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The core of the Theranos story is that neither Elizabeth Holmes is unique, nor is the rhetoric used to perpetuate her fraud, and ultimately the people claiming to feel most duped were the people who helped her do it. This is Silicon Valley in a nutshell; VCs get to fail over and over, the virtue of being a billionaire insulates them from the accountability of, uh, making a bad bet– they claim to take on all the risk, justifying high payouts, but take on none of the responsibility for being bad at due diligence, as was the case here. This isn't a defense of Holmes, but a request that critics, journalists, perhaps even her own employees, question why then isn't Stanford, VC culture writ large, on trial right alongside her answering for the brazen attempt at using the public for lab rats on a bad bet by an unqualified entrepreneur who, when one subject matter expert from Stanford told her the idea was a bad one, she simply found one in another, unrelated domain to tell her it was brilliant.
The ethos can be described as venture capital telling you the key to success in starting a business (turning a profit or providing a good product or treating consumers well never seems to be the KPI) is being perceived as revolutionary; it has to be revolutionary or it's not worth doing, even if it's an entirely unconstructive service that provides only marginal, at best, value to consumers. Holmes is just the latest in a string of dozens of dozens of "once in a generation" figures; the only difference is that she wound up scamming the scammers, and is becoming the correctly prosecuted, but ultimately sacrificial lamb to protect the system. If she is found guilty or not, the logical next step is to go after the bigger fish whose culpability her guilt (or lack of same, because surely someone is responsible, right?) establishes.
On the societal level, the effect of this revolutionary language where no revolution exists is pretty prevalent; consider the example of any number of Elon Musk ventures– because real engineers and climate scientists and any number of actual domain experts aware of the limitations that Musk's ventures are simply reproving under the guise of "asking the tough [already answered] questions", fans of Musk get to feel like tough guy iconoclasts, part of this revolution, as if any of this is real or anything othewr than a marketing exercise buoying a share price.
I've written about the Theranos claims before, as I also have Musk, so this isn't news to a lot of the people who've read these pieces for any amount of time, but I think it cannot be stated that the very core premise of how people like this even get into business is the problem. Stanford, in the case of both, in one way or another, produced the VC/business culture that imbues dangerous overconfidence in founders, and uncritical confidence in these deadends: the flipside to the revolutionary language is that it often maps proportionally to smaller and smaller innovative gains– the more overt the rhetoric, the more marginal the advancement, the more likely it is that it's a grift.
A case I sometimes think of relative to modern Silicon Valley overpromising to the public is that of Bob Nelson. If you're not familiar with Bob, or his work in Cryonics, I recommend this quick episode of This American Life where he explains his story and is confronted with his lies for what is surely not the first (or last) time. There's no money in Cryonics, despite heavy public interest, at the time Bob, a TV repairman, becomes president of a California cryonics association– much of what transpires is a result of that lack of capital, even amongst his early academic advisory board (who, unwilling to attempt freezing someone because of,b oth, a lack of funds with which to conduct experiments, an entirely untested methodology for preserving a body for reamination).
Essentially, Bob, when presented with an opportunity to find a patron for this work whose only request is that he be frozen by Bob upon his death, triggering the resignation of the board when Bob accepts, winds up sinking more and more of himself into this belief in cryonics (based on very little evidence from a scientist whose work was widely panned even the time Bob heard of it) until he's past the point of desperation– he begins doing more and more freezings to subsidize the existing freezing facilities, which are failing, he begins lying to the familys of the donated deceased, and ultimately, the effort fails. He finds himself unable to come clean about this, even decades later; he tells a compelling story on This American Life about coming clean, vivid detail about heartbreak in telling the families what came of their loved ones– one problem, however, is that it never happened, and only then is he able to concede that, perhaps, in his grief over the failure, he simply couldn't accept it was true.
