Nerdette Book Club: ‘Uncanny Valley’
Welcome to the Nerdette Book Club! Each month, we read a book and chat about it with a rotating group of panelists. It’s just like a normal book club, except we don’t shame you if you didn’t do the reading.
The book on tap this month is Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley, a fish-out-of-water memoir about a young woman who abandons New York and the publishing industry in favor of Silicon Valley and big tech.
Nerdette host Greta Johnsen broke the book down with the help of longtime tech journalist and Recode co-founder Kara Swisher as well as Nerdette co-host emeritus Tricia Bobeda. Below are a few highlights from the conversation.
What Uncanny Valley gets right about the tech industry
Kara Swisher: There’s been lots of writers who come here and sort of treat Silicon Valley like a safari. Like I’m here to look at the weird animals and what they’re doing with their money and their weird hoodies and things like that. But I think she does depict the sense of — if you’re not in the cult or in the club — what it feels like to be an outsider here. And how at the same time you get pulled up into it. Because the food is great. It’s forward, forward, forward thinking. So I think she did an excellent job of that feeling without being too easily dismissive.
What’s an uncanny valley?
Tricia Bobeda: It’s a fun play on words because of course it’s a concept from technology. When things that are not human are computer-generated and animated to look too human ... that little distance that’s left between is unsettling to us. And I think the first time I felt it was Tom Hanks in The Polar Express. Where the animation was just a little … too human?
On the relationship between tech companies and users
Swisher: They take your data, they become billionaires by using all the data you generate on a daily basis. They ping you. They know where you are. You’re phone’s pinged 20 times — since you and I have been sitting here I’m sure my phone has been pinging a hundred times — giving them information, giving them data, giving them value.
And what do you get in return? You get a free map. You get to, like, send cute messages with filters. You get to look up when Gilligan’s Island was on. That’s what you get. You’re a cheap date.
So I look at it and I go, “You’re all cheap dates.” And the things you exchange in return for these allegedly magic beans is — you’re not gonna get a beanstalk, you’re not going up to the giant’s house, you’re not getting the gold. They are. And so I think what’s gone on is people are realizing they’re cheap dates.
Bobeda: Who said, ‘If something is free, you’re the product’?
Swisher: Yeah, they don’t like that quote in Silicon Valley, but that’s exactly right.
These highlights have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. Press play to hear the whole conversation.
Before you go: Next month, we’re reading The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. Read the book and send us your thoughts by recording your voice with your smartphone, then email the audio file to email@example.com. And tune in for the conversation on Friday, March 27!