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Kara Swisher is still drawn to tech despite her disappointments with the industry

Kara Swisher attends Vox Media's 2022 Code Conference on September 6, 2022, in Beverly Hills, California.
Randy Shropshire
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Getty Images for Vox Media
Kara Swisher attends Vox Media's 2022 Code Conference on September 6, 2022, in Beverly Hills, California.

Kara Swisher is a conversationalist.

She begins one thought and is reminded of another. She talks of one of the tech leaders she has interviewed over the years, and mentions another. The conversation is not aimless. She eventually connects all the circuits, offering a complex picture of how she processes the world.

Swisher's memoir Burn Book recounts more than three decades covering the tech industry as a beat reporter, analyst, columnist, podcaster and TV personality. She partnered with fellow journalist Walt Mossberg to lead the way in hosting tech conferences — where they would interview billionaires on stage. And she says many of those billionaires would also talk directly with her in private.

Over time, she writes in Burn Book, she went from merely asking these tech leaders what they were thinking and doing to telling them what she thought of their business deals and their products. And she says many wanted to hear her opinions.

Swisher is still fond of many tech moguls — even subtitling her memoir A Tech Love Story. For her forthcoming book tour, she has asked many tech leaders to interview her on stage, and she told me she intends to turn those interviews into podcasts.

When it comes to other tech executives, she is disillusioned.

As we spoke at NPR last week, the conversation moved rapidly from topic to topic and mogul to mogul: Elon Musk of Tesla; Jeff Bezos of Amazon; Bill Gates of Microsoft; investor Mark Andreessen; and the late Steve Jobs, whose products at Apple included the iPhone.

A portion of our long conversation was broadcast on NPR's Morning Edition. But a few minutes didn't capture the full flavor. So this page offers a longer portion of the interview, in both text and audio, where Swisher details her views on the tech world and her disappointments with it.


KARA SWISHER

The reason why I hold [tech leaders] to a higher standard is because they said it themselves: "We're going to change the world. We're going to make the world a better place. We're going to flatten organizations. We're going to bring education to everybody." ...They had these grand visions of themselves as change makers in a way that you never hear from a Wall Street person or a pharmaceutical – maybe every now and then a pharmaceutical person.

STEVE INSKEEP, host, NPR's Morning Edition

You say that you were at least a little bit cynical about that from the very beginning.

I was.

Was there also a level of you that believed it?

I did. I had great hopes, and I still do. Like, when I think of artificial general intelligence, there's a lot of scary things, but I think of all the great things. I always tend to go toward, "What could this do? What could we do for education?" I have a real obsession with talent, where talent is. And I always think that one of the great things about tech is you can find talent anywhere. Before, it was trapped in, I don't know, a little girl in Syria that couldn't get education, well, now she can.

And she can be connected to the wider world.

She can be connected to the wider world. I always believed that connection brings better outcomes because if people could see their commonality. What it's done because of the way it's been rolled out is fractured us, and isolated us, and made us not understand each other as well.

You can think of the tech industry as a product of forces of history. The United States invested in tech in a particular way in Silicon Valley after World War Two. A lot of things happened in society that led to this moment.

Sure.

Kara Swisher speaks onstage during Vox Media's 2023 Code Conference at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel on September 27, 2023, in Dana Point, California.
Jerod Harris / Getty Images for Vox Media
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Getty Images for Vox Media
Kara Swisher speaks onstage during Vox Media's 2023 Code Conference at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel on Sept. 27, 2023, in Dana Point, Calif.

Do you think the billionaires at the top of that pyramid, the beneficiaries of that history, the greatest beneficiaries, understand that they are products of that?

No, because it's all about them. They did it. They act like they're these pioneers that wandered across the West. And I was like, "Well, you know, even them, Jefferson bought that so you could do that. Government paid for that Louisiana Purchase." They really do think they know better. Someone's like, "Elon did it on his own." Elon got a loan from the government. Elon has contracts. Elon was saved a number of times by the government. The Internet was paid for by the American taxpayer. This ingenuity was built on the data provided by people. They take our data, chop it up. They essentially steal our data, chomp it up. And hand it back to us to eat. It's amazing. And then we were like, Thank you.

And we're charged for it.

Yes. And we're charged for it.

Let me ask about that person that you just were on a first name basis with: Elon. Elon Musk. What was your impression of him when you first began speaking with him?

