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The Miseducation of Kara Swisher

Soul-searching with the tech “journalist”

Burn Book: A Tech Love Story by Kara Swisher. Simon & Schuster, 320 pages. 2024.

Silicon Valley was supposed to be “different,” or so veteran tech journalist Kara Swisher wanted to believe. Facebook was going to bring people together, in the process strengthening our communities, our democracies, our world; Google was going to deliver the vast stores of human knowledge to our fingertips; Tesla was going to save us from fossil fuel-driven ecological collapse, etc., etc. For years, Swisher held onto a dogged faith in these companies and their “gauzy credo to change the world” for the better.

But then, in 2016, Silicon Valley “went off the rails.” Swisher dates this cataclysm to December 10, 2016, when the heads of the most powerful tech companies—including Amazon, Tesla, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Alphabet, Google’s parent company—were “summoned to tromp into Manhattan’s Trump Tower and meet the man who had unexpectedly just been elected president and was the antithesis of all they supposedly represented.”

Swisher was aghast. Two days later, she published a furious column at Recode, shaken that “the people in charge of inventing the future” would meet with someone as reprehensible as Trump given his “numskull attacks” on “what is pretty much the United States’ most important, innovative and future-forward business sector.” Though she’d been covering the industry for decades in the likes of the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, Swisher could not understand how our enlightened stewards of innovation would capitulate so quickly to an authoritarian-in-waiting. “Welcome to the brave new world,” she concluded. “Yeah, you can say it: Fuckfuckfuck.”

This apparent about-face of Silicon Valley prompted Swisher to undertake some agonized soul-searching, the results of which have been published as Burn Book: A Tech Love Story, a tortured and tortuous memoir that, in remixing swaths of past reporting and commentary, as well as regurgitating tales she’s told ad nauseam, tries to answer two burning questions: How did Silicon Valley end up in that room with Trump? And, more importantly, how did a tech journalist as good and uncompromising as Kara Swisher fail to anticipate this turn to the dark side?

The long and short of it is that Swisher is not a good journalist—or, framed more generously, that she thrived in an industry with remarkably low standards for which we are still paying the price. For decades, tech journalism and criticism has primarily consisted of glowing gadget reviews, laudatory profiles, and reprinted press releases, all of it colored by Silicon Valley’s self-aggrandizing vision of itself as a laboratory of a brighter future.

This is largely identical to what Swisher admits to having believed up until 2016:

When I started covering the nascent sector in the 1990s, I had truly believed in tech’s ability to transform the world, to solve problems that had plagued us for centuries and allow us to finally see our commonality over all our differences. My belief that everything that can be digitized would be digitized turned out to be true. The Internet, which others had mocked, had become nothing short of miraculous.

Sam Harnett’s 2020 paper “Words Matter: How Tech Media Helped Write Gig Companies Into Existence” remains one of the best accounts of how swaths of the media enthusiastically generated on-demand propaganda for the tech industry, directly setting the stage for these firms to exploit, codify, and expand legal loopholes that largely exempted them from regulation as they raided their users for data and generated billions in revenue. Such intellectual acquiescence would, as Harnett writes, “pave the way for a handful of companies that represent a tiny fraction of the economy to have an outsized impact on law, mainstream corporate practices, and the way we think about work.”

This is a compelling narrative only if you ignore every available fact.

Few writers have been as instrumental to this process as Swisher. In Burn Book, she tries to atone for her decades of boosterism by adopting a slightly more critical posture, but the analysis, such as it is, has no bite because Swisher still, at her core, fundamentally believes in Silicon Valley. Take Uber. Swisher interviewed Uber’s then CEO Travis Kalanick in 2014 for her Code conference, pitching him a series of softball questions while giving him plenty of space to rattle on about the “political campaign” he was locked in against “some asshole named Taxi” that only made Uber look dirty. During the interview, Swisher dismissed Uber’s critics as “people who love to hate it” because they failed to understand the magic: “To me it’s a fascinating situation that’s going on. They’ve expected perfection now. There’s all these driver incidents which happen in taxis but don’t get reported.”

A decade later, in Burn Book, Swisher is forthright about Uber’s rancid internal culture: the company not only systematically covered up sexual harassment in its offices but also sexual assault in its cars. One executive even went so far as to obtain medical files of a woman who was reportedly raped by an Uber driver because the company did not believe her. Such troubles, Swisher concludes, are directly attributable to “white male homogeneity” not just at Uber but across the tech industry. In Burn Book, Kalanick—once the subject of an approving, Swisher-penned Vanity Fair profile—is now “the ever-uglier face of tech,” a man who adopted a “dehumanizing attitude” toward everyone he worked with.

