Burn it Down: Kara Swisher’s Love Affair with Tech


Early in her irresistible expose, Burn Book: A Tech Love Story, Kara Swisher lists the
“lies” of Silicon Valley’s tech industry. Those lies formed the industry ethos in the early
years and, as Swisher points out, they’re still heard a quarter of a century later:

“It’s not about the money.” (It was.) “It’s not about the fame.” (It also was.) “There’s no dress code/no special parking spaces/no fancy offices here, because we’re not hung up on status symbols.” (They were. Just different ones.) “No one is really in charge here.” (Ahahahahaha.) “It’s not about the product, it’s about changing the world.” (It was about the product.) “We have no competition/We have a lot of competition.” (Sigh.)

Swisher has been following the tech industry since 1997 when she moved from D.C. to the West Coast to cover tech for the Wall Street Journal. Over the years, she’s shed light on the self-entitled billionaires, chronicled the triumphs and failures, and roasted an
industry that has often gone off the rails.

She begins her overview with a personal history, noting that she and the Internet were
both born in 1962. That was the year an MIT scientist suggested connecting computers
to a network that would become the Internet’s technological foundation. Her own origins
were less heady: She grew up in Roslyn Harbor, New York, the middle child of three.
After losing her father at five, she was raised by a strict stepfather who reveled in
cruelties but taught her to play backgammon and Risk, games of both luck and boldness.

When Swisher didn’t get into Stanford (like her older brother), she instead attended
Georgetown University, a Catholic school and a poor fit for a closeted lesbian. But while
she didn’t join her classmates “getting shit-faced drunk every weekend and fornicating
badly,” she did join the staff of The Hoya, the school paper, and became a stringer for
The Washington Post.

She reports, “By the end of my freshmen year, I had won the student journalism award
and held it over the pissed-off seniors. It was obnoxious, but I loved journalism and was
good at it from the get-go.” (Modesty was not then nor is it now Swisher’s strongest suit.
She’s convinced she’s always right and doesn’t hesitate to tell you about it.)

During a short fellowship at Duke University in the early 1990s, she had a revelation. She’d just logged into the nascent World Wide Web and experienced its power to deliver content. So what did she do? She downloaded a Calvin & Hobbes cartoon
collection, managing to jam up the computer network and pissing off the young system

“You clogged up everything,” he said, flashing her that familiar girls-can’t-code scowl.
She says, “It was then that I came up with the concept that would carry me for decades
and still does: Everything that can be digitized will be digitalized.” After leaving the Washington Post and taking a job working with Wall Street Journal tech columnist Walt Mossburg, Swisher began to cut a swath through the industry.

In her Burn Book, which takes its title from the scornful notebooks kept by “mean girls,”
she takes on the billionaire moguls, one by one, assigning them cheeky nicknames. She
tags WSJ owner Rupert Murdoch as “Uncle Satan.”

Introduced early to Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page (“the twins”), Swisher says, “Page was intense while Brin never stopped talking. Page was grave while Brin did comic relief. Both were odd. Page had taken to wearing a pollution monitor to make sure he was not inhaling whatever might kill him from the atmosphere. Brin dressed as if he were about to go surfing or join a yoga class and in fact he sometimes launched into a down-ward facing dog while you were talking to him.”

From there, she goes on to describe other moguls at work building empires. Up in
Seattle, she encountered “a short and energetic man lousy at hiding his vaunting
ambitions, masking them behind a genuinely infectious maniacal laugh.” She
nicknamed him “the mongoose” in reference to his frenetic skitter around an Amazon
warehouse near the airport. She says, “from the start I had no doubt Jeff Bezos would
eat my face off if that is what he needed to do to get ahead.”

Later Swisher would have a long talk with Bezos about birthing babies. Amazon’s
founder was excited about Swisher having a child with her then-wife Google exec
Megan Smith. Bezos peppered Swisher with questions about how lesbians had babies
and she explained about sperm donation and insemination. At one point he asked why
she would use an anonymous donor versus someone she knew…like him. Swisher
joked back saying that, while he was rich, he was too short and bald for her tastes.

