Anyone who’s ever felt naked without their smartphone within reach has to have sensed that there’s something sick about our digital lives, and that it’s infected our analog ones. That wrongness feels so ephemeral and inescapable that it can be hard to think about clearly. Tech criticism, in its drive to take a systemic view of the industry’s problems, can feel impersonal or fatalistic. Now writers are trying a different way in: “Uncanny Valley” and Joanne McNeil’s “Lurking: How a Person Became a User” defamiliarize us with the Internet as we now know it, reminding us of the human desires and ambitions that have shaped its evolution.
In one example of Wiener’s parlance, Airbnb is only referred to as “the home-sharing platform.” This cuts to the core of the thing, reminding us of the company’s fundamental function. It allows us to forget the promises of marketing (homegrown local experiences, anywhere in the world!) and all the problems that have since emerged (privacy issues, rising rents). But when she mentioned “a renowned private university in Palo Alto,” I started wondering whether these elisions were just coy. The move felt evasive, or somehow like cheating. Editors and audiences typically demand that writers name names, provide hyperlinks, fill the pages with rich, indexable detail. Declining to identify “the monopolistic online superstore” is not a trick you can get away with in most places. (For instance, here I’m required to disclose that the superstore’s founder owns The Washington Post, which employs me.) Reading “Uncanny Valley” felt like getting put on airplane mode, blocked from making relevant connections.
Around these gaps, Wiener’s book is studded with sharp assessments. In San Francisco’s high-end restaurant scene, she notes, “the food was demented. . . . Food that was social media famous. Food that wanted to be.” The tech denizens wear pseudo-utilitarian garments, like the knitted, machine-washable shoes that she deems “a monument to the end of sensuousness” (and buys). She is similarly clear-eyed about her role in customer support and how she is regarded by her engineer co-workers: “We bloated payroll; we diluted lunchtime conversation; we created process and bureaucracy.”
Conscious of the psychological effects of being constantly immersed in the Internet, she turns to books and magazines, but finds no mental relief. Contemporary literature has taken on social media’s “curatorial affect: 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.” This is a great, cutting observation, not least because it risks self-indictment: Squint a little, and it could easily describe “Uncanny Valley.”
But this book does have an arc, tracing Wiener’s coming-of-age in parallel with the tech industry’s heedless growth, hand-fed by venture capital. Wiener has a gift for channeling Silicon Valley’s unsettling idea of perfection and for reminding us of its allure. She gets the appeal of building something “so beautiful, so necessary, so well designed that it insinuated itself into people’s lives without external pressures,” and of creating an existence “freed of decision-making, the unnecessary friction of human behavior.” The man-children who hire her really believe they can change the world by selling e-books, analyzing data, offering a code-sharing service.
In the meantime, in their immediate radius, they create a work culture that infantilizes its participants. The commuters on company buses resemble “children trying not to get lost in a mall.” Office fridges stocked with string cheese make it seem like employees are either “training for a marathon or having an after-school snack.” Joining management has the thrill of “skipping a grade, skipping three.”
But they’re not playing in a sandbox. When Wiener first encounters the malcontents at the fringes of the Internet, no one knows how seriously to take their threatening behavior. On the platform where she works assisting customers, users have compiled the personal information of women in the gaming industry as part of a harassment campaign. (We know it, of course, as GamerGate.) Wiener’s co-workers take down the repository and dismiss the culprits as “not worth any more time, not worth our engagement,” even as death threats deluge their inboxes. Seventy pages later, far-right commentators bombard an employee who speaks about diversity in tech. Thirty pages after that, other users claim to be exposing a sex-trafficking ring operating out of a pizzeria in the nation’s capital.
We don’t need proper nouns to know how this plays out: In 2016, a “real estate developer who had once played the part of a successful businessman on reality television” wins the presidency. Bizarrely, and predictably, the tech people offer tech fixes for our shredded civic fabric: “a Marshall Plan of rationality,” say, or “crowdfunding private planes to fly over red counties and drop leaflets.” Wiener exercises her stock options and quits.
