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Burn Book: Book Review

Burn Book: A Tech Love Story, Kara Swisher (2024). Swisher is a journalist and started covering computer and internet-related technology early. This is part memoir and part description of the developments, both good and bad, over the decades. She has favorable things to say about Steve Jobs, but that’s about it. The remaining billionaires are described as psychologically deficient, usually infantile, with immense power used badly.


Prologue: Sheeple Who Need Sheeple. She starts with newly elected President Trump calling Silicon Valley CEOs to Trump Tower, presumably the guy that was their antithesis. “They are being used to legitimatize a fascist” (p. 6).

Elon Musk engaged with her “on a semi-human basis. Musk would morph later into a troll king-at-scale with Twitter” (p. 2). The Silicon Valley elite transformed “from young, idealistic strivers in a scrappy upstart industry into leaders of some of America’s largest and most influential businesses. … The richer and more powerful people grew, the more compromised they became” (p. 4). Rich people attract enablers. A major result was the flood of misinformation.


They avoided serious regulations. The elites “have weaponized the First Amendment. They have weaponized civic discourse. And they have weaponized, most of all, politics. The rich titans would argue that they were no worse than cable networks like Fox News” (p. 7). Trump became a master of distortion on social technology. “Twitter, stupidly renamed, has mutated into a platform where the richest man in the world offers his retweet support to racist, sexist, and homophobic conspiracies” (p. 11). The social system encourages isolation, rage, and addictive behavior.


Chapter 1: Babylon Was. The idea of ARPA for connecting computers was created in 1962, described by JCR Licklider. Swisher studied propaganda noting “How easily people could be manipulated by fear and rage and how facts could be destroyed without repercussions” (p. 20). She was described as ‘too confident’ which she noted was said by men “to women to shut them up and undercut them” (p. 22). She was a ghostwriter for John McLaughlin, including oversimplifying complex issues, while he added “right-wing invective.”


Chapter 2: Before the Gold Rush. The Gore Bill of 1991 funded various internet initiatives like the Mosaic browser. Swisher theorized that everything that could be digitized would be digitized. The Web brough some order to the unorganized mass that was online. Douglas Engelbart invented the mouse and graphical user interface. The world wide web was launched in 1990 at CERN. The Mosaic browser was created by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina. Andreessen cocreated Netscape with Jim Clark, going public in 1995. Steve Case launched AOL shortly after. Netscape was acquired by AOL in 1998. AOL merged with Time Warner before it crashed. 


Chapter 3: California, Here I Come. Most digital startups were considered Ponzi schemes or Potemkin villages. Swisher considered various tech titans as self-righteous, often seeing themselves as victims. Add self-congratulations and self-deception. The success of the Netscape IPO made later tech offerings more palatable. Yahoo was founded in 1995 by Jerry Yang and David Filo and became the new gateway to the internet, adding various bells and whistles like email, commerce, and news.


 Chapter 4: Search Me. Rupert Murdoch was introduced as Uncle Satan. Venture capitalist John Doerr was an early investor in Google, Amazon, Intuit, and Netscape. Google’s key idea was PageRank to measure the importance of web pages. The use of advertising guaranteed massive profit, unusual for a tech company. Then they added email, mapping, photos, video, and blogs. Google went public in a “Dutch Auction,” to determine the highest price for its shares. It dominated by being indispensable, unlike Microsoft which was controlling.


Chapter 5: The Mongoose. Swisher partner Walt Mossberg referred to Google as “information thieves” and data-rapacious moguls. Bezos “made a list of items that could be easily sold online and settled on books, not because he particularly loved them, but because they were a global product” (p. 81). He pushed for a tough work culture. “While Gates was outwardly difficult, Bezos kept his bare-knuckled characteristics in public in check” (p. 81). “It irked Bezos that the media did not understand the scale of what he envisioned or respect the aggression and work ethic that would allow him to make it” (p. 82). His original 1995 web site was “clunky-looking.” Amazon was a logistics company more than a tech company, adding products continuously, making online shopping common. The big deal was delivery. Dynamic pricing was used to beat out other vendors. Still, there was an explosion of commerce sites after Amazon. PayPal (1998) was an online payment system.


