Wearing the same threadbare sweatpants as yesterday, a San Francisco tech worker checks her overflowing inbox while eating a sad cup of yogurt. Glancing in the mirror before the next video conference, she checks to see that she looks reasonably presentable, at least from the shoulders up. Ignoring calls from friends, she drops everything to pick up the boss’ butt dial. As yet another workday ends, the pile of laundry — strategically pushed just beyond the view of her laptop’s built-in camera — remains unfolded. Walking to the corner store, the sun setting over Twin Peaks, it is difficult for her to meet the smiling eyes of those passing on the sidewalk after so many hours spent alone.
Over the past three months, experiences like these have become familiar to the many San Franciscans fortunate enough to continue working from home during the pandemic. But for at least two local women, they are nothing new. Anna Wiener, author of this year’s Silicon Valley-skewering hit, Uncanny Valley, and Ellen Ullman, author of the 1997 tech industry memoir, Close to the Machine, articulated the remote worker’s malaise long before Jack Dorsey pledged to let his white collar staffers stay home forever.
Without intending to, Wiener and Ullman penned two of the most salient texts of the social distancing era, reflecting our strange new normal back at us, while contemporary culture — Chromeo’s Quarantine Casanova notwithstanding — races to catch up.
And it appears Uncanny Valley and Close to the Machine’s accounts of working from home will remain resonant for months. While public life in San Francisco is slowly resuming, downtown office buildings and Peninsula tech campuses remain empty, thanks in large part to the remote-work tools Silicon Valley has created.
That makes these memoirs of the tech industry and the changes it has wrought on San Francisco and the world over the past two decades doubly relevant. As Wiener and Ullman show, the pathologies that working from home can produce are inextricably linked to the platforms and the culture of the industry that makes it possible.
KEEPING UP APPEARANCES
Ullman worked from home as a freelance software developer in the ’90s, at a time when remote work was highly unusual. While the nature of remote work, and the number of people engaging in the practice, has changed dramatically since then, what hasn’t changed is the need to “keep up the appearance of actual existence,” as Ullman writes. Working from home is a performance, and like a great actor Ullman knows when her act has landed. (Speaking of great performances and the ennui inherent in repeating the same routine day in and day out, Ullman was reportedly an inspiration for Natasha Lyonne’s character in Russian Doll.)
When talking with a client, Ullman recounts, “It is as if I have projected myself into another universe, where I am dressed in a blazer and slacks and my hair is washed, some place completely discontinuous with the universe I inhabit in sweats.”
This performance can be draining. Hanging up the phone and returning to her not-so-professional corporeal reality is a come-down — a trough in the emotional roller coaster that is remote work. “Click. I return to myself, creature swimming alone in puddles of time.”
Working from home for an open source software company in the 2010s, Wiener doesn’t have the luxury of visualizing herself into professional attire and a professional workplace. (Uncanny Valley doesn’t use proper nouns, but readers quickly identified Wiener’s employer as GitHub, a user-generated repository of computer code).
Her work-from-home self, and at least a certain portion of her work-from-home environment, are visible to her coworkers during their frequent video conferences. This requires new acts of illusion, like “frantically tossing visible clutter on top of [her] bed and covering it with a quilt.”
Wiener captures the “specific intimacy” of an office video conference with pinpoint accuracy, listening to “everyone breathing, sniffling, chewing gum, forgetting to mute the microphone before clearing their congestion. I liked the banter, the frozen mid-sentence faces, the surprise of seeing an animal emerging from under a desk. I liked watching everyone watch themselves while we pretended to watch one another, an act of intimate surveillance.”
When Wiener (virtually) leaves the comfort of her team conferences and interacts with GitHub users as part of her Terms of Service role, she must conceal much more than the clutter in her room. Whether she’s responding to mundane support requests via instant message or taking down vile content, Wiener does her outward-facing work using male pseudonyms. “Men, I saw, simply responded differently to men,” she writes. “My male pseudonyms had more authority than I did.
Wiener creates a virtual identity not out of a desire to feel professional, but out of a need to be seen as a professional, a human being worthy of respect in a misogynistic culture. Wiener’s anecdote illustrates the notion that working from home does not end workplace discrimination, harassment, or exploitation — even if it provides new opportunities to creatively avoid them.
At least a toxic physical workplace can easily be distinguished from a safe and comfortable home. But when the home becomes the workplace, the demands of the workplace come home too, becoming ubiquitous, inescapable.
As a remote worker, Ullman finds that she is “never not working.” Social calls and meetings with friends “must be refused,” she writes, “because it is possible that from one moment to the next I will get back to something.”
Wiener, by contrast, feels as if she’s never actually working. “The job asked so little of me, I might have forgotten I had it — except for the fact that it required me to be online,” she writes. Wiener’s “true work” is “toggling between tabs;” not only answering messages on Slack, but endlessly browsing the internet and putting in work for Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
The denizens of social media, everyone Wiener knows, are her other coworkers, consuming ASMR videos and viral recipes for chicken thighs together. Other than generating ad revenue for faceless corporations, the fruits of their labor don’t amount to much. “My brain had become a trash vortex,” Wiener writes of constantly being online during the workday, “representations upon representations.”
In her pre-social media world, Ullman finds solidarity where she can, too. Living and working in a loft in San Francisco’s “Multimedia Gulch” — a moniker for SoMa that burst along with the dot-com bubble — Ullman is part of a community of remote workers whom she knows by “their overattention to little interactions with waiters and cashiers, a supersensivtivity that comes from too much time spent alone.”
Like Wiener’s colleagues, who are “all more awkward in person than in the company chat rooms,” Ullman’s fellow virtual workers struggle to readjust to in-person communication. It’s a disturbing thought experiment hanging over the rest of us. Just how awkward will we be when we can go back to work — or to a conference, or a bar, or a party?
Whatever highs and lows and absurdity Wiener and Ullman endure, the city is still out there, pulsing with life, and changing at warp speed in the years separating their memoirs. Ullman cruises through town in her red sports car, Wiener on her bike. Ullman navigates an edgy tech culture of cyberpunks and hackers, Wiener reckons with the astonishing wealth and power of “arrogant young men from America’s soft suburbs.” Ullman unabashedly indulges in the city’s high-end restaurants and elite cultural scene, Wiener does so with a heavy sense of guilt about the city’s gentrification and inequality.
But these changes pale in comparison to San Francisco’s current state, where for months, the only thing many people could do outside of the home was go for a walk. Now, as San Franciscans begin to step out more boldly, perhaps we’ll be better able to contextualize what happens to our minds and bodies when we work from home.
Who knows, that trash vortex might become fodder for the next great tech memoir.