As someone who’s often made it my business to dive deep into the shallow bombast of centrist politicians, I feel an immediate sense of déjà vu whenever I’m tasked with writing about Silicon Valley. Hucksterism, true enough, comes in many forms, and there’s plenty to differentiate the private version from the more public kind regularly churned out by both of America’s major political parties. Nonetheless, pair a hagiographic portrait of a political figure (like the now-infamous March 2019 cover feature on Beto O’Rourke published by Vanity Fair) with its tech sector equivalent, and the parallels start to pile up pretty fast.
Some of these, of course, are at least partly about the fawning conventions of profile journalism. Vanity Fair’s poorly aged depiction of O’Rourke, for example, expended countless paragraphs mythologizing mundane details about its subject’s tastes and personal biography (one particularly emblematic sentence read: “Beto O’Rourke is quintessentially Generation X, weaned on Star Wars and punk rock and priding himself on authenticity over showmanship and a healthy skepticism of the mainstream”) while offering few tangible details about what he was actually running for president to do.
Revisit Fortune’s now equally infamous 2014 writeup on Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, and you’ll find the same basic schtick throughout, coupled with a similarly credulous appraisal of the figure at its center. An excerpt:
Holmes grips a plastic cup of unappetizing green juice. Her first of the day, it is made from spinach, parsley, wheatgrass, and celery. Later she’ll switch to cucumber. A vegan, she long ago dropped coffee in favor of these juices, which, she finds, are better able to propel her through her 16-hour days and seven-day weeks.
(To writer Roger Parloff’s credit, he conceded the piece’s flaws the following year.)
But the parallels go much further than that, both cases ultimately being about the way sensational storytelling and personal mythmaking often come before reality in the respective cultures of the Beltway and Silicon Valley. What’s most striking about Holmes, who was this week found guilty of four charges in a much-publicized fraud trial, is less her final downfall than the astonishing length of time she was able to prosper on pure artifice.
By now, the details of Holmes’s story are well known. Dropping out of Stanford in her late teens to found Theranos, she seduced investors, politicians, and journalists alike by pitching a supposedly revolutionary technology that would enable medical tests to be carried out using only a few drops of blood drawn from the tiniest finger prick. At the zenith of its success, Holmes’s widely lauded brand as Silicon Valley’s corporate hero du jour carried the company to a $9 billion valuation and pulled in impossible sums from no less than the Walton family, Rupert Murdoch, and Larry Ellison — also enabling her to forge ties with political and economic elites from across America. The wee wrinkle was that Theranos’s much-vaunted technology turned out to be pure fiction: a fact that not only embarrassed erstwhile corporate allies but also misled patients into thinking they had miscarried, gotten cancer, or contracted HIV.
For those of us who missed out on the initial hype, it beggars belief that anyone with more than a few dozen neurons firing fell for the act. Even with the clarity of hindsight removed from the equation, it’s difficult to fathom how Holmes’s bullshit ever fooled anyone as completely as it did. Asked in 2014 to sketch out the science of Theranos’s pin-prick sorcery, her response amounted to a yarn so brazenly dense that anyone who read it should have immediately sensed they were being had (“A chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel”). Holmes’s omissions and stonewalling instead had the opposite effect: deepening the Theranos mystique and solidifying her reputation as a Promethean disruptor.
For years, it simply didn’t matter that Holmes offered no tangible proof that her company’s technology could actually do what it was purported to. What mattered was that she told a story that people with wealth, power, and influence found both useful and compelling, and that she successfully channeled it through a marketable persona. As is increasingly the case in politics, the hegemonic ideology of Silicon Valley contends that progress is something that trickles down from charismatic visionaries — figures whose personal stories and minor affectations often loom larger than any actual record of invention or achievement. As the New Statesman’s Will Dunn observes in his recent essay on Holmes:
Silicon Valley needed a new Steve Jobs, partly because Jobs had been dead since 2011, but also because he had been the archetype of one of Silicon Valley’s most valuable commodities: the visionary CEO, whom only the most visionary venture capitalist can find, whom only the most visionary investor has chosen to find.
In Holmes’s case, as with more than a few prominent politicians, success was measured less by tangible outcome than it was by brand valuation, buzz itself becoming a stand-alone and self-perpetuating commodity that quickly superseded reality. For plenty of investors and venture capitalists alike, it doesn’t even matter if a company ever becomes profitable as long as there’s a windfall at the IPO stage. Just as tens of millions of votes can be mobilized around the promise of an agenda few with real power actually intend to deliver, billions of dollars can be conjured out of thin air if the product in question looks sufficiently shiny to merit the right kind of attention.
The Theranos story may be one of straightforward fraud exposed, but it is ultimately symptomatic of a profit-driven political and economic order whose structuring contradictions must sustain themselves through mythmaking and illusion. Holmes herself may be a particularly extreme case, but lesser versions of her can be found everywhere in a society that long ago traded any real idea of progress for the ersatz kind offered up by market capitalism — and embraced the hollow saviorism that comes with it.