In the end, this memoir is less about how its narrator lost her idealism (if she had much to begin with) than about how she overcame her inertia. Eventually, Wiener writes, her ambivalence becomes unhappiness; her ethical misgivings and psychological disquiet grow too loud to ignore. Presumably, so do her literary ambitions — though the book underplays that subplot. (In the period chronicled in “Uncanny Valley,” Wiener contributed to outlets including the New Republic and the Paris Review daily; they, too, go unnamed.) Seen from that angle, “Uncanny Valley” is a bildungsroman that doubles as a comedy of remarriage: Years after leaving it, Wiener gets back together with the literary world, publishing an essay about this West Coast misadventure in n+1, landing a gig with the New Yorker and producing this very book.
In “Lurking,” the tech writer Joanne McNeil also excavates recent history to take us back to a time when our digital lives didn’t feel so predetermined. It’s a cheerfully digressive book, organized into chapters that each tackle some fundamental property of the Internet. The first chapter, “Search,” traces the evolution of Google and people’s relationship to inquiry. “Anonymity” revisits the early groups that homesteaded in cyberspace, while “Visibility” and “Community” take us through the sites (Friendster, Myspace, Facebook) that successively colonized it. “Sharing” meditates on the circulation of images and language. “Clash” presents a brief history of online activism. “Accountability” explores how well-structured sites might contain bad actors. To grasp the Internet we know today, we have to remember the freer, weirder, more innocent pseudonymity that thrived on the World Wide Web before major tech companies swallowed it whole.
At its best, “Lurking” vividly evokes how it felt to inhabit digital spaces for the first time, to have a “home in the suburbs of the internet” via an AOL account or to join a social network precisely because “it didn’t matter” — when filling out a profile was an extracurricular lark rather than a social prerequisite. McNeil has a knack for metaphor: Before smartphones, she explains, “the internet had a station . . . like a shoe box full of recipes on a countertop, like the kitchen itself.” Then these devices became so integrated into daily life that we pick them up reflexively, and regard them differently: “the same way I don’t think of my fork but of what’s on my plate.”
Despite these finely sketched moments, the book loses coherence as you take more of it in. McNeil’s argument isn’t wrong, necessarily, but her narrative logic can seem random. Even as the overarching tale of how cyberspace “lost out to order, advertising, surveillance, and cutthroat corporatism” seems plausible, some episodes draw a baffling amount of emphasis. She gives a blow-by-blow account of being cyberbullied on a website called Ello, for example, then dissects the critical reception of “Lean In” in 2013. Broadly and insistently, she blames the status quo on “the media” (and one time, “women’s media based in New York”) far more often than she faults CEOs, developers or venture capitalists.
Then there’s Facebook. Wiener may euphemize it as “the social network everyone hated,” but no one has hated it more colorfully than McNeil. She calls the company “one of the biggest mistakes in modern history,” “a digital cesspool” and finally an “ANT FARM OF HUMANITY!” So it’s surprising when, after this frankly impressive vitriol, we get this prescription: “Just use Instagram or WhatsApp. They’ll have your data, but you can keep your mind.” Similarly, her breakdown of social media’s politics of resentment ends with small-bore grandiosity: “I call for this conversation to happen. Because there is a conversation to be had about redemption and forgiveness.”
In the epilogue, she rhapsodizes about public libraries and how they loan briefcases for job interviews, provide medical services and administer naloxone (which reverses opioid overdoses). Somehow, McNeil takes these services as a sign of a “limitless spirit of compassion and generosity” — not the irretrievable breakdown of all the other institutions that used to share the work.
If reading “Uncanny Valley” feels like clicking through the archives of someone’s abandoned microblog — intimate and aloof; organic yet orderly — “Lurking” is more like infinite scroll. Having picked your platform, you float on the current of content, thick with froth and detritus and the occasional treasure, until something makes you ask: Wait, what? How did I get here? In rewinding our recent Internet history, both books remind us of just how deeply living online has overloaded our thought patterns, installing in our hindbrains a thrumming and constant urge to refresh.
By Anna Wiener
MCD. 279 pp. $27
How a Person Became a User
By Joanne McNeil
MCD. 292 pp. $28