Kara Swisher witnessed the tech revolution. Now she wants to burn the industry

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The tech industry sold Americans a bill of goods, promising to change the world for the better but instead harvesting everyone’s data to build powerful empires.

That’s the message in a fascinating new memoir, “Burn Book,” by the tech journalist Kara Swisher, who hosts a multitude of podcasts and is a CNN contributor.

I wanted to get Swisher’s view on how the government should look at regulating a tech industry that has spent decades trying very hard to avoid regulation of any kind.

There are things the US government should be doing but isn’t with regard to social media, she told me. But perhaps more importantly, there are things every country needs to be working together on to put guardrails on the emergence of artificial intelligence – which has such great potential but is also quite scary.

Our conversation, conducted by phone and edited for clarity, is below.

What is a burn book?

WOLF: The title of the book is “Burn Book,” which is a provocative title. What are you trying to do here?

SWISHER: It’s kind of dead obvious. I wasn’t like trying to be a hidden, like, aren’t I being clever kind of person.

It’s based on “Mean Girls,” which is now back in the news because the movie came out, weirdly, at this time. It’s the book that you write that you have with your friends that you burn people in.

It’s usually a high school thing where you burn people, you know, gossip about people and what you really think of them and what people are really like – and a lot of it is you telling the truth about people that you can’t say out loud.

So that’s what it was. But I mixed it with a tech love story, because I also love tech at the same time.

Will the billionaires read it?

WOLF: It’s a funny book, and you have all these unflattering pictures about very famous people, most of them billionaires. Do you expect to get any blowback? Will anybody be surprised?

SWISHER: Do they read? I don’t know. I don’t think they read. They’ll have their assistants summarize it for them, and then it won’t hurt as much. I don’t know.

A lot of people who I’ve had tough and good relationships with over the years – I’m thinking like a Mark Cuban – won’t mind at all. I’m actually nice to him.

Through the years, I’ve always been pretty straightforward. I don’t know if it’s tough or unpleasant as (much as) truthful. This is what I think of you, and I’ve always said that to them in person. They already knew I was like this.

A love story that turned into something else

WOLF: You said it’s a love story to tech. And you get a lot of that in the book. But it’s also kind of sad because you go from being an evangelist to someone raising the alarm.

SWISHER: I wasn’t an evangelist. I covered it. There were real evangelists.

I was different because I leveled criticism at the time. Most people were like, oh, cool, Apple, whatever they did. I was always like, you know, like Steve Jobs, when he put out the Ping social network, I was like, this sucks. This is not going to work. He didn’t mind, because I was right.

But definitely I had hoped for it to be a change for good, right? I wasn’t stupid, not aware of the negative parts – I’m a student of media. But I thought that this was something that could really bring people together in a really significant way. I thought it could help education and get people understanding their commonality and things like that. I was hopeful in that regard.

They were in it for the money all along

WOLF: So how do we go from somebody being inspired to somebody telling a scary story?

SWISHER: The first line of the book is very critical. It was capitalism, but they pretended it wasn’t. They kept saying we’re here to change the world. We’re about community. We’re going to bring people together. Don’t be evil. That was all so performative. Like, really.

And when somebody says that, at first it’s like a political campaign. It’s like oh, wow, hope. Morning in America. I’m not stupid. I guess that that’s what politicians do to inspire people, and it was inspirational.

Everything they then did facilitated the bad outcomes, whether it was making teen girls lose their self-esteem or using data without permission, or moving into monopolistic tendencies.

Everything they did, it became really clear to me, and pretty quickly, that it was all about the money. It was always all about the money.

What’s irksome is that they said it wasn’t, and they insisted it wasn’t. When you said, I think it’s all about the money with you people, they were offended by that. Or I think it’s all about the self-aggrandizement in certain people’s cases, etc.

Your government has done very little

WOLF: They did it, but also we let them. In the entire time that you’ve been covering tech I don’t think there’s been a single major regulatory law. There have been a couple of antitrust cases, but it’s not like there’s been any regulation of the tech industry.

SWISHER: No, actually zero. Zero would be the number you’re looking for.

They have to deal with regular regulation, but in general, they’ve had a pass with Section 230 (a portion of the Communications Decency Act that has exempted tech platforms and websites from lawsuits related to content on their platforms).

They’ve had no liability for a lot of what they make. And the antitrust bills haven’t changed enough to be able to deal with that. In that case, that’s a failure on our part, and I mean the broader “our” – our government, our elected officials, the people we elect, and our pressure on them to do something about it.

I think we have accepted a lot of this tech stuff, which was using stuff that the US taxpayer paid for. And then they’re taking our data, and then they’re vomiting it back up at us and charging us for it.

So it’s a real racket if you really think about it. We’re a cheap date to these people. We go, oh, a dating service. Thank you. Or a mapping service. Guess who paid for all those maps? Us. Now they do it themselves, but they initially started using government data and stuff like that.

My whole premise for the whole thing was, like, why are you thanking people for giving you your things? Why are you letting them take your data and act like it’s theirs? That’s what always used to irk me from the very beginning, actually.

At this point, of course, they’re rapacious capitalists, and they’re going to do what it takes to grow larger. It’s up to us to do something about that.

What should government do?

