© 2024 KRCU Public Radio
90.9 Cape Girardeau | 88.9-HD Ste. Genevieve | 88.7 Poplar Bluff
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Burn Book' chronicles a journalist's career covering Silicon Valley titans

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many leaders of the tech industry have told their stories to Kara Swisher. She chronicled decades of business dealings in Silicon Valley and went into business herself. With another journalist, she organized lucrative conferences to interview tech billionaires. She's written news columns, hosted podcasts, been on TV and now has written a memoir, "Burn Book," in which she says she is disillusioned with many of the people she covered. Swisher calls Jeff Bezos venal, describes many others as socially awkward white dudes and says they warped society with addictive products and misinformation, yet she still likes many tech leaders and their products.

KARA SWISHER: 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 things - the great thing 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 has...

INSKEEP: And she can be connected to the wider world.

SWISHER: She can be connected to the wider world. I always believe that connection brings better outcomes. 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.

INSKEEP: You can think of the tech industry as a product of forces of history. The United States...

SWISHER: Always.

INSKEEP: ...Invested in tech in a particular way in Silicon Valley after...

SWISHER: Right.

INSKEEP: ...World War II. A lot of things happened in society that led to this moment.

SWISHER: Sure.

INSKEEP: 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 history?

SWISHER: No 'cause it's all about them. They did it. They really do think they know better. And someone's like, you know, Elon did it on his own. I go 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 essentially steal our data, chomp it up and hand it back to us to eat.

INSKEEP: You heard Kara Swisher there on a first-name basis with Elon Musk, the head of Tesla, SpaceX and X. She spoke with Musk for years.

SWISHER: He was always an interesting conversation. It was weird. Talk about living in a simulation - he'd talk about - he had an imagination, and it was resonant to me, a little bit, of Steve Jobs, although now he's absolutely not. But he had - Steve was like that. Steve was very interesting to talk to, and he was always spinning you. Everyone was like, he had a - Kara, he had a reality distortion field. I'm like, yeah, I was aware. I don't care. It was interesting. It's like...

INSKEEP: You write that Steve Jobs would lie to you onstage...

SWISHER: Oh, yes.

INSKEEP: ...In front of crowds.

SWISHER: Yes, about the phone.

INSKEEP: I'm not working on a phone of any...

SWISHER: Well...

INSKEEP: ...Kind.

SWISHER: Why should he tell us the truth about that? I wasn't as offended. Other reporters are like, he lied to us. I'm like, oh, you're kidding. Shockeroo (ph). Like, he - why would he tell us? Like, he's working on a phone. He doesn't want anyone to know. I more object to talking points. Like, they don't want - most of them are smart. Think about it. These are the founders, right? Like, you're talking to, like, Thomas Edison here. 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.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. They almost have to lie to themselves...

SWISHER: They...

INSKEEP: ...As well as anyone else.

SWISHER: 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. And you could see him - his brain moving in a million miles an hour when you were talking to him. And about 10% of his personality then was highly juvenile - boob jokes, penis jokes, memes.

INSKEEP: Ten percent.

SWISHER: 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. And it was as - he's 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...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

SWISHER: ...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?

INSKEEP: That is a very...

SWISHER: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Elon-centered view of...

SWISHER: It was. And then I was like, oh, he's living in a video game. This poor guy's living - and he's the main character in the video game. And COVID was a real moment. We did an interview, remote interview, where he was clearly high on that interview. You know, it wasn't - it was pretty easy to see because he was wandering, and his eyes were red. And so 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., but...

INSKEEP: Doing his own research, as they say.

SWISHER: 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. And then, you know, The Journal finally wrote about the drug issues, the possibility of using quite a lot of ketamine and other things like that.

INSKEEP: 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...

SWISHER: I would...

INSKEEP: ...Who you really are.

SWISHER: Yeah. That's interesting. I do - 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. 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.

INSKEEP: 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...

SWISHER: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...And some of them cut you off.

SWISHER: 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.

INSKEEP: 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...

SWISHER: I don't quite know...

INSKEEP: ...Win you over?

SWISHER: ...What power I have. For what? I don't sell iPhones for them. I just - I - you know, for what, precisely? I...

INSKEEP: As a writer, as a columnist, as a - someone who...

SWISHER: I...

INSKEEP: ...Opines on tech.

SWISHER: Well, no.

INSKEEP: As someone who can...

SWISHER: I think it's OK 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. I - you...

INSKEEP: Sure, sure. I would agree with that. I'm just wondering if you think sometimes these tech guys ask your...

SWISHER: I don't know what I...

INSKEEP: ...Opinion to win you over.

SWISHER: I don't know that - I think, 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.

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

SWISHER: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: We asked Elon Musk for comment on the description of his drug use and haven't heard back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.