AOL bought Time Warner in 2000 for $182 billion, but much of it in stock. This included Warner Bros, HBO, CNN, TBS, Time, People, and Sports Illustrated, later called the heist of the century. From 2000-2002 some 800 internet companies went bankrupt, plus many executives were convicted of fraud and other crimes.

Chapter 6: The End of the Beginning. After Y2K proved to be nothing, high-flying tech companies started to fail [and cash burn rates were followed for the rest, like Amazon]. Time Warner, unsuccessful with a digital strategy, traded it all for what proved to be nothing as AOL evaporated. Many failed because they were too early, with certain technologies missing. Many were “flaming trash heaps” or “gave Ponzi schemes a bad name.” Multiple failures and a greater appreciation for what success meant led to greater maturity in the tech industry.

Swisher partnered with Walt with D: All Things Digital after conferring with TED (Technology Entertainment Design) creator Richard Wurman.


Chapter 7: The Golden God. That would be Steve Jobs, basically the only one Swisher repeatedly praised. “Gates had built Microsoft into a business colossus that Jobs was indeed jealous of. And Gates had never reached the status Jobs had as the golden god who melded art and science, creativity and utility, beauty and design” (p. 113). He created his “reality distortion field” for consistent excellence and seeing the future of promise and problems—creating a “product-driven culture.” Mobility and wireless Swisher considered the most significant. Jobs made the iPhone viable partnering with ATT. Jobs bought Pixar in 1986. The iPod led to podcasting.


Jobs: “daisy-chained his way from the desktop computer to the laptop to the iPod to the iPhone and to the iPad. Jobs did not just transform tech devices; he transformed music and movies and communications and photography” (p. 123). New tech came from the iPhone including Airbnb, Uber, and Instagram.


Chapter 8: Sillywood: crossing Hollywood with Silicon Valley. Hollywood was built on tech, beginning with the first motion-picture camera in 1891 (invented by William Dickson, but Edison took credit as inventor). It was the merger of technology with storytelling. George Lucas created Pixar. Chad Hurley was cofounder of YouTube.   

Rupert Murdoch as Uncle Satan: “a manipulative and destructive power-monger who tirelessly plotted to thwart these tech entrepreneurs by tattling to regulators and strategically yelling in public forums” (p. 135). Michael Eisner wanted to use Silicon Valley but didn’t “largely due to a toxic combination of arrogance and ignorance” (p. 136). Iger finally got it with Disney+ in 2019. Barry Diller had headed Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox, plus many others including Ticketmaster and Expedia. Netflix under Reed Hastings was a winner. Viewers were in charge of content. Theaters were losers.


Chapter 9: The Most Dangerous Man. That was Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook in his Harvard dorm in 2004. Sheryl Sandberg helped with the advertising revenue stream, but the key was revenue by product expansion: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? … By the summer of 2010, Facebook was buffeted with regulatory investigations centered largely on its sloppy and rapacious privacy practices” (p. 149). Add Zuckerberg’s victim mentality. The press was therefore an adversary. “Zuckerberg had almost no charm or game and it was painful how socially awkward he was” (p. 154).


“Social media, particularly Facebook, played a role in the ability of then President Donald Trump and his minions to amplify hate and lies and spin them into violence” (p. 159). “Alex Jones … used Zuckerberg’s social network as his vehicle, even as he gamed it by breaking all the rules that the company had laid down” (p. 161). “Zuckerberg … was one of the most carelessly dangerous men in the history of technology who didn’t even know it” (p. 164).


Chapter 10: The Uber Mensch. Swisher was critical of Uber and CEO Travis Kalanick. “When the truth stands between a man and his next $100 million, the truth is always going to be escorted off the premises” (p. 166). Uber was part of the “grievance industrial complex.” They thought responsibility meant “blame.” Too bad about the taxi industry and following rules. Plus racism, sexism, and safety.


People object to the toxic waste of social sites. “Silicon Valley had perfected the image of itself as a meritocracy. … In fact, tech has always been a “mirrorocracy,” full of people who liked their own reflection so much that they only saw value in those that looked the same” (p. 171). Was it impunity or cluelessness? Plus “take no responsibility.”


Chapter 11: Staying Vertical. Steve Jobs: “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose” (p. 182). “Jobs’ myriad achievements represented the best that tech had to offer the world, with some key values—privacy, quality, and design—that were enduring” (p. 184).


