Will 2019 be the year that sees internet giants being held accountable for what they’ve become and what they’re trying to turn us into? Google was once an amazingly easy way to get information for free, but it has turned into the ringleader of surveillance capitalism. WhatsApp seemed like a remarkable way to stay in touch with practically everyone, until the forwards and violence-inciting rumours began. And Facebook? Well, maybe Facebook was doomed from the start.
If this is indeed the year that governments and society at large decide to do something about how web behemoths are altering our lives, then there is one voice you can trust to guide you through the change, or lack thereof. Kara Swisher has been there from the beginning.
Swisher began covering the technology industry in the late 1990s, writing a book about the early internet giant AOL back in 1998. She created and wrote Boom Town, a column dedicated to covering the most important things happening in Silicon Valley for the Wall Street Journal, and by the early 2000s was already being called the industry’s most important voice.
A few years later, bored by the mundane tech conferences that all seemed to feature the same powerpoint presentations, Swisher and her Journal colleague Walt Mossberg started AllThingsD, a unique event that invited the industry’s most significant personalities to face tough questions from actual journalists.
The conference, and the tech-focused site that carried the same name, soon became must-attend events for anyone in the space. Apple’s Steve Jobs and Microsoft’s Bill Gates were famously on-stage together in 2007 at the D conference. When Swisher and Mossberg eventually decided to break off from the Wall Street Journal, they started their own brand, Recode, that was later acquired by Vox.
Recode/Decode features no-nonsense interviews with the most important people in the tech world, and many others who are happy to tell us how Silicon Valley is getting things wrong.
Episodes to start off with:
- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: Swisher puts the tough questions to the man who has come to embody many of the things people find problematic with Silicon Valley.
- Scholar Shoshana Zuboff: A conversation with the author of Surveillance Capitalism, which puts together a broad theory of how the internet works and why it doesn’t need to be that way.
- Lora DiCarlo CEO Lora Haddock: Swisher speaks to the founder of a sex toy company that won an industry award that was then rescinded because the product was “profane”.
- Reporter Franklin Foer: The author of World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech talks to Swisher about how the tech behemoths need to be regulated by governments.
And it is here that Swisher began the Recode/Decode podcast.
If you’re tired of men (and it’s almost always men) from Silicon Valley telling you that their product is going to change the world, whether it is a new smartphone with five cameras on its back or an insane Rs-25,000 WiFi-connected juicer, Swisher brings a completely different attitude to tech.
Where others might be willing to sit through the platitudes and put in the occasional probing question, Swisher is usually happy to interrupt and get right to it. It was Swisher’s interview with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2018 that led him to say he doesn’t believe Holocaust denialists should be taken off the platform because he doesn’t think they’re intentionally getting it wrong – a position that immediately received much criticism (and prompted a further clarification from Zuckerberg).
While that bit made headlines, it’s elsewhere in the interview, when Swisher breaks through Zuckerberg’s carefully prepared remarks, that you realise what is possible if some of these people, who have inordinate power over our lives, were subject to actual questioning rather than the tech-support queries that seem to be directed at them from American lawmakers.
But Swisher isn’t just about holding Silicon Valley accountable, though that will be the prevalent theme of this year. In recent episodes she has spoken to the founder of a sex toy start-up, legendary Hollywood executive Barry Diller and the founder of an online “divorce company” called It’s Over Easy.
There is a reason that a New York Magazine profile in 2014 called Swisher Silicon Valley’s “most feared and most well-liked journalist”. As the profile shows, irreverence has its limits – you cannot run a popular tech conference and piss everyone in the industry off. But Swisher’s remarkable work ethic (15 hours of screen-time a day!) and her no-nonsense approach, including a 1100-word ethical disclosure statement about any potential conflicts, mean you know exactly what you are getting.
Even if 2019 ends with Google, Facebook and Amazon continuing to be the monopolistic behaviour-altering giants that they have become, listening to Swisher’s podcast will at least give you an insight into what they are doing to our world – and occasionally even provide an opportunity to hear what the people responsible for this have to say about themselves when faced with tough questions.
Are there tech podcasts that you enjoy listening to? Tell me about them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Podcast picks is a fortnightly column that highlights interesting podcasts and covers the industry. Read earlier columns here.