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Tech, Trump, & Tyranny — Kara Swisher Explains How Big Tech Got Us Into This Mess

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Kara Swisher is plugged into the world of Big Tech in a way few other people are. When she phones the heads of tech companies, they actually take her calls. She has covered the business of the internet since 1994. In 2023, Swisher was a contributing editor at New York Magazine, the host of the podcast On with Kara Swisher, and the co-host of the podcast Pivot. In 2014 she co-founded Vox Media’s Recode. From 2018 to 2022, she was an opinion writer for The New York Times before re-joining Vox Media. She has also written for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the All Things Digital conference and the online publication All Things D.

According to Wikipedia, she studied propaganda and received a BS in literature and journalism from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in 1984. One year later, she received her MS in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She also “spent some time” at Duke University studying misinformation and propaganda, which Swisher says were “always my area of study.”

To say Swisher is knowledgeable about all things digital is a gross understatement. In her latest book, Burn Book: A Tech Love Story, Swisher takes her readers on a tour through the back alleys of the tech world to show them how Big Tech has influenced the world of politics as well as information and brought us to the brink of a fascist takeover. Her publisher, Simon & Schuster, says Burn Book is “a witty, scathing, but fair accounting of the tech industry and its founders who wanted to change the world but broke it instead. Part memoir, part history, Burn Book is a necessary chronicle of tech’s most powerful players. This is the inside story we’ve all been waiting for about modern Silicon Valley and the biggest boom in wealth creation in the history of the world.”

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Kara Swisher Tells It Like It Is

On February 15, 2024, Swisher published an excerpt of her book as an op-ed piece for the Washington Post. It is a long and interesting read. It deserves your attention because it casts a light on how the tech world operates for one purpose only — profits — and how that focus has promoted the breakdown in civil discourse that allows the fossil fuel industry to harass and harry climate scientists with impunity, for instance, and promotes the rise of fascism in the US and many other countries around the world. Here’s a taste:

If I had to pick the moment when it all went off the rails for the tech industry, I’d choose Saturday morning, Dec. 10, 2016, when I…got a tip: The crowned heads of Silicon Valley’s most powerful tech companies had been summoned to tromp into Manhattan’s Trump Tower and meet the man who had unexpectedly just been elected president and was the antithesis of all they supposedly represented.

“Skulk” was more like it. The only reason I was hearing about the tech summit was because one of tech’s top-tier players had not been invited because of his “liberal leanings” and “outspoken opposition” to President-elect Donald Trump. The outcast called me in a lather. “Sucking up to that corpulent loser who never met a business he didn’t drive straight into a wall, it’s shameful,” he said. “Can you believe it? Can you believe it?”

After decades of covering the nascent internet industry from its birth, I could believe it…An increasing number of these once fresh-faced wunderkinds I had mostly rooted for now made me feel like a parent whose progeny had turned into, well, assholes.

Musk Thought He Could “Handle” Trump

My first call was to one of the potentates who was sometimes testy, often funny and always accessible. Of everyone I had covered, I could count on Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, to engage with me on a semi-human basis. While Musk would morph later into a troll-king-at-scale on Twitter, which he would rename X, he was among the few tech titans who did not fall back on practiced talking points, even if he might have been the one who most should have.

So, what did Musk think of Trump’s invitation? The meeting had no stated agenda, which made it clear to me that it had nothing to do with policy and everything to do with a photo op. “You shouldn’t go,” I warned him. “Trump’s going to screw you.” Musk disagreed. He told me he would attend, adding he had already joined a business council for the president-elect, too. When I brought up Trump’s constant divisive fearmongering and campaign promises to unravel progress on issues ranging from immigration to gay rights, Musk dismissed the threats.

“I can convince him,” he assured me. “I can influence him,” he told me. Apparently, Musk thought his very presence would turn the fetid water into fine wine, since he had long considered himself more than just a man but an icon and, on some days, a god. “Good luck with that,” I thought to myself as we hung up.

The Takeaway For Big Tech

It’s difficult to add to what Kara Swisher has to say. She has seen it all from the inside, the transition from doing good to doing right well, financially speaking. Our supposed heroes in Big Tech are no more than grifters, sucking dollars out of advertisers by using tech tricks to boost page views. Magazines and newspapers used to base their advertising rates on the number of subscribers they had. Now it is clicks that count, and the tech industry has mastered how to inflate their click counts to fatten their corporate coffers.

Legislatures sat sleepy-eyed while tech took off. They exempted them from liability for libel and slander by creating Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. As PBS explains, Section 230 states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

That legal phrasing shields companies that can host trillions of messages from being sued into oblivion by anyone who feels wronged by something someone else has posted — whether their complaint is legitimate or not. It is what prevented Michael Mann from pursuing legal action against two internet publishers who published an article comparing him to a child molester and sexual predator.

Big tech faces no consequences for its antisocial behavior and so it continues to become more and more aggressive in its pandering to people’s worst behavior. It normalizes behavior that is scandalous and salacious. It puts a premium on hate speech and death threats. It takes the basest instincts of people and celebrates them, all to drive traffic and increase ad revenues.

Swisher opens the door and lets us see the rot and decay at the core of the tech world. Now the question is what to do about this fetid mess. She offers no solutions, but our readers may have some suggestions. Please share them with us in the comments section.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

Steve Hanley has 5545 posts and counting. See all posts by Steve Hanley