WOLF: We had a bunch of social media CEOs up here recently. I don’t know what word you would use to describe what happened at the hearing with Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook and Instagram parent company Meta’s CEO), but it was certainly embarrassing.

SWISHER: It was long past time. He’s been up there quite a few times, and they’ve tried to make him say things. That, I thought, was incredibly moving – those parents with those pictures of the kids.

WOLF: If you were to do something right now, what should regulation look like specifically for social media?

SWISHER: This is not a new, fresh idea from me or anybody else, but there’s been privacy legislation, algorithmic transparency legislation, updates to antitrust laws. We could start there, right?

You could add easy things like notification of hacking, notification of data breaches, all kinds of things that would hold them to account. With AI, I don’t know – guardrails. A lot of it was in the (Joe) Biden AI executive order, like safety reports on what you’re eating, what is the training data, what’s the provenance?

We regulate every other industry and don’t act like it’s the biggest friggin’ deal, right?

The example I’m using lately is Alaska Airlines. A door blew off. How many planes were grounded? 750. There’s a million investigations. There’s lawmakers calling for this. People lost their jobs.

Legions of young girls, their self-esteem has dropped significantly, directly due to social media. There’s a lot of loud anger, but where are people losing their jobs precisely? They aren’t in tech. They don’t have to pay the price of the damage they do.

And they don’t always do damage. Let me be clear, some of it’s great. But it’s not a favor, what they’re doing to us; it’s a capitalistic trade. And we have to stop treating them like they’re saviors or magicians of some kind.

AI should be governed like nuclear weapons

WOLF: There was a headline that was bizarre to me a week or so ago when there was a big meeting in the United Arab Emirates, and Sam Altman, the ChatGPT guy, beamed into the meeting and essentially argued that the UAE could take a lead on AI regulation.

SWISHER: No, thank you. Let’s stick to democratic countries to do that.

WOLF: But does this need to be an international effort? Europe has its own laws and has been way out in front of the US.

SWISHER: I found myself at dinner with (US Secretary of State) Tony Blinken. I was like, oh, look at who’s right next to me. And he asked me about a lot of AI stuff.

And I said one thing I know is this has to be global decision-making. It’s like nuclear talks. This is a global issue. Even though many of the most important companies are based in the US, so there will be some resistance to that. This is a thing that has to be done by the whole world.

What about the wild spread of false information?

WOLF: What do you think the government should be doing in particular about misinformation spreading online?

SWISHER: It’s not just the government that’s got to get around it. It’s everybody.

The problem is it runs straight into the First Amendment. It’s not always about the First Amendment, but it’s just that people who have bad intent always try to stop real laws from going into place to protect people on the First Amendment. A lot of these companies do that.

They’re like, the First Amendment. I’m like, you’re a private company. You don’t have to have antisemitic stuff on your platform, so don’t.

They’re like the First Amendment. I’m like, you’re not the government, but I think in their mind they think they are in a lot of ways.

What’s important is that we start to think about what can we do that has nothing to do with the First Amendment, about understanding where things are coming from, about labeling things as accurate. Facebook just did this. What among this AI is accurate? What among these pictures are AI-generated versus real ones?

There’s all sorts of block and tackle stuff we can do to make things work. We just pretend we don’t have the tools to do so.

Do you have a healthy relationship with your phone?

WOLF: You tell people their best relationship is with their phone. It’s the last thing you see when you go to bed and the first thing you see when you wake up. When I was reading the book, I came across some of these stories of people purposely giving up their phones or going without the internet. My own teenage son basically refuses to use a phone. Is that going to be a thing?

SWISHER: No, I think people love their phones.

WOLF: Well, OK if everyone’s best relationship is with their phone, what do we need to do in terms of couples therapy?

SWISHER: During the pandemic, I wrote a column for The (New York) Times saying tech companies have more wealth, power and control than ever, because we’ll have to, need to, use these because they’re perfect for what’s happening right now.

One place that didn’t work was education. Kids really needed to be in physical contact with each other and in classrooms. People are dying for connection in real life. And I do think there’s a human impulse even though you have this lizard brain that likes to stare at the phone.

Because the entertainment never ends, right? There’s always something to look at. It’s like having a casino, a slot machine in your pocket, essentially. Ooh, look. I push the button. It’s a pretty light. That kind of thing.

It’s designed like that. It’s very hard to fight that from a biological perspective. It really is. There’s all kinds of studies about that, why you need to touch it, etc.

There’s an equal and just as important part of our humanity that really wants to meet other people versus these things. And I think that that’s what their worry is. The problem is a lot of these devices are so entrancing. It’s sort of like when you have a mouse and you give it a certain kind of food, it won’t stop eating until death.

And so the question is, what can we do to make people focus away? It has to be forced, like putting phones in pouches in school. That’s what they do at my kids’ school. You have to go in that direction. And you don’t get it till the end of the day. So you remove the addiction or the impulse to touch it.

You can do all kinds of things on these phones, by the way. There’s a million things.

We really have to start to encourage more community. We’ve lost church, sort of, not everybody, but there are less people that are going to church. We gotta stress gatherings a lot more and how we can bring each other together in a physical place, including at work. There should be much more intentionality in workplaces.

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