Very first? I met him when he was at Zip2, which was a Yellow Pages online. It was a very uninteresting company that he kind of got zeroed out of. They all look the same to me. They were all white, all dudes, all young, all socially awkward, you know? Same gang. So he. He wasn't remarkable in that regard. And they all made a bunch of money when eBay bought it by a stroke of luck–not genius, because those businesses were really struggling at the time, by the way. And others went off and did what I thought stupid things like, "Have a dry cleaning service, it's delivery, it's digital!" And I'm like, okay, I just at some point I was like, all you do is say Internet dry cleaning.

You weren't impressed with the vision.

I wasn't impressed with the vision. I was like, okay, you're just digitizing another thing. It's not particularly creative. And he started working on cars, the electric cars... And he was doing stuff that was smart in my estimation. And so I liked that. It was always an interesting conversation. It was weird, he'd talk about living in a simulation. He had an imagination. It was resonant to me, a little bit, of Steve Jobs, although now it is absolutely not. Steve was like that. Steve was very interesting to talk to and he was always spinning you; everyone was like, "Yeah, he had a reality distortion field." I'm like, Yeah, I was aware. I don't care. It was interesting.

You write that Steve Jobs would lie to you on stage.

Yes, yes. About the phone.

"I'm not working on a phone of any kind."

Why should he tell us the truth about that? I wasn't as offended other reporters, who were like, "He lied to us." I'm like, Oh, you're kidding. Shockeroo. Like, why would he tell us? He's working on a phone. He doesn't anyone to know. You know, Marc Andreessen lied to me about leaving AOL. They lie about things little and big.

It seems that you've made your peace with the idea that for some of these people, truth is not the highest value.

Some of them are [truthful]. I more object to talking points. Most of them are smart. Think about it. These are the founders, right? Like you're talking to Thomas Edison here, [or] the people who started the car companies. [or] who invented Hollywood. These are the actual people, not the executives that came later. And so they're going to be a different group of people and they have to suspend disbelief in order to do what they're doing.

Kara Swisher and Sundar Pichai speak onstage Vox Media's 2022 Code Conference on September 6, 2022 in Beverly Hills, California.
Jerod Harris / Getty Images for Vox Media
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Getty Images for Vox Media
Kara Swisher and Sundar Pichai speak onstage Vox Media's 2022 Code Conference on Sept. 6, 2022, in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Wait a minute. They almost have to lie to themselves as well as everyone else.

That's what they're doing most of all. That's the most important thing, I think, for a reporter to recognize. Elon, getting back to Elon, was a really interesting cat. He really was. He was funny and a lot of them aren't funny. And he was so awkward and socially just off, you know what I mean? Like they all are. He has a weird way of talking and and that's not an insult to me. Just you could see his brain moving a million miles an hour when you were talking to him. And about ten percent of his personality then was juvenile, was highly juvenile–boob jokes, penis jokes, memes.

Only 10%?

At the time. You didn't see a lot of it. And then that 10% started to really infect and then it started to sour very quickly. As he became richer and richer and more people around him nodded their head and said, Yes, that outfit looks great. You know, when it didn't, like the emperor has no clothes kind of thing. And then there was a crisis at Tesla where they almost went out of business and he took it to this ridiculous, dramatic extreme. And we did an interview. He said, if Tesla didn't survive, humanity was doomed. And I was like, Huh?

That is a very Elon-centered view of [humanity].

It was. And then I was like, "Oh, he's living in a video game. And he's the main character in the video game. And you could see mental health challenges, you know, around the edges– very easy to get emotional. That started to happen. COVID was a real moment. We did an interview, remote interview, where he was clearly high on that interview. You know, it was pretty easy to see because he was wandering and his eyes were red, and so–and he never pretended he wasn't smoking pot, by the way, which was legal in California. I don't care–but he got very upset when we started talking about the closing of his factory, his facility in California, and he started ranting about the government, and then said he knew COVID would only kill a few people. And he had read all the studies and it was like someone who was really going crazy at 3 a.m..

Doing his own research, as they say.

Right. And he was like, Kara, this is not going to kill millions of people. I was like, Well, that's what plagues tend to do. Something happened during COVID. It happened to a lot of people, it's not an uncommon thing. And then the [Wall Street] Journal finally wrote about the drug issues, the possibility of using quite a lot of ketamine and other things like that.