Chapter 12: Good Bones. Who to partner with for conferences: “New York Times (super nice folks, super arrogant, super old school); Hearst (interesting range of assets, odd corporate culture, unclear who actually made the decisions); the Atlantic (owner David Bradly was a spiffy gentleman, but we did not relish being tied to another rich dude who would control our fate); Bloomberg (the terminal was the only god there and we were but a shiny trinket for them to play with); Conde Nast (a snakier snake pit than Dow Jones)” (p. 200). They picked NBC for Recode (2014).


They took aim at Facebook and others, the giant “antisocial media.” Facebook got a $5 billion fine in 2018 from the FCC over Cambridge Analytica accessing data on users. “Enragement fueled engagement;” “the Mark Manifesto.” Hands off, even over hate speech. Did Facebook help Trump in 2016 election, including Russian activity?

Evan Osnos in New Yorker: “Zuckerberg and Sandberg have attributed their mistakes to excessive optimism, a blindness to the darker applications of their service, But that explanation ignores their fixation on growth, and their unwillingness to heed warnings. … Whether it was used to boost fears of Hillary Clinton or spread antivax nonsense, Facebook was a platform designed to create crisis and rage as the rubles rolled in” (p. 212). Trump was a master manipulator, spreading chaos and hate: “the greatest troll in social media” (p. 213).


Chapter 13: I, Asshole. Yes, the Elon Musk chapter, focusing on Twitter: the “business equivalent of a toddler tantrum after agreeing to overpay for the company without contingencies. …Twitter had long been the little tech engine that couldn’t” (p. 215). Co-founder Jack Dorsey noted for “tone-deaf arrogance.” Trump on Twitter warped politics, was openly racist and antisemitic: Twitter as “a handmaiden to sedition.” After the fact of January 6, they banned Trump from Twitter. “Musk’s lofty rhetoric struck me as vintage tech billionaire blah-blah talk” (p. 223). “Musk’s tweeting, which had grown more manic with fewer stupid jokes and more obnoxious insults. … He seemed to have no idea how awful his legions of followers behaved—especially to women” (p. 230).


Swisher’s advice: “Be entertaining (TikTok), useful (Facebook), and must-have (you can’t get it anywhere else)” (p. 230). Musk as the “schoolyard bully’s version of free speech” (p. 233). One result: advertisers fleeing Twitter.


Chapter 14: The Mensches. Her P2P was “prick to productivity ratio.” Musk was: “Loudly sexist, puerile, transphobic, homophobic, conspiracy drenched, and tweeter of unfunny memes” (p. 240). Bill Gates was once the head bad guy and sued by the government for anticompetitive practices. Most of the tech elites viewed “valid questions as attacks.” Mark Cuban ran Broadcast.com in the 1990s.

Google was early into AI, but slow to market. Nardelli at Microsoft moved in with OpenAI and ChatGPT.

There are no US laws governing tech, but Europe has because of Danish politician Margrethe Vestager, who headed the European Commission for Competition, protecting user privacy and regulating hate speech and misinformation. Swisher viewed Congress as brain head or idiotically noisy. Frances Haugen of Facebook was a whistleblower based on internal documents.


Chapter 15: Pivoting. Swisher viewed her profession of journalism as: “The last refuge of the vaguely talented” (p. 257). “In the 1990s, a lot of journalists adopted a ‘seduce and betray’ interview style” (p. 260).   The US does not have any privacy laws or consider privacy as something to be protected. Facebook and Google sell advertising, but don’t assume responsibility for what is delivered.


Chapter 16: Come With Me If You Want to Live. “I called Facebook, Twitter, and Google ‘digital arms dealers’” (p. 280). Missing regulations: “no privacy protections, no updated antitrust laws, no algorithmic transparency requirements, no focus on addiction and mental impact” (p. 283).”AI will eventually plow over us like a highway construction machine rolling over anthill” (p. 289).

  

Quotes:

“Most people in this town stab you in the back, but [Kara] stabbed me in the front, and I appreciate that” (John McLaughlin).

“Jeff Bezos would eat my face off if that is what he needed to do to get ahead” (p. 79).

“The Internet, a sprawling expanse of opportunity and complexity, has been my canvas, my subject, and my challenge” (p. 296).

 

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