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‘Burn Book’ Torches Tech Titans in Tale of Love and Loathing in Silicon Valley

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A book cover featuring a close-up headshot of a white woman with short brown hair. She is wearing aviator sunglasses that show a reflection of fire.
‘Burn Book: A Tech Love Story’ by Kara Swisher. (Simon & Schuster)

Technology is so pervasive and invasive that it’s polarizing people, producing feelings of love and loathing for its devices, online services and the would-be visionaries behind them, according to a longtime Silicon Valley reporter.

Kara Swisher unwraps how we got to this point in her incendiary memoir, Burn Book, an exposé that also seeks to avert technological calamity on the perilous road still ahead.

Swisher skewers many of the once-idealistic tech moguls who, when she met them as entrepreneurs decades ago, promised to change the world for the better but often chose a path of destructive disruption instead. And along the way, they amassed staggering fortunes that have disconnected them from reality.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who broke into a sweat during an on-stage interview with Swisher in 2010, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who once talked to her regularly before cutting off communications after he bought Twitter in 2022, are painted in the harshest light.

“If Mark Zuckerberg is the most damaging man in tech to me, Musk was the most disappointing,” Swisher writes in her 300-page book.

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That’s one of the milder critiques in what’s a mostly scathing takedown by one of the most respected and feared reporters covering technology. Her reputation is such that Swisher has become as synonymous with Silicon Valley as the famous entrepreneurs who shaped it since she began covering the industry in the 1990s.

CEOs, including Zuckerberg and Musk, regularly granted her exclusive interviews, fed her scoops and sometimes even secretly called her for advice, according to her book. When the HBO series, Silicon Valley, needed someone to play an influential reporter in an episode, Swisher was cast as herself — a role she still regularly fills as a technology commentator on major TV networks.

Swisher no longer resides in Silicon Valley. She moved to Washington, D.C., a few years ago, mostly because that’s where her wife works, but also because she was feeling a need to escape what had become an increasingly toxic and insular scene.

But she has remained plugged into — and worried — about what is happening with technology, particularly with the accelerating rise of artificial intelligence and its potential for causing even more damage than she thinks has already been done by social media, smartphones and other products that haven’t been tightly regulated.

Swisher told The Associated Press that she hopes Burn Book serves as a shot across the bow of both the technology industry and governments around the world, a warning that the same missteps that happened during the past 20 years must not be repeated as artificial intelligence seeps into all corners of society.

“Don’t get fooled a second time,” Swisher said of what she hopes the book’s main takeaway will be. “We need our government to make these (technology-industry) people accountable and that has not happened. We need them to understand consequences because they certainly haven’t done us right on the damaging parts of technology. We need to stop letting them off the hook.”

Swisher initially didn’t even want to write another book, partly because she has become more interested in focusing on her Pivot podcast. But she but finally got on a roll after she hired Nell Scovell, who co-wrote a best-selling book with former Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, to help her remember all the stories she accumulated.

Those recollections led her to disassemble some of the world’s richest people in her book, but Swisher isn’t worried about the blowback.

“I don’t care what they think,” Swisher said. “The worst thing I do is tell people what I think of them, but I am being truthful.”

Musk, who also runs rocket ship maker SpaceX and social media company X, used a pejorative term for anus to describe Swisher in his last email sent to her in October 2022, according to her book.

“You can see it every day on Twitter (renamed X by Musk). There is something wrong with him,” Swisher said of Musk during the AP interview. “He is in desperate need of attention, he is a classic narcissist who has turned into a malevolent narcissist.”

Swisher doesn’t spend her entire book bashing tech leaders. She devotes an entire chapter to the industry’s “mensches,” a list that includes Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, investor Mark Cuban and the late Dave Goldberg, who was CEO of SurveyMonkey and Sandberg’s husband when he died in 2015 while on vacation in Mexico. She also has mostly kind words for the likes of former Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, former Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang, Apple CEO Tim Cook and his late predecessor, Steve Jobs.

Eventually, Swisher said she hopes she will look back kindly on the tech leaders at the vanguard of AI, especially Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, the San Francisco startup behind the popular chatbot ChatGPT.

“One thing I do like about Sam is he is able to hold two conflicting ideas in his head at the same time,” Swisher said. “Of course, he is going to be a techno-optimist, but he is not a techno-idiot. Now what will be a problem is he just takes whatever he wants, even though he has warned of unsafe things, and then does nothing about them. That’s what too many of these tech moguls have done.”

‘Burn Book: A Tech Love Story’ is out on Feb. 27, 2024, via Simon & Schuster. Kara Swisher will be interviewed by Sam Altman for City Arts & Lectures, at San Francisco’s Sydney Goldstein Theater on March 7, 2024. 

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