Kara Swisher speaks on the TriNet stage during Pivot MIA at 1 Hotel South Beach on February 15, 2022 in Miami, Florida.
Jason Koerner / Getty Images for Vox Media
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Getty Images for Vox Media
Kara Swisher speaks on the TriNet stage during Pivot MIA at 1 Hotel South Beach on February 15, 2022 in Miami, Florida.

The biographer, Robert Caro, has a line about power. He says it is wrong to think that power corrupts, that power changes a person. He believes power reveals who you really are.

Yeah, that's interesting. I'm not totally sure if I agree with that, because I do think money–the immense wealth these people have–makes it impossible for them to get the truth into their heads and they start to believe whatever. History is littered with kings who have and courts, that's what that's what it is. And so only the strongest people go try to find people who disagree with them. And you know this from Lincoln, right? Like you wrote the Lincoln book. So having an ability to take disagreement is a very mature thing and it's a very wise thing. But a lot of people would rather not hear the truth.

You cast yourself as someone who is willing to speak truthfully, as you saw it to these guys. And you say that some of them have found you to be an asset.

Yes.

Some of them cut you off.

Yes, that's correct. And it often depends. It's a complex thing. I try to tell them the truth as I know it. I don't say I'm right, you're wrong, but often I am kind of right. I'm good at figuring things out. I take in a lot of inputs that maybe they don't. I talk to all of them. They only talk to their enablers, often. So I do have more insight than they do. And some of them find that valuable. And I think it is. Why wouldn't you?

Do you ever worry that some of them are asking your opinion because they want to kind of use you or co-opt you or win you over?

I don't quite know what power I have. For what? I don't sell iPhones for them. I just, you know, for what precisely?

As a writer, as a columnist, as someone who opines on tech.

Well, no I think it's okay to decide who you like and you don't. I think journalists try to pretend that they don't have an opinion and they do. We can report and then come to a conclusion.

Sure. Sure. I would agree with that. I'm just wondering if you think sometimes these tech guys ask your opinion to win you over.

I don't know that. I think one of the most powerful people in technology was Walt Mossberg, [a leading tech journalist], who was my mentor. And I think he decided what he liked based on what he liked. No matter how much spinning they did at him, if he didn't like a product he didn't like it. One of the things I thought was powerful is, he liked some things. "I like this." And, you know, a lot of journalists tend to have to be like, "This is why it's wrong." I don't mind saying, "This is why it's right. This is why it works. This is why I like it." I don't think I have a lot of power. I really don't. I know people think that, but of what? Precisely what has happened because Kara Swisher said something?

I don't know. But why do you think they talk to you, the ones who still do?

Because I'm often right about things! One of the things I wanted to be was a CIA analyst. And I'm really good at piecing together things, information. I'm really good at puzzles like, oh, I see how this is going to go. And that's why I was a good beat reporter because I was like, I'm, I'm going to guess this is happening. And then I pursue things. I wrote a column, for example, in the New York Times where I said: If Donald Trump loses the election, he's going to start to get online and radicalize his people that the election was stolen. And then it's going to go up and down the online food chain. And then he's going to ask them to do something in the real world or he's going to move them to do something in the real world.

You were saying all this before the 2020 election.

2019! I got so much pushback... I got a lot of calls like "Kara, this is just you again going off." And it's not based on me guessing. It's based on 20, 30 years of reporting and knowing people and going, this is what I think they're going to do. These are the tools that are available. This is how these tools can be used. Right now I'm very obsessed with AGI news on Google. It's everywhere. Like news articles pop up instantly, based on whatever tragic event has happened. And I'm fascinated.

AGI means?

Artificial general intelligence, so AGI [is] making news stories based on information that comes in. It used to just be, it would link you to NPR or whatever. Now they make the stories up without any facts, right?

And without any human being necessarily involved.

Right. But some of them are accurate-ish, and some of them aren't. I'm really interested in that right now and I think it's working with people when they read it. We are information obese. You know, we don't understand what we're eating and therefore we're obese.

We're more informed but less wise.