There are two things, Swisher tells us, to know about Steve Jobs, (“the golden god”):
First he was always acutely aware that life was finite, and second he could never resist
a chance to tweak Microsoft’s Bill Gates. The wonder is that Swisher and Mossberg
managed to put together the interview of their lives: the one-on-one between Jobs and
Gates. Their joint struggles with the world and each other was arguably the story of
tech, something recognized by the studio audience that greeted the iconic pair with a
standing ovation.

Swisher is on hand to chronicle the clueness naivete of Mark Zuckerberg (“the most
dangerous man”) and how nervous and sweaty Mark became during public
appearances, constantly in danger of fainting. But in Swisher’s estimation, Zuckerberg
was not the worst of the moguls. She awards that dubious honor to Uber’s pugnacious
CEO Travis Kalanick (“the Uber Mensch”). He bragged to her about using people – “or
rather dudes” – as fodder until it became easier and cheaper to replace them with a
machine. He even issued must-read memos to his employees outlining the rules of how
to have sex with another employee. Kalanick’s toxic masculinity was echoed on other
tech platforms.

She writes that tech “has always been a mirrortocracy, full of people who like their own
reflection so much that they only see value in those who look the same.” Swisher made
the point early on. In 2007, she posted photos of top management at Facebook who
were — you guessed it — “all men.”

Getting to inclusivity was a painfully slow process, always hindered by the excuse that
there was a “pipeline problem” and that the male leadership needed to maintain
“standards of quality.” Swisher does, however, give points to the few women who
managed to achieve a foothold in the industry. She counted Sheryl Sandberg whom
Zuckerberg hired from Google “as four women because she was such a star.”

Swisher once told Bill Gates, who was “always techy about something,” that, “I like you 10 percent more because you’re married to her (meaning his then wife Melinda French
Gates).” The same was true when it came to Bezos’ former wife — Mackenzie Scott Bezos —
whom Swisher called “impressive by herself.’’ She counts Mackenzie as Bezos’ key

Among Swisher’s concluding chapters is one devoted to her fraught relationship with
the Elon Musk, who started out calling her an asshole. Her relationship with Musk doesn’t
get much better. Touchy and insecure, Musk disappointed Swisher with his troubling
proclivity to descend into adult toddler mode. She predicts that it’s only a matter of time
before he enters “the Howard Hughes chapter of history.” She labels Musk “one of the
saddest developments in my long love story with tech.”

Swisher concludes her book recounting how, now 61, she has returned to DC for the
education of her children (she has two grown-up sons with Megan and two toddlers with
her second wife, Amanda Katz.) Swisher has a weekly podcast, Recode, owned by Vox
media. She persists (in her words) a Cranky Cassandra, still following the tech industry.
She asks, “Will A-I kill us?” (Likely not in its present mode.) She tried asking A-I to write
her book’s final chapter, and the results were bland and flawed — just one more
disappointment in her love affair with the industry.

Yet Swisher manages a “pessimistic optimism,” believing there is still time for a do-over.
Her message: “It’s pretty much our only hope — where tech goes depends on who makes the decisions. If it remains a small group of out-of-touch billionaires, I’d say I’m

She laments that today — a quarter century into the digital age — elected
officials have managed to pass zero legislation to protect anyone. Her indictment: “We
still have no privacy protections, no updated anti-trust laws, no algorithmic transparency
requirements. There are laws for everything but tech companies.”

Jean Godden
Jean Godden
Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and late for the Seattle Times. In 2002, she quit to run for City Council where she served for 12 years. Since then she published a book of city stories titled “Citizen Jean.” She is now co-host of The Bridge aired on community station KMGP at 101.1 FM. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.


  1. Let me add her other great podcasts:
    ON with Kara Swisher and PIVOT with Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway. Both available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify from The New York Magazine and VOX.

  2. Haven’t read the book, but enjoyed Jean’s rollicking review. Kara Swisher’s love-hate relationship with tech seems like that of a constantly disappointed romantic.

  3. Thanks for the astute observation, Dick. Yes, she was indeed beguiled by tech and its purveyors. She passed up the WaPo political beat to pursue her love affair.

  4. Swisher’s prescience led to the embrace of and disgust with the new media and it’s new proprietors.
    This wonderful blog makes her case with it’s talented retinue of writers and reporters (not reposters).
    She saw the benefits and detrimental effects before the consumers, and the surgeon general. Or sadly, the print media.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments Policy

Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post alley or its editors.