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Kara Swisher Is Sick of Tech People, So She Wrote a Book About Them

Kara Swisher Is Sick of Tech People, So She Wrote a Book About Them

In her new memoir, Burn Book, Kara Swisher cites a 2014 profile that dubbed her “Silicon Valley’s Most Feared and Well-Liked Journalist.” She might prefer to downplay the first and emphasize the second. Some people would switch that around. But there is no dispute about Swisher’s impact: When it comes to tech punditry, she’s at the top of the heap.

No tech journalist has built a bigger brand for herself. Her three-decade career is a study in hard work and uncommon confidence. She rose from being a reporter at The Washington Post to The Wall Street Journal’s internet reporter and then, in her biggest leap, the cofounder of the All Things D Conference and website with her revered mentor, tech reviewer Walt Mossberg. In one of their most famous interviews, she and Mossberg moderated a blissfully convivial joint session with lifetime rivals Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in 2007 that brought many in the audience to tears. Swisher and Mossberg left the Journal in 2013 and started the successful Code conference, with Swisher heading a news site. Her interviews can be tough, the most famous being with Mark Zuckerberg in 2010, when he was so rattled by the way Swisher and Mossberg pressed him on privacy that he literally sweated through his hoodie. In addition to interviewing the entire tech CEO pantheon, Swisher has tossed questions at figures in politics and culture—Hillary Clinton, Kim Kardashian, Maria Ressa, and so on. All the while Swisher has broken plenty of news, fueled by her deep sources. In the past few years, she has mastered the podcast medium with two hits—On With Kara Swisher, an interview show, and Pivot, with business professor Scott Galloway—as well as a coveted stint hosting HBO’s Succession podcast. Swisher also had a short, high-profile run as a New York Times op-ed columnist. She’s played herself on Silicon Valley and The Simpsons. Her current affiliations are with Vox and New York magazine, and she is a permanent panelist on The Chris Wallace Show, a CNN Saturday morning talkfest.

Despite the title, Burn Book is less a scorched-earth exposé than a primer for Swisher newbies and those who want to know the tech world from an insider perspective. On her podcasts she loves to riff on the big trouble she’s courting by revealing the skeletons in tech’s closet, but for her regular listeners there’s little in Burn Book that they won’t have already heard. (She explains that the title is a play on her Mean Girls reputation, a reference to the book of rumors written by the movie’s high school bullies, and that the cover shot of her face with her trademark Ray-Bans, a raging inferno reflected in the lenses, is kind of a joke.) In the memoir, Swisher slashes her way through the tech world like John Wick with a word processor, vanquishing vain CEOs and clueless legacy media bosses and emerging without a scratch. Those humbled bros include Elon Musk, a former pal who’s now a nemesis. But unlike Musk, who Swisher says recently declared her an “asshole,” most of the tech world still, well, likes and fears her. Other journalists dream of interviewing the likes of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman. At one stop on Swisher’s book tour, Altman is slated to interview her.

During my afternoon with Swisher at her house in a tony neighborhood in northwest Washington, DC, she took frequent breaks for fond exchanges with three of her four children, her wife Amanda Katz (an editor for The Washington Post), and her ex-wife, Megan Smith, a former US chief technology officer, who dropped in. Our conversation, though, was feisty, as we talked about her storied career, why she abandoned the conference business and The New York Times, and how she answers to the charge that she’s mean.

Steven Levy: What prompted you to write a memoir?

Kara Swisher: I didn’t want to. Jonathan Karp, the publisher of Simon & Schuster, bugged me for years to write something. I was much more interested in the blogs or the podcasts or whatever. I never really liked writing my books. The process was so slow. And I’d had enough of these [tech] people. I don’t like most of them anymore. I didn’t want to reflect on them. I’m sick of them. They’re sick of me. And Walt Mossberg was supposed to write his memoir, right?

Forget Growth. Optimize for Resilience

Forget Growth. Optimize for Resilience

Fleming believed that growth has natural limits. Things grow to maturity—kids into adults, saplings into trees, startups into full-fledged companies—but growth beyond that point is, in his words, a “pathology” and an “affliction.” The bigger and more productive an economy gets, he argued, the more resources it needs to burn to maintain its own infrastructure. It becomes less and less efficient at keeping any one person clothed, fed, and sheltered. He called this the “intensification paradox”: The harder everyone works to make the GDP line point up, the harder everyone has to work to make the GDP line point up. Inevitably, Fleming believed, growth will turn to degrowth, intensification to deintensification. These are things to prepare for, plan for, and the way to do that is with the missing metric: resilience.

Fleming offers several definitions of resilience, the briefest of which is “the ability of a system to cope with shock.” He describes two kinds: preventive resilience, which helps you maintain an existing state in spite of shocks, and recovery-elastic resilience, which helps you adapt quickly to a new post-shock state. Growth won’t help you with resilience, Fleming argues. Only community will. He’s big on the “informal economy”—think Craigslist and Buy Nothing, not Amazon. People helping people.