That's correct. That's because we don't know where the information's coming from. We tend to believe what's online. There was a really interesting encounter. You know, I go on Facebook sometimes when I'm feeling like hurting myself. And during the Black Lives Matter thing, there was a Facebook group someone pointed me to where this town, I think it was Illinois, was obsessed with the idea that Antifa was coming to their town and going to attack them. And I got in there and I was like, "Antifa is not coming to your town. First of all, no such thing. And why did they come to your crappy little town?"

Kara Swisher speaks onstage during the "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee" FYC Event NY on May 14, 2018, in New York City.
Monica Schipper / Getty Images for Turner
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Getty Images for Turner
Kara Swisher speaks onstage during the "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee" FYC Event NY on May 14, 2018, in New York City.

"How did you become the center of Antifa's universe?"

But they got all jazzed up. And so they're like, this is what we do. We get more guns, we put plywood on the outside of the [windows] and then we'll prevent it when the buses come. I'm like, They ain't coming! And of course they didn't come. And at the end they were back to [saying], "They didn't come because we were prepared." I was like, "No, they didn't come because they didn't come. They weren't there." And so it was really interesting how people go to incredible lengths to convince them of things, and this online information helps them get there. Conspiracy theorists now have a million ways to prove they're right now, versus before when they were just sort of hanging out here talking about the Loch Ness monster.

What do you think that the tech leaders you've spoken with feel, think or believe really about that aspect of the world they have helped to create?

It's not their responsibility that people are using their products for nefarious things. That's their take on everything. "It's not us. Bad things have happened." You know, very passive voice.

When I think about some of the tech guys you've interviewed, you write about them, not just Elon Musk, in some pretty harsh terms. Jeff Bezos you refer to as "feral."

I don't think that's an insult.

"Venal." Venal would–insult or not, if it's accurate I guess it's not an insult. But you call them these things. You acknowledge that they lie to you. You are just talking here about how they've helped to break our world in some meaningful ways. You do keep talking to them when they will talk to you. Is there some level in which you like them?

Some of them I do. I really like Mark Cuban, and we had a lot of wrangling over the years.

Is there something you like about the ones you consider venal, feral, bad, awful?

Not all of them are awful. I think there's a very small handful who are really, really that have lost the narrative rather severely. You know, Elon is in that gang. I think Mark [Zuckerberg] is salvageable. You know, Bill Gates, remember when he was Darth Vader, then he wasn't? He's really done some really important things around philanthropy.

Billions and billions of dollars around the world.

In a very effective way. Just giving away money isn't impressive to me. It's how you do it. And he was a difficult pain in the ass, he was. But has certainly developed over time in a way. I can see Mark doing that. I could because he has the tools in place to do so.

In talking so much with very rich, very famous people, do you ever worry about losing touch yourself?

No, because I can leave. I can't stand their homes. I was at someone's house. I was like, thank you so much for having me at the Four Seasons. Some of their houses look like the Four Seasons. Like big flowers and a lot of marble. Stuff like that. I find them lonely sometimes and so I can leave. I have turned down jobs at all those companies. So that's an interesting thing. Either I'm very stupid or I don't like money or something. I don't go on their planes, I don't vacation with them. I don't go on their yachts. I don't live their weird antiseptic environments which you see really well depicted on "Succession," actually. And they all have staffs everywhere. All these people. And I find that I don't have an assistant. I travel light. And so no, I don't. I don't think I'll become–I mean, I do very well for a journalist financially.

I was going to say, I mean, even on your level, I'm sure you're doing very well.

I'm doing very well.

Very successful, and you could worry about losing touch on that level.

No, because the one thing I love about tech people is the entrepreneurial nature of a lot of them, most of them, actually. That's the part I like to try to take away the things I like. And I have been infected by that. I've you know, I've started a number of businesses. I've been largely successful at them. I've sold them. I've changed to something else, I've left things. And so I tend to like entrepreneurism quite a bit, and I think we need a lot more of it throughout our society.

The memoir by Kara Swisher is Burn Book: A Tech Love Story. Thanks for coming by.

Thanks, Steve. Do you love tech?

Sure. I mean, it's a part of my life whether I want to love it or not.

I think you do.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 29, 2024 at 12:00 AM EST
Kara Swisher uses the term "artificial general intelligence," or AGI, which refers to a theoretical concept of machines potentially surpassing the power of the human brain. AGI does not currently exist. But online content, including news articles, are being written using technology known as generative AI.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.