Bob Nelson is no victim, just like Holmes is no victim, and both were subject, albeit in two very different ways, and very much mapped to their class prerogatives, by capitalism's influence on basic humanity. Bob's belief in cryonics, given that no money was ever really possible from it, seems genuine; he wanted to help build a future where people didn't grow up parentless, as he essentially did, where no one ever truly experiences lost. It's a perfectly human impulse to desire this, and it's almost understandable why someone suitably traumatized might try to pursue it. However, what cannot be excused, even if the emotional trail explains much of his motive, is that he lied, and he lied about the very human spirit in which this pursuit was undertaken, because of the scarcity of the possibility of a resourceful, prosperous future for the working class, even if Bob, himself, might not put it that way. Holmes, purely motivated by "becoming a billionaire", did what much more experienced people told her would get her there; she's guilty of this much, but so are they, and so is this system– she believed it was a class prerogative to perpetuate monied interests by proving yourself worthy of that wealth, when so often, as was the case here, the "genius" in question proved that essential unworthiness inherent to the pursuit of capital for its own sake.
Neither is truly sorry, both are fully culpable, and perhaps neither is truly redeemable here in violating human boundaries out of desperation to preserve the system that, ultimately, bankrupted the morality of why anyone would want to freeze a body or extract a drop of blood. Does the original intention matter when these are the outcomes? Maybe. You could argue Holmes never wanted anything but to be a billionaire, and health tech was simply the vector she chose that she could make inroads in, which I believe is 1000% the case, while Bob Nelson's intentions always remained good, but he checked them so often and so thoroughly that you're left wondering if it's an indictment of the cause, the culture, or perhaps even the underlying desire for humans to exceed what they are told is a hard limit on growth under a system engineered to starve then out increasingly, but does that really excuse very much? Perhaps not.
In the earlier piece I link above, I talk about Jim Clark, a much milder case than either of them but exemplifies this dynamic very directly. Clark, who founded multiple companies that, perhaps even more than people like Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Bill Gates, revolutionized the public's conception of computers for personal, creative use; the founder of Silicon Graphics (whose computers revolutionized digital effects at a consumer scale), a co-founder of Netscape, and ultimate other ventures that yielded less innovation, but were pursued with the explicit goal of finally minting Clark as a billionaire. The bankruptcy of intellect, imagination, of what makes innovation worth pursuing; one doesn't embark on a PhD on the off-chance it might make them, not just rich, but singularly wealthy on a planetary scale– that happens to normal people from the kind of moral corruption inherent to the immorality that openly drives much of the culture of venture capital.
I make a similar argument about this new debate about whether or not Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are in the interests of artists to be on board with, and I argue that, no, it is not; the utility of NFTs in the art world is to provide a vehicle for art dealers and collectors to make the kind of investment as a commodity, not in art itself, that allows them to extract profit. It's not about the rights of the creator to be paid or in ownership– demanding artist see the wisdom of this path is to demand that they buy-into an even more aggressive version of the kind of exploitation of their labor's extracted profit than they already are forced to deal in today in order to make a living. These are shared aspects of capitalism corrupting technological advancement as a practice, and in turn, technological advancement corrupting society, to produce more participants in this cycle, and true to capitalist form, this is engineered to be most accessible money printing for those with a shared class prerogative than it is the odd token bootstrap myth success story.
Adorno says in Aesthetic Theory, “If in keeping with Hegel’s insight all feeling related to an aesthetic object has an accidental aspect, usually that of psychological projection, then what the work demands from its beholder is knowledge, and indeed, knowledge that does justice to it: The work wants its truth and untruth to be grasped.”– the increased commoditization of art as product, as investment vehicle, and now something that even when abstracted digitally can be assigned singular value, produces things other than art, by this conception, but non-art. This is not merely "not fine art" or something more accessible and less sophisticated (all typical smears of this criticism), but literal product, to be appealing as consumable by others, rather than honest projection, it becomes coercively recursive projection.
The ability of a businessperson, an innovator, etc. is not a creative pursuit in the same way an artist is, but subject to the same consumerist, capitalist forces, it behaves similarly, which is to reflexively bankrupt itself of essence. Even Steve Jobs believed design aesthetic was an important marker of quality of construction-- even if this was ultimately a marketing line, it was basically true; for Holmes, emulating Jobs was intended as a signifier of her own self-promoted genius.