Burn Book

Why review tech writer Kara Swisher's new book when I know so little about computers? And, I'll admit, care little for most of those filthy rich people whose names we all know? Well, it's more a "memoir with tech bros" (a better subtitle than hers, BTW) than it is a tech book, written by an opinionated journalist who’s been described as a honey badger (iykyk). "People are afraid of her, and they trust her," it says on the back cover. Burn Book is, in fact, a fun read by a long-time insider about the foundations of the silicon world in which we all now live.

It turns out Ms. Swisher is a close contemporary of yours truly. She and I grew up as modern tech did, from the internet's birth to now -- though she much closer in. For example, when she writes VC, for Venture Capital, I still think Viet Cong.  She has lived and worked in many of the places I have, even writing for the Washington Post and DC City Paper back when I lived in the Greater Metropolitan Area.

In addition to that somewhat sketchy connection, I couldn't help but think of my dad as I read Burn Book. A Navy Supply Corp guy with an MBA who rode the computer wave from mainframes and punch cards to cell phones and iPads, he would love this book. What's not to like about unpredictably advancing computer tech baffling high-stakes finance guys (yes, most are guys), entertainingly reported by a whip-smart writer with an extensive Rolodex?

I picked up Burn Book right after reading a bunch of cyberspy nonfiction (there is another election coming, you'll recall), which then led to revisiting cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson's 1980s Neuromancer trilogy. With AI on my shoulder like a vulture and November 5 looming, I was trying to answer the question, "How in the hell did we get here?" Pulitzer Prize-winning tech reporter John Markoff isn't too wrong: “What the science fiction world saw in the ‘80s and ‘90s has actually come to pass.” 

Enter Kara, in mirrorshades. Borrowed, one suspects, from William Gibson. Her first sentence, essentially the message of many of Gibson's works, drew me right in: "As it turned out, it was capitalism after all." 

With that she's off to the races, starting with the infamous 2016 confab in Trump Tower when the president-elect called in the "digital arms dealers" Musk, Thiel, Bezos, Sandberg, Brin, Page, Schmidt, Cook, and Nadella for what Swisher calls "The Apprentice: Nerd Edition."

Chapter two, "Before the Gold Rush," begins with E.M. Forster's "only connect" bit from Howards End. "Live in fragments no longer" sounds like a noble goal indeed, but Burn Book shows how painfully short of that goal we are. Moving back to her start as a writer, Swisher wins points for clogging up an early world wide web connection with a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon (insert fist pump). Before you know it, Wall Street Journal reporter and Swisher's mentor Walt Mossberg sends her west to the still-crystalizing Silicon Valley. She lands as Netscape goes public and is valued at three billion on the first day. Wall Street's eyes get buggy. Next stop: "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle," AKA Yahoo, then on to AOL and a young Google, who suggests “Don't Be Evil."

One, especially Kara Swisher, can't report on all this without discussing the Silicon Valley elite, both founders and investors, and Swisher especially shines when moving from business to business people. Most of whom she's nicknamed (Uncle Satan, The Mongoose, etc.). Early Jeff Bezos gets a lot of ink, much of it complimentary, despite, or because of, his being "feral enough to survive the coming cataclysm." Which turns out to be the AOL-Time Warner surprise merger fiasco and the end of the beginning of Silicon Valley. The dot-com bubble explodes.

She, we, and the whole “insidious, logrolling, back-scratching ecosystem” then takes a deep breath to appreciate Steve Jobs for a while. "The Golden God." Jobs suddenly buys Pixar, and "what do you get if you cross Hollywood with Silicon Valley? Sillywood." The relationship was and is two-way, grows and grows, and quickly enters everyone’s life as new things like YouTube.

We haven't even got to Zuckerberg and Musk, called by Swisher the most dangerous man and the most disappointing man in tech, respectively. Why such labels? To start with, recall 2016 Zuckerberg and Cambridge Analytica, and Musk’s 2023-24 Starlink follies over Ukraine. Self-important silicon gods playing World Leader Pretend. There is, of course, much more. It’s capitalism after all.

I mentioned that this is a memoir, and interwoven with the web of history and gossip and Wall Street wack Swisher does indeed provide a good deal of her life as a journalist in the midst of a dramatic shift in how news is reported, distributed, and even made. Her story, running from the print media of the last century to recent podcasts, plus her own family life and health, is as engaging as the tech parts. There's a teaser in the acknowledgements that Burn Book is part one of a two-book memoir.

Wrapping up as Kara Swisher does, "I now leave you to your own devices—and I mean devices."

-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.