Kara Swisher Is Not Here to Make Friends in Her New Memoir

BURN BOOK: A Tech Love Story, by Kara Swisher

Public opinion has soured so thoroughly on Silicon Valley that it can be hard to comprehend the excitement that surrounded the industry in its early years. How did people miss the threat of concentrated wealth and power, the super-exploitation of gig workers, the commodification of daily life, the pollution of discourse by micro-targeted propaganda and whiny billionaires?

A common story holds that we were dazzled by fast-talking entrepreneurs and entranced by the slick platforms and gadgets they served up, deluded into believing digital technology would solve all of our problems. But perhaps the emphasis on user irrationality is overstated. One of the insights to be gleaned from “Burn Book: A Tech Love Story,” a memoir by the veteran technology journalist Kara Swisher, is that those who embraced the internet early on may have been driven by a totally reasonable dissatisfaction with the status quo, as much as a naïve infatuation with the promise of digital utopia.

Although the prologue frames “Burn Book” as a righteous roast of an industry that has gone “off the rails,” the best part of Swisher’s ultimately underwhelming tale takes place when Mark Zuckerberg was in grade school. Before she rose to fame covering the early internet, before she founded a series of conferences and publications that made her wealthy, before she started a couple of hit podcasts and became a New York Times opinion writer, Swisher was an ambitious, outspoken, hyper-confident young woman struggling to make her way in a world practically designed to hold her back.

We meet her as a closeted lesbian at Georgetown in the early 1980s, dismayed by the administration’s efforts to ban gay groups from campus. She gives up her dream of working for the C.I.A. because of the 1990s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. She gets a job working for the conservative television host John McLaughlin, who, she says, sexually harasses a colleague and ritualistically demoralizes his staff. As a cub reporter at The Washington Post, she chafes against the petty bureaucracy of the newsroom.

When she is angry, Swisher does not hold back, and you can really feel her younger self’s frustration and rage at the ossified power structure and the straight white men who still dominated: “I hated their entitlement and certainty that the future belonged to them.”

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