Book Review: Kara Swisher’s “Burn Book: A Tech Love Story”

By Preston Gralla

Journalist Kara Swisher’s fought with just about every important tech bro titan (and yes, they are all bros), from Steve Jobs to Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and many others — and has always come out on top.

Burn Book: A Tech Love Story by Kara Swisher. Simon & Shuster, 320 pp. Hardcover, $30.

I’ve covered the tech industry as a journalist for decades, and I’ve seen countless writers fall victim to Stockholm Syndrome, in which victims identify with their captors and their captors’ goals. It’s not just that these journalists use tech companies’ talking points as the starting point for their coverage. They feel they’re part of the tech industry itself, a cog in the great machine of advancing humankind’s progress — and they act and write accordingly.

The tech journalist Kara Swisher is as far from a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome as can be imagined. In her more than three decades of covering the industry for the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and others, she’s been sharp-tongued and sharp-witted, and offered honest, incisive examination of the good and bad of technology and the people who create it. She’s fought with just about every important tech bro titan (and yes, they are all bros), from Steve Jobs to Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and many others — and has always come out on top.

She’s done that while being fair, and understanding tech and the business of tech as well as any reporter who’s ever covered it. And now she’s got a new book out, Burn Book: A Tech Love Story. It’s said you can’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case, you can, at least by its back cover, which has a selection of things people have said about her or to her. “Not a single more vitriolic voice in the tech ecosystem,” says the tech podcaster David Sacks. “She would sit on instant messenger all day and harass the shit out of people,” notes prominent VC Marc Andreesen. And most telling of all, Elon Musk telling her, “You’re an asshole.”

An asshole who can write, that is. (Truth be told, though, she’s not an asshole.) This book tells two stories: the intertwined ones of the modern tech industry starting in the 1990s, and of her career covering it. The book’s prologue is particularly cutting. She recounts her reaction to a bevy of tech titans who agreed to participate in a heavily publicized meeting with President-elect Trump in December 2016. The meeting’s sole purpose was to stroke Trump’s ego and give him lots of glossy PR. Many of those same titans, she said, told her privately that they despised him. But they went anyway.

She writes that moment was “when it all went off the rails for the tech industry.… Let me be clear. Hitler didn’t need Instagram. Mussolini didn’t need to tweet. Murderous autocrats do not need to Snapchat their way to infamy. But just imagine if they’d had those supercharged tools. Well, Trump did, and he won the election, thanks in part to social media.… My minor in college was Holocaust studies. I studied propaganda and I could see that Trump was an expert at it. I knew exactly where this was headed.”

After the prologue, she goes back in time, telling the story of tech and her own story chronologically, starting in the early ’90s. Anyone unacquainted with tech’s history — or even those who know it intimately — would do well to read it to get an understanding of how the movement’s initial idealism curdled and the industry ended up being Trump’s poodle. It offers a behind-the-scenes look at what really was going on, told with Swisher’s immensely entertaining dark wit.

Swisher has been both an observer of and participant in the tech economy, through her life as a journalist and by founding and running with Wall Street Journal reporter Walt Mossberg the All Things Digital conference, a subsidiary of Dow Jones & Company, and then their Recode conference. The conferences featured tech leaders as speakers, including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and countless others. So she’s gotten a closer look at them than most reporters. And she spills the beans. Of Zuckerberg she writes, “In contrast to the shark babies who tried to feign cuddly, Zuckerberg craved power and historical evidence from the get-go.… ‘His hero is Augustus Caesar, for fuck’s sake,’ said one of his investors to me over dinner one night. While most of the venture capitalists I know tended to judge their startups by the very lowest of ethical bars, I assumed this investor was relieved that Zuckerberg’s childhood hero was not someone more problematic. (Not Stalin, not Hitler, not Mussolini? Phew! Let’s proceed with Series A!)”

As for Elon Musk, she initially had a grudging respect for him, finding him incisive and brilliant, if obnoxious and juvenile. But after his purchase of Twitter, then his descent into belief in right-wing conspiracy theories and turning Twitter into a toxic stew of hatred and prejudice, she concludes, “One thing was clear for sure: Musk had almost completely lost the narrative, and it was made worse by the toadies and enablers who egged him on. Warping a technique of Jobs, Musk had created a ‘reality distortion field,’ except his was a dank and dark mindfuck of a place.”

There’s much more of that as well. Making her success all the more remarkable is that she’s a gay woman in the most misogynous of industries. It’s a testament to her intelligence, ambition, and drive, which animates almost every page of this book.

Many cynics are former idealists. Swisher, somehow, has managed to remain both. Despite her cynicism, she’s still a believer that somehow, some way, technology can make people’s lives better. About her several decades of covering tech, she concludes, “The journey started out as a love story, and despite my many disappointments, remains one. I still love and breathe tech.… despite division and no rules and reductiveness and anger and time-wasting and insurrection, tech remains a vast canvas of promise. Also, the cat videos are still good.”

I’m with her on that. Except for the cat videos. They were never good.

Preston Gralla has won a Massachusetts Arts Council Fiction Fellowship and had his short stories published in a number of literary magazines, including Michigan Quarterly Review and Pangyrus. His journalism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, USA Today, and Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, among others, and he’s published nearly 50 books of nonfiction which have been translated into 20 languages.


  1. Bruce Schleifman on February 28, 2024 at 4:24 pm

    Very interesting as usual!
    Thanks for your insight.

  2. Preston Gralla on February 29, 2024 at 5:21 pm

    Thanks, Bruce. Nice to hear from you.

  3. Gerald Peary on March 1, 2024 at 11:13 am

    A nice homage to a great writer about technology by…. a great writer about technology!

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