October 23, 2020

A true paradise | Babelia


He says Simone Weil that there is a hell inhabited by people who believe they are in paradise. In 2013, at age 25, Anna Wiener moved from New York to San Francisco, following the promise of a job at a company Silicon Valley, a start-up dedicated to the management of massive data. Wiener had no scientific or technological background, but literary. After graduating from university he had held junior positions in the publishing world, at a time still marked by the great recession of 2008. In the literary agency where he worked as an assistant with a salary very low the environment was discouraging. Everything, in the world of books, seemed to be deteriorating: less readers, less bookstores, Amazon’s insolent and destructive primacy, the air of anachronism of tangible volumes and printed pages in the face of the blinding novelty of everything digital.

Wiener remained afloat largely thanks to the help of his parents: but after a year he would lose family health insurance coverage, and he had no prospect of a job improvement that would include him. He lived in a shared flat on the outskirts of Brooklyn. It belonged to a generation and a social group not afflicted by poverty, but deprived of almost any expectation of stability. Like so many well-trained people with a strong vocation of his age, he had to make a living going from one place to another in precarious jobs, subject to the blackmail and uncertainties that hide behind the prestigious term “freelance

Moving to San Francisco to work in a new technology company was an unheard of change. Silicon Valley was the reverse of the twilight world of publishing. Wiener had had his first contract still in New York, in a start-up which seemed attractive because he was developing a platform for reading Netflix or Spotify-style books. In the publishing world people dressed with a certain formality and did not eat while they worked.

A certain paradise



Wiener discovered that the managers and employees of the technology were always in sneakers, jeans, shirts with the company logo, hoodies, and also spent the day pecking while working, with open bags of potatoes or crochets next to laptops, sipping juices or energy drinks. He also discovered that the promoters of the electronic reading platform did not know anything about books or had an interest in learning anything, and tended to write poorly to the names of highly known writers.

But it was when he changed companies and traveled to San Francisco when he really discovered that he was in another world. He had not published anything yet, but he carried within himself a deep literary vocation, which was manifested above all in his capacity for observation, in the mixture of vital intensity and critical distance that allowed him to see things at once from outside and from inside. He presented himself for a job interview at an almost newly founded and already very prosperous company whose owner and CEO was less than 25 years old. The company occupied an entire floor, huge and clear, with brick walls and burnished cement floors. All employees, almost all men, dressed as lumberjacks or as aust farmers, says Weiner, always with the inevitable hoodies. All wore large headphones that filtered a permanent pulse of electronic music. Some had tattooed phrases in Sanskrit. Others thoughtfully drank craft beer, or chewed tobacco. Almost everyone moved from one side of the office to the next in electric scooters.

The executive who did the job interview was lying on a sofa and had the strange and perhaps unhealthy habit of feeling his back sinking his hand deep below the belt. Wiener had imagined that he would ask about his studies, about his work experience. He soon realized that in that world any knowledge that was not technological lacked any importance. In those alternative or bohemian air companies that could be sold overnight for hundreds or billions of dollars, the questions asked of the candidates were completely absurd, although they could have a resonance like Zen enigmas: “ How would you explain the Internet to a medieval peasant? ”,“ How many square meters of pizza are consumed per year in the United States? ”,“ How would you tell our software to your grandmother? ”,“ How many pimpon balls fit in a plane?”.

It is very likely that Anna Wiener kept a diary during her first months in Silicon Valley. Now he has published a scrapbook about those times, Uncanny Valley, and the precision of the details, the sharpness of the visual and verbal observations, are so infallible that more than one reader has been led to mention Joan Didion. It is the look and voice of a young Didion from now on that tell us a world in which there seems to be no relationship between reality and the tricky and triumphant fictions that are built to hide it, between the mercenary brightness of words and words. alleged ideals and the icy cruelty of a technological, business and social system that generates unlimited wealth and power on the one hand and on the other hand exploitation, massive espionage, marginality and misery.

San Francisco, the former capital of counterculture and social struggles, is now a theme park for tourists and an enclave of billionaires of technology and electronic commerce. The shanty camps and tents of the homeless are extended in the shade of the highest luxury residential complexes. The rents are so high that engineers and executives with magnificent salaries are forced to share a flat. With their electric scooters, their t-shirts, their sweatshirts, their alternative and futuristic jargon, made of advertising slogans, fetish words and banalities of self-help, the innovators who were going to improve the world accumulate money and power with a perfectly clean conscience, with a kind of impenetrable innocence. The managers and engineers of your company know so powerful, says Weiner, that they allow themselves from time to time something they call “the God mode”: spy on whim the complete digital intimacy of any user. There is almost no moment in our daily and connected life in which each of us is not contributing generously to his wealth. At least Anna Wiener has fled on time and has written a memorable testimony.

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