This sort of move—rewriting history to suggest she has always been critical of various firms or trends in Silicon Valley—is employed consistently throughout the book as part of a desperate effort to catch up with the critical consensus. The real problem, Swisher argues, is that there exists a group of people at the top whose lived experience precludes them from anticipating problems with their workplace culture, harms caused by their product, and solutions to said problems. She reflects on this at length:

A truism began to form in my brain about the lack of women and people of color in the leadership ranks of tech: The innovators and executives ignored issues of safety not because they were necessarily awful, but because they had never felt unsafe a day in their lives. Their personal experience informed the development of unfettered platforms. And, in turn, this inability to understand the consequences of their inventions began to curdle the sunny optimism of tech that had illuminated the sector.

This is a compelling narrative only if you ignore every available fact.

Before 2017—when everything appeared to go wrong for Uber because of numerous sexual harassment and assault scandals, privacy violations, IP theft, and a video of Kalanick exploding on a driver complaining about pay cuts—critical coverage of the ride-hail app had been relatively limited. To achieve its market share, Uber broke laws, generated in-house academic research affirming its own narrative, leveraged political connections to rewrite labor laws or otherwise exempt itself from them, and convinced journalists to view its growth as progressive, not parasitic. This meant that when a laundry list of horrible abuses came to light, journalists who had spent years regurgitating narratives about Uber’s innovative potential and disruption of “Big Taxi” were incapable of connecting the dots between Uber’s core business model, its drivers’ working conditions, and its toxic internal culture.

It is hard to imagine how making Uber more diverse and “inclusive” would’ve done anything to alter its core issue: a business model so destructive and extractive that it could only claim to turn a profit after losing $33 billion, eviscerating the existing taxi industry, achieving near market dominance, and undermining existing labor laws. Indeed, Uber could not pay drivers below minimum wage, charge as high of a price as it desired, flood the streets with cars as it liked, and avoid providing health care or unemployment insurance to drivers unless the law was on its side. In fact, Uber’s top lawyer—Tony West, a Black man—has been the public face of Uber’s campaign against laws that would force the company to pay livable wages to its largely Black and brown workforce. In Swisher’s memoir, this all goes curiously unmentioned. By insisting the issue with Uber was largely cultural, Swisher ends up affirming the myth that Uber was not only an inevitable but ultimately good innovation, a few bad apples notwithstanding. The problem was the white men who held the reins, not so much the destructive enterprise they sought to sustain. After all, it was a digital technology, and as Swisher writes: “Everything that can be digitized will be digitized.”

The same chapter hones in on a few other examples, such as Sheryl Sandberg, who joined Facebook to run its advertising business and serve as its chief operating officer in 2008. Did Sandberg’s inclusion fundamentally alter the company’s business model or its path toward enabling genocide and eroding democracy? Swisher tries to have it both ways, claiming that while Sandberg championed “leaning in” and getting women into more positions of power, somewhere along the way she “lost sight of the impact of Facebook on a broader range of issues” such as widespread misinformation and hate speech on the platform. That Facebook was operating exactly as we might expect—a massive advertising platform with an inordinate market and political power to act—is not entertained.

Can diversity and inclusion really save Silicon Valley? It did not change things at Microsoft, where chief executive Satya Nadella, an Indian migrant, has built powerful surveillance tools for police departments, powered surveillance for workplaces, funded an Israeli startup that surveils Palestinians in the West Bank, and pursued lucrative contracts to provide VR headsets for the Army and cloud computing for the Pentagon. Nor at Google, where chief executive Sundar Pichai, also an Indian migrant, gave Israel powerful machine learning tools to bolster its apartheid regime, sought to help the Pentagon analyze drone footage with artificial intelligence, sold tech to police departments, and fired researchers who raised ethical concerns about Google’s large language models.

Burn Book suggests Swisher doesn’t necessarily see tech’s cozy relationship with the military as problematic. Early on, she admits she dreamed of working as a strategic analyst for the military or Central Intelligence Agency but gave up that path because of how openly anti-gay the military was. “I have long been a firm believer in the most vaunted parts of the American experience and wanted to be part of protecting that against the darker forces of our national DNA,” Swisher writes early on. Later, she laments: “I should have been a spy. Or even an admiral. Instead—since the skills required are quite similar, including charm, curiosity, tactical and strategic thinking—I became a journalist.”

