Feb 27, 2024 - Technology

In Kara Swisher's "Burn Book," tips for how to regulate AI

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Photo of the cover of Kara Swisher's book "Burn Book"

Image: Simon & Schuster

It is said that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them and there are a lot of lessons in "Burn Book," Kara Swisher's new memoir, which hits store shelves Tuesday.

Why it matters: Swisher's book is worth reading just for its inside scoop on so many of those who have built the modern tech industry — but its account of their bold, brazen and often juvenile antics also provides insights for navigating the AI era that's now upon us.

The tech industry's missteps are well known, but Swisher's account helps us understand why these men — "boy kings," as she calls them — do what they do.

  • Swisher's lens is valuable because, in many cases, she knew today's leaders before they were who they are today.
  • Figures like Elon Musk, Sam Altman and Marc Andreessen didn't arrive on the tech scene fully formed, like a bot from character.ai. Rather, they evolved over time — in some cases transforming radically — to become who they are today.

Between the lines: "Burn Book" shows how understanding these leaders' pasts can illuminate their current motivations and aspirations.

  • Marc Andreessen: Long before he began unfollowing and ranting at most of the media, Andreessen used to answer text and calls at all hours. "Texts from Marc were indicative of a restless and vaguely disgruntled mind," Swisher writes, adding that she saved the texts "because I had a sense even then that these boy men would try hard to reinvent themselves and erase their former selves."
  • Elon Musk: Musk's transformation has been visible for anyone who follows him, but Swisher's proximity offers particular insight into just how fast he can turn. The author proudly quotes Musk's Oct. 17, 2022 "You're an asshole" email on the book's back cover. But, she writes, that email came just a week after Musk was asking her thoughts on how to improve Twitter.

The big picture: Swisher shows how, in chasing power and growth, companies like Facebook often end up playing into the hands of authoritarians like Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, just as misinformation emerges as a big early risk of the generative AI era.

Zoom in: Swisher herself addresses AI in various places throughout the book, especially in the last chapter: "Come With Me If You Want To Live."

  • Swisher raises the usual list of all the ways that AI might be used for good and bad, from improving health and solving climate challenges to empowering killer robots.
  • But her most important point on AI is that it is our thoughts, our art and our posts that are powering this technology, "All this information that is now digitized is actually us," she writes.
  • And yet, barring regulatory intervention, it will be the same insular group deciding how the technology is used and who benefits.
  • "We bought and paid for the internet at its beginning, but largely tech companies have been benefitted from it. It is rightfully ours to own and use to better humanity rather than cheapen and deaden it."

My thought bubble: Listen to the audiobook. As I told Mike Allen, you want to hear Kara's message, and all her dish, in her own distinctive voice.

Disclosure: I worked for Kara from 2010 to 2017, first at Dow Jones' All Things Digital and then at Recode, later owned by Vox Media.

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