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2024-02-05 00:00:00 Avenue Magazine Kara Swisher is Ready to Burn Silicon Valley Down

Kara Swisher is Ready to Burn Silicon Valley Down

Cracking the coders
WATCHFUL EYES Author Kara Swisher’s new book looks at the tech world’s most controversial figures and keeps score.
Photo by Philip Montgomery

When I heard Kara Swisher was writing a memoir about her experiences covering the tech industry and its founders, I confess I was a little giddy because there is no better person for the job. When tech leaders heard she was writing the book, I imagine many of them were legitimately uncomfortable.

In a journalism career that has spanned over 25 years, Swisher has literally interviewed everyone who’s anyone in an industry that has changed our lives, shifted our culture, and created more wealth than any other. She’s been an eyewitness with a front-row seat to the good, the bad, and the ugly in tech. She is the one person who is both revered and feared among the Silicon Valley founder fraternity (and a few of the women they’ve allowed in), and she is the person who famously made Mark Zuckerberg sweat profusely during an interview. What would she say in the book? Would she name names?

Of course she would. The title of the memoir is, after all, Burn Book (Simon & Schuster), in a callback to the classic 2004 film, Mean Girls. And the mean girls in Swisher’s story are those tech founders and leaders along with their sycophants and water carriers. “I’ve been writing these things down, and I want people to see it,” she said. “A ‘burn book’ is not untrue. It’s just not nice. But it’s really funny.”

I caught up with Swisher during her hair appointment with her longtime stylist, April Barton, at Suite 303 in NoHo. The first question that occurred to me was, “Why write this book now, as opposed to 10 years ago or 10 years from now?”

“I felt like 25 years was enough time to have an assessment. My attitude towards tech started off as a love story, and it turned into a bad relationship, essentially,” she explained. “[Tech founders] have been so important in our society. And I’d already been warning people over the last 10 years about the power, the monopolization, and the lack of responsibility. And so, I really wanted to put it all into one place.”

Swisher started focusing on tech as a cub reporter working the retail beat at the Washington Post. David Ignatius, the editor at the time, assigned her to the tech beat because she was “the only one who (slightly) understood the technology. I had begun to see the impact of technology then, even in retail.”

Today, it’s easy to take tech for granted because it’s all around us: in our pockets, on our wrists, in our ears. It enables us to order food, book a flight, hail a ride, or even get laid. We get our thoughts and photos instantly validated by thousands of strangers on social media. With technology wielding so much influence over our lives, those creating and running it have become the most powerful people on the planet. “They’re the richest by far except the Saudis and Bernard Arnault. It’s pretty much tech people who occupy the top rungs of power and money in the world.” Swisher wants them to be responsible and held accountable for the consequences of their products.

Swisher first came onto my radar in 2018, when she was a guest on Tina Brown’s too-short-lived podcast, TBD. Tech was something in which I’d always harbored a keen interest, and I vividly remember the impression Swisher made on me in that episode as she spoke of tech and its innovators, founders, and leaders with respect, but not reverence. She made the subject interesting, fun, and — dare I say — sexy.

By 2020, I was a regular listener to Pivot, the hit tech/business/politics podcast she co-hosts with NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway, and Sway, the podcast she did for the New York Times where she interviewed the powerful and influential. I willfully inserted myself onto her social media radar and eventually earned a follow-back on Twitter (before Elon Musk bought it and handily destroyed the platform, renaming it “X”).

Since then, I’ve been a guest co-host on Pivot several times and consider her a good friend. Among the things I appreciate most about her are her directness and insistence on the truth. She has zero tolerance for bullshit. And, since bullshit is the most widely spoken dialect in Silicon Valley, Swisher’s work is never done.

Swisher commanding the stage at Vox Media’s 2023 Code Conference on tech and media in Laguna Niguel, California
Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images

She also seems to have fun with it. In her book, she breaks down an idea she calls “The Prick-to-Productivity Ratio.” Essentially, if you’re a prick (of which there are many in tech), you have to balance it out with high productivity. “It’s the kind of thing where you give someone a tiny bit more leeway if they really contribute,” she said. I asked about Elon Musk’s prick-to-productivity ratio. “His prick ratio is high. He’s not that productive, or he’s not worth it because he’s damaging,” she says. “It used to be garden variety prick-ery, like parking your car in a handicap zone, like [Steve] Jobs did, or errant yelling. Now, it’s really damaging stuff that Elon has perpetrated. The nastiness, the antisemitism, the homophobia… stuff like that. Then it becomes very different. There’s no amount of productivity that counts with that kind of pricky-ness.”

Though the “burn book” language can suggest a relentlessly dark story, there have been figures (or parts of them) who did it right and created something truly inspiring. Steve Jobs’s vision of the future, according to Swisher, was actually somewhat kind. His idea of “beauty, facilitation, literature, mixing art and technology” made his message a better one. A relatively unknown figure named Tony Fadell created the iPod, which changed how we collect and consume music. Satya Nadella (the CEO of Microsoft) “took a company that was really quite a regressive, nasty company and turned it into a more useful kind of technology.” Despite some of the abuses that were later discovered, Swisher reminded me that Airbnb was a great idea, as was Uber.

When I asked who among the big tech figures were especially egregious, she didn’t hesitate. “Oh, all of them, to an extent. It waxes and wanes.” Travis Kalanick, co-founder of Uber, is “a stock villain: no empathy… growth at all costs… childish… misogynist… that kind of stuff.” Mark Zuckerberg, by Swisher’s account, is a friendly guy who was ultimately ignorant of the damage going on with Facebook and Instagram or didn’t care to know. “Most of these people are a mixed bag. Elon’s the new villain,” she says. “It used to be Bill Gates, but now he’s giving away a lot of money and he’s focused on climate change tech. Except for that trip to Epstein’s island… he certainly has been trying to take his legacy and make it into something better.”

So, what is the common fatal flaw among these giants? Arrogance. “A persistent need to be right, which has now degenerated into victimization. They feel like they’re misunderstood when they’re not.” Swisher cites Marc Andreessen as an example. He invented the browser, creating Mosaic and co-founding Netscape, and “has now become just a ridiculous caricature of a really wealthy guy who’s completely missing the narrative. Initially, that contrarianism can be a positive trait,” Swisher continued. “But then it can degenerate and curdle into a nastiness.” (See Elon Musk.)

When she’s not traveling for speaking engagements or interviews, Swisher bides most of her time between San Francisco, where she’s had a house for many years, and Washington, DC, which is her current home base with her wife, Washington Post opinion editor Amanda Katz, and their two young children. Swisher shares two older sons with her first wife, engineer and technologist Megan Smith.

In addition to her award-winning podcasts and the book, Swisher just recently joined the panel on the Chris Wallace Show, which airs on CNN and streams on CNNMax on Saturday mornings at 10 AM. With such a busy schedule, two grown sons, a wife, and two toddlers at home, I had to wonder what my favorite five-foot-two media dominatrix does in her downtime.

“Nothing. I have children. I don’t have any downtime. I watch TV — and I get my hair done.”

And get it done she did. With a fresh cut and color, she joined me on a subway ride uptown. She was off to the 92nd Street Y to interview Brian Stelter about his new book on Fox News, and I was on my way home to take a nap. Because I have downtime, and Kara Swisher doesn’t.

Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Burn Book by Kara Swisher is available online and in stores February 27.

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