Swisher popularized—“innovated” in her words—a particularly pernicious form of access journalism that has dumbed down tech reporting and criticism.

Given how generally rosy her vision of the Valley and its problems has been for years, one would expect a blood sacrifice as proof that her pivot, however slight, in Burn Book is sincere. But despite the book’s juicy title, no such offering is made. Instead, she winds up emphasizing her affinity with the industry at nearly every turn. Relatively early on, Swisher gives advice to a founder she likes that they should accept an acquisition offer and cash out of the technology sector. “I rarely gave advice to anyone I covered and reminded her that I would have to report this business deal,” Swisher claims right after. And yet, the chapters before—and nearly every chapter that follows—are littered with examples to the contrary.

In one, she recounts how Google and Yahoo had struck a two-year deal whereby Google rented out its search tech to Yahoo, but the Google name and logo were prominently featured on the Yahoo website. Tech brands often built themselves on another brand’s site and Google was no different, using the deal and its status as Yahoo’s default search provider to steal customers from Yahoo. The first thing Swisher did after learning about this was to call up Yahoo chief executive and cofounder Jerry Yang. “You need to get them off your platform,” she warned, before turning to the audience to note that “I did not often warn companies, but I had seen this so many times before that I could not keep it to myself.” Other potential ethical lapses abound: Swisher advises Rupert Murdoch not to invest in Vice Media, Mark Zuckerberg calls her late one night for her feedback on an essay he is writing, Page asks Swisher for help writing an essay extolling the virtues of Google—including its long-ignored “Don’t Be Evil” commandment—and Elon Musk asks Swisher for her thoughts on what to do with Twitter shortly after acquiring it.

This anxiety about appearing too chummy with Silicon Valley never fades, which she eventually addresses head on in the book’s closing chapter. “While I had not become them, I was part of the scene in a way that was starting to feel uncomfortable,” Swisher writes. “I had been a camera, at times an eviscerating one, but it was long past time to use all that knowledge I had gained to finally tell people what that photo actually showed. And while I was hardly an amanuensis, I had already started thinking my role needed to change much earlier, in fact.” It’s too little too late, however. Swisher popularized—“innovated” in her words—a particularly pernicious form of access journalism that has dumbed down tech reporting and criticism, at times making it indistinguishable from the swill spewed by Silicon Valley itself.

We could go on and on about the various ways Swisher’s meek apologia nevertheless hammers home an unbroken faith in digitization, in technology as a progressive transformative force, and in Silicon Valley’s fundamental goodness. We can talk about how her book throws shade at cryptocurrency, even though she hawked it on her Pivot podcast last year. We could talk about how she positions herself as an astute critic by glomming onto what has long been the consensus in many circles. We could talk about how quickly the critical veneer falls off when a new shiny toy is placed in front of her: at points, she enthuses over generative artificial intelligence with the feverish tone of an OpenAI spokesperson. This makes sense when she reveals OpenAI chief executive Sam Altman has been buzzing in her ear about AI since 2005. But I am much more interested in what we are supposed to do with the memoir, whether we believe its critical pretensions or not.

“I’ve always hated the phrase ‘speak truth to power,’ because it assumes all power is bad. It should really be ‘speak truth to power when the power is false or damaging—or even just plain bizarre,’” Swisher writes. Her rebuke to the Quaker slogan is idiotic, to be sure, but it is on to something, if only for the wrong reasons. We shouldn’t be speaking truth to power because that’s the height of arrogance; we don’t know it, but perhaps we can get there together through research and critical engagement. We shouldn’t be speaking truth to power because they aren’t listening and don’t need to.

Besides, the powerful aren’t our audience; if we are going to be speaking to anyone at all, it should be to those without power as we try to help one another understand the world around us. Swisher’s opposition to “speak truth to power” has nothing to do with any of this, however. Her animating concern is that we be evenhanded when dealing with those much-maligned friends of hers: they’ve just been led astray!

I use “we” loosely because Swisher’s intended audience is not you or me, but instead those with power: she writes about and for them. Over the course of a long and storied career closely reporting on the tech industry and its titans, she has aped their motions, sat at their dinner tables, drunk their wine, gone to their weird parties, played with their baubles, repeated their lies, and offered them counsel. Swisher may style herself as Silicon Valley’s critic laureate, but she’s much closer to the court fool.