So I began to imagine, in my hypocritical heart, an analytics platform that would measure resilience in those terms. As growth shot too high, notifications would fire off to your phone: Slow down! Stop selling! Instead of revenue, it would measure relationships formed, barters fulfilled, products loaned and reused. It would reflect all sorts of non-transactional activities that make a company resilient: Is the sales team doing enough yoga? Are the office dogs getting enough pets? In the analytics meeting, we would ask questions like “Is the product cheap enough for everyone?” I even tried to sketch out a resilience funnel, where the juice that drips down is people checking in on their neighbors. It was an interesting exercise, but what I ended up imagining was basically HR software for Burning Man, which, well, I’m not sure that’s the world I want to live in either. If you come up with a good resilience funnel, let me know. Such a product would perform very badly in the marketplace (assuming you could even measure that).

The fundamental problem is that the stuff that creates resilience won’t ever show up in the analytics. Let’s say you were building a chat app. If people chat more using your app, that’s good, right? That’s community! But the really good number, from a resilience perspective, is how often they put down the app and meet up in person to hash things out. Because that will lead to someone coming by the house with lasagna when someone else has Covid, or someone giving someone’s kid an old acoustic guitar from the attic in exchange for, I don’t know, a beehive. Whole Earth stuff. You know how it works.

All of this somewhat guilty running around led me back to the simplest answer: I can’t measure resilience. I mean, sure, I could wing a bunch of vague, abstract stats and make pronouncements. God knows I’ve done a lot of that before. But there’s no metric, really, that can capture it. Which means I have to talk to strangers, politely, about problems they’re trying to solve.

I hate this conclusion. I want to push out content and see lines move and make no more small talk. I want my freaking charts. That’s why I like tech. Benchmarks, CPU speeds, hard drive sizes, bandwidth, users, point releases, revenue. I love when the number goes up. It’s almost impossible to imagine a world where it doesn’t. Or rather it used to be.


This article appears in the November 2023 issue. Subscribe now.

Men Overran a Job Fair for Women in Tech

Men Overran a Job Fair for Women in Tech

It was meant to be a week for women in tech—but this year’s Grace Hopper Celebration was swamped by men who gate-crashed the event in search of lucrative tech jobs.

The annual conference and career fair aimed at women and non-binary tech workers, which takes its name from a pioneering computer scientist, took place last week in Orlando, Florida. The event bills itself as the largest gathering of women in tech worldwide, and has sought to unite women in the tech industry for nearly 30 years. Sponsors include Apple, Amazon, and Bloomberg, and it’s a major networking opportunity for aspiring tech workers. In-person admission costs between $649 and around $1,300.

This year, droves of men showed up with résumés in hand. AnitaB.org, the nonprofit that runs the conference, said there was “an increase in participation of self-identifying males” at this year’s event. The nonprofit says it believes allyship from men is important, and noted it cannot ban men from attending due to federal nondiscrimination protections in the US.

Organizers expressed frustration. Past iterations of the conference have “always felt safe and loving and embracing,” said Bo Young Lee, president of advisory at AnitaB.org, in a LinkedIn post. “And this year, I must admit, I didn’t feel this way.”

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Cullen White, AnitaB.org’s chief impact officer, said in a video posted to X, formerly Twitter, that some registrants had lied about their gender identity when signing up, and men were now taking up space and time with recruiters that should go to women. “All of those are limited resources to which you have no right,” White said. AnitaB.org did not respond to a request for comment.

Tech jobs, once a fairly safe and lucrative bet, have become more elusive. In 2022 and 2023, tech companies around the world laid off more than 400,000 workers, according to Layoffs.fyi, a site that tracks job losses across the industry. Tens of thousands of those cuts have come from huge employers like Meta and Amazon, and some firms have instituted hiring freezes. The layoffs have been particularly brutal for immigrant workers, who have been left scrambling for sponsorship in the US after losing work.

The controversy at the Grace Hopper Celebration shows the fallout of those job losses, as women and non-binary people still struggle to find equal footing in an industry dominated by men. Women made up just a third of those working in STEM jobs as of 2021, according to the US National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.

As job cuts bite, all prospective tech workers have become more desperate for opportunities. During the conference, videos posted to TikTok showed a sea of men waiting in line to enter the conference or speak with recruiters in the expo hall. Men and women are seen running into the expo as a staffer yells for them to slow down.

Avni Barman, the founder of female-talent focused media platform Gen She, says she immediately noticed “tons” more men and a more chaotic scene this time compared to previous years.

Barman was at the conference to host a meet-up. During and after the conference, she heard from a number of women who were sad and frustrated after. “This is a conference for women and non-binary people,” Barman says.

Nelly Azar, a student at The Ohio State University studying computer science and engineering, attended the conference and saw long lines of people waiting to speak to employers. That was entirely different from 2022, they say, when they attended and saw few men.

Azar says they could talk to only two of the companies they were interested in because others were inundated with applicants. Long lines zigzagged outside the entrance to the event’s expo hall. The frustration was palpable. This year’s conference shows “not only how fragile our spaces are, but why we need them more than ever,” Azar says. “Now is one of the most important times to advocate for gender equity.”

