finely tuned it could only have been extracted from a feverish night of search-engine queries. Aphorisms were in; authors were wired. I would pick up books that had been heavily documented on social media, only to find that the books themselves had a curatorial effect: beautiful descriptions of little substance, arranged in elegant vignettes—gestural text, the equivalent of a rumpled linen bedsheet or a bunch of dahlias placed just so.

Oh, I would think, turning the page. This author is addicted to the internet, too.

While I was reading, Wiener’s bold stylistic gambit often had the effect on me that I think she wanted, of somehow making me feel as if I was reading a timeless, universal book about an extremely specific time and place. I could, for pages at a time, turn my internet brain off and fall into the valley Wiener was mapping with such clarity. But sometimes, her writing had the opposite effect, as a description was so familiar, so un-uncanny, that it made me question just why she’d spent so much literary energy on the conceit—as in that Stanford reference, or in the late-in-the-game allusion to a presidential candidate “who once played the part of a successful businessman on reality television.” Or else, as with the walnuts, a reference led me on a wild-goose chase to ferret out what the hell she was talking about. I spent forever trying to uncover the name of Wiener’s CEO friend who became a billionaire while at dinner with her, before I simply found him in the book’s acknowledgments. This fragmentation of my attention seems an unintended but potent testament to the internet’s epochal power, in many ways the real subject of this unnerving memoir.