Laurence Kilpatrick

Control, Alt, Mistreat

Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber

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Uncanny Valley

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Whistleblower is a chastening but ultimately uplifting memoir by the now 29-year-old Susan Fowler. The book has its roots in a blogpost, published in 2017, in which she critiqued the harassment culture within Uber, where she worked, and laid the behemoth bare to public scrutiny. The day-to-day toxicity she encountered and its casual acceptance by her fellow employees, documented in this book, are as hard to believe as the fact that her testimony was allowed to come to light at all.

One of seven siblings, raised by a polyglot father and a multitalented mother, Fowler grew up amid nagging poverty, a world away from the privileged plains of Silicon Valley. Intermittently in and out of education, she proved herself to be resilient and industrious, teaching herself calculus and writing, she notes casually, ‘a novel about the modern American West’. After starting at Arizona State University, which awarded her a scholarship, she transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where she pursued her passion for physics. When she reported the unwanted attentions of a fellow student to the university authorities, they turned on her, deeming her responsible for the student’s mental health problems and banning her from taking any of the same classes as him. Ultimately her MPhil was rescinded.

Fowler shows that her experiences of prejudice are in no way uncommon. What is uncommon is her willingness to speak out. Having become a software engineer at Uber in 2015, she joined an informal group called LadyEng, where women in the company discovered that the violations of workplace law each had faced were in fact part of a pattern. On her first day, her boss used the company’s HipChat messenger to obliquely invite her into his polyamorous relationship; she later discovered that her manager had illegally blocked her transfer away – and that of every other female member of his team – so that he could maintain his diversity quota; all the members of her division were promised leather jackets as a bonus but only the men received them, the company claiming that since there were just eight women it could not get a discount on their jackets.

What is perhaps most dispiriting in Fowler’s book is her account of being surveilled and intimidated after her 2017 blogpost went viral. After pressing send, her phone would ‘crash, power down, restart, and begin to buzz again’ for hours afterwards. From her first experiences of prejudice at college, she trained herself to become the best-drilled whistleblower around, ensuring that she amassed incontrovertible hard copies of screenshots, emails and documents. While it is no surprise that a company where employees have access to a user’s personal information (God Mode – largely what it sounds like) is not averse to meddling, Uber’s tactics in the face of litigation remain jaw-dropping. Many employees considering bringing harassment claims found evidence ‘deleted from their email accounts’; on one occasion, when a phone and computer were stolen from a complainant’s desk, Uber’s security team asserted that ‘the office cameras normally watching her desk were turned off at the time, so they couldn’t help’.

The culture of disruption and innovation within Uber, made explicit in the company’s famous mantra of seeking forgiveness rather than permission, has undoubtedly accelerated its rise to dominance in the ride-sharing market. But by letting this attitude seep into its dealings with its employees, Uber has poisoned its own well. At every turn in its evolution, Uber has been at odds with lawmakers and regulators. Fowler’s assessment of its half-hearted attempts at compliance is appropriately damning: ‘Trying to repair Uber’s aggressive disregard for civil rights and employment laws with diversity and inclusion initiatives was like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.’ Quite simply, she writes, the company needs ‘to stop breaking the law’.

Uber’s refreshed mantra, ‘We do the right thing’, is creaking into action, albeit with the help of prosecutors. Off the back of the investigation prompted by Fowler’s revelations, a $4.4 million fund has been created to compensate employees who suffered sexual harassment. This will be accessible to individuals employed there since 2014. It’s worth noting that Uber’s revenue for the first quarter of 2020 has recently been announced: $3.5 billion.

* * *

While Whistleblower charts a brilliant woman’s unlikely journey through a culture of ideas and progress that she wants to fully participate in but is prevented from doing so, Anna Wiener’s narrative in Uncanny Valley constitutes a love story in reverse. At the age of twenty-five, Wiener leaves the reliably under-remunerated world of New York publishing for a new career in the tech industry in San Francisco. She deflects the pessimism of friends – ‘aren’t you worried it’ll be soul ruining?’ – by declaring a ravenous curiosity about technology and the internet, though she leaves unmentioned one other motive, which is her raw ambition. However, the promises of Silicon Valley fall flat: its insistence on upending everything becomes tiresome and its ability to monopolise and neutralise Wiener’s attention chips away at her sense of self.

After an initial stint at Oyster, a start-up operating in her preferred field of literature, she finds a new role at an analytics start-up. Cultish vibes abound: being ‘Down for the Cause’ and putting the company first are essential touchstones for securing the rare praise of the CEO. She is dying to impress her boss but concedes that ‘there was nothing I needed or desired from software’, and from the start she suspects that she has been employed in a customer service role because she came across as easy to control in her interview. When she finally leaves, it feels more like an escape. The company’s executives are too busy to hold an exit interview.

Her next move lands her at open-source company GitHub. Much is made there of its ambivalence towards employees’ physical presence in the office. Wiener reports with curious amusement the bizarre clubhouse atmosphere at the company, noting the ‘bondage collars’ and ‘Burning Man pelts’ worn as a kind of inverted uniform by the office’s occasional patrons – all the while worrying about the invasiveness of wall-mounted heat maps that track her every step.

Wiener currently lives in San Francisco, writing about Silicon Valley, warts and all, for (among others) the New Yorker, a publication to which her luxuriant style – the antithesis of Fowler’s functional sincerity – is well suited. She piles impressions high. When the impeccably presented secretary of the Secret Service visits GitHub to discuss an outreach initiative, he walks through their fake ‘Oval Office’ and encounters a room full of employees in ‘octopus-cat shirts’ and ‘scuffed-up shoes’ and a visibly stoned company lawyer. Wiener winces with embarrassment.

Uncanny Valley shines a light on some of the more troubling aspects of Silicon Valley culture, including the accumulation of power by the unelected and unqualified, the ‘disruption’ of absolutely everything and the repurposing of the hippy aesthetic for the sensationally affluent tech class. Sexual harassment and gender disparities also provide a sporadic refrain. The offences described are less serious but no less prevalent than those outlined in Whistleblower. Wiener describes how, at a women in computing conference she attends, a white, all-male panel discusses workplace discrimination. Excuses are made. Each case is dealt with like a homage to Homer Simpson’s cleaning technique: the entire contents of a house swept under the carpet. Of course, the mess is still there. Wiener’s book convinces and depresses in equal measure. You wonder why she didn’t leave sooner.

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