Explore the Ancient Aztec Capital in This Lifelike 3D Rendering

Explore the Ancient Aztec Capital in This Lifelike 3D Rendering

The Aztecs did not count time on an infinite scale, as we do, but in cyclical 52-year periods, and at the completion of each cycle, life and the world would begin anew. To initiate the start of a new cycle the New Fire ceremony was held, the most important Aztec ritual. Every 52 years the inhabitants of Tenochtitlán discarded the images of their gods and all their domestic utensils and extinguished any fires in their homes and temples. As the city sat in complete darkness, priests would leave the Templo Mayor and travel to Huixachtlan (Cerro de la Estrella, or Hill of the Star), and at the summit they would perform a ceremony to light a new fire. The ritual was surrounded with uncertainty and fear because it was believed that if the new fire was not successfully lit, the world would end and the stars would turn into monsters that would devour humanity. During the five days prior to the ceremony, the people let their fires go out and destroyed their household goods, and then they waited, fasting and lamenting, pondering the possibility of the collapse of the world. That moment was beautifully re-created in 3D by Kole.

El Cerro de la Estrella or the Hill of the Star.

El Cerro de la Estrella, or the Hill of the Star.

“The really hard part was gathering all the information and then trying things out,” explains Thomas Kole. “How do you create a city when you don’t really know anything about it? How do you start gathering that information? That was really difficult and involved throwing out a lot of things when I found different sources with conflicting information. That’s part of being a pioneer, venturing into the unknown, into what no one has done before, but that’s also very difficult because it takes a lot of time. Also, I don’t speak Spanish and I’m not an academic, so I really approached this as an outsider,” Kole says.

“The year is 1518. Mexico-Tenochtitlán, once an unassuming settlement in the middle of Lake Texcoco, is now a bustling metropolis. It is the capital of an empire ruling over, and receiving tribute from, more than five million people. Tenochtitlán is home to 200,000 farmers, artisans, merchants, soldiers, priests, and aristocrats. At this time, it is one of the largest cities in the world. Today, we call this city Ciudad de Mexico—Mexico City,” reads the site, which opens with a stylized Tenochtitlán glyph, made by Mi Corazón Mexica.

Geoffrey Hinton, Godfather of AI, Has a Hopeful Plan for Keeping Future AI Friendly

Geoffrey Hinton, Godfather of AI, Has a Hopeful Plan for Keeping Future AI Friendly

That sounded to me like he was anthropomorphizing those artificial systems, something scientists constantly tell laypeople and journalists not to do. “Scientists do go out of their way not to do that, because anthropomorphizing most things is silly,” Hinton concedes. “But they’ll have learned those things from us, they’ll learn to behave just like us linguistically. So I think anthropomorphizing them is perfectly reasonable.” When your powerful AI agent is trained on the sum total of human digital knowledge—including lots of online conversations—it might be more silly not to expect it to act human.

But what about the objection that a chatbot could never really understand what humans do, because those linguistic robots are just impulses on computer chips without direct experience of the world? All they are doing, after all, is predicting the next word needed to string out a response that will statistically satisfy a prompt. Hinton points out that even we don’t really encounter the world directly.

“Some people think, hey, there’s this ultimate barrier, which is we have subjective experience and [robots] don’t, so we truly understand things and they don’t,” says Hinton. “That’s just bullshit. Because in order to predict the next word, you have to understand what the question was. You can’t predict the next word without understanding, right? Of course they’re trained to predict the next word, but as a result of predicting the next word they understand the world, because that’s the only way to do it.”

So those things can be … sentient? I don’t want to believe that Hinton is going all Blake Lemoine on me. And he’s not, I think. “Let me continue in my new career as a philosopher,” Hinton says, jokingly, as we skip deeper into the weeds. “Let’s leave sentience and consciousness out of it. I don’t really perceive the world directly. What I think is in the world isn’t what’s really there. What happens is it comes into my mind, and I really see what’s in my mind directly. That’s what Descartes thought. And then there’s the issue of how is this stuff in my mind connected to the real world? And how do I actually know the real world?” Hinton goes on to argue that since our own experience is subjective, we can’t rule out that machines might have equally valid experiences of their own. “Under that view, it’s quite reasonable to say that these things may already have subjective experience,” he says.

Now consider the combined possibilities that machines can truly understand the world, can learn deceit and other bad habits from humans, and that giant AI systems can process zillions of times more information that brains can possibly deal with. Maybe you, like Hinton, now have a more fraughtful view of future AI outcomes.

But we’re not necessarily on an inevitable journey toward disaster. Hinton suggests a technological approach that might mitigate an AI power play against humans: analog computing, just as you find in biology and as some engineers think future computers should operate. It was the last project Hinton worked on at Google. “It works for people,” he says. Taking an analog approach to AI would be less dangerous because each instance of analog hardware has some uniqueness, Hinton reasons. As with our own wet little minds, analog systems can’t so easily merge in a Skynet kind of hive intelligence.