Theranos as An American Parable
I recently read Bad Blood since the Theranos trial is coming in full swing.
I can’t help but see Theranos as an uniquely American parable with genre-bending plotlines about hype machines, toxic workplaces, and a certain moment in Silicon Valley. It’s a story very much about us.
I lived in the Bay Area at the start of the most recent tech boom in the 2010s. I’ve never been anywhere as crazy as Theranos, but I can recognize many plots of this story. It was very much a mood of that time. We might be due for another iteration with the promises of Web3.
- This is a story about people desperately wanting to believe something is true. I’ve seen so many people want to look for a silver bullet dataset or solution that doesn’t exist. There’s a deep denial when people seem to have stumbled upon a golden solution. Elizabeth Holmes manipulated peoples’ better angels about improving healthcare and how they could change the world for the better. There’s such an internal sunk cost and denial that would lead people to destroying their family ties in the story.
- This is a story about race, gender, and nepotism in America. Only a White woman could have pulled off what Elizabeth Holmes did in a time where people were desperately looking for girlbosses in a Silicon Valley boomtime. Welcomed in elite social circles, Holmes was able to gain the trust and cultivate ties especially from older powerful White men with zero qualifications for her claims. Every Woman of Color has worked with a lot of low budget Elizabeth Holmes who would never be given such time of day. There’s also Sunny, who had a distinct “servant-master mentality” which you see reproduced among immigrants from South Asia who form their own social structures in organizations that run contrary to the better half modern American ideals. Part of the Holmes trial centers around how her older Pakistani boyfriend, who was her No 2, accusing him of manipulating her, even an abusive relationship, even though there was evidence of her behavior long before he showed up. She also had tried to throw him under the bus before.
- This is a story about toxic workplace behaviors. Theranos looks almost comical in the way it conducted itself and gaslit employees, but sending lawyers and PIs to to follow people is something very real and something I’ve done to people for far less in Silicon Valley. I’ve also seen workplaces that gaslight people. I almost want to recommend this book to everyone graduating from college and starting their work lives, especially Women of Color from immigrant or working class background who do not have the legal firepower that ultimately provided cover for a lot of the whistleblowers in this story. Watch the danger signs, and walk away if you can. Your conscience and well being will thank you. The suicide that takes place is the most tragic example, but I’ve seen people have breakdowns all the same.
- This is a story about American scamming. Vaporware and hype has been apart of the American story. Jia Tolentino’s essay, a Story of My Generation in Seven Scams on this topic is a must read. Silicon Valley has destroyed so much value with hype and just things that are not real. Having spent some time seeing tech in Asia, it’s depressing how people are making real things while the US seems to be out-of-ideas. If you ask an international group of people in a business setting what they don’t like about Americans, a common refrain is that “they’re all talk.” It feels like people are building fantasy web3 use cases, which are still solutions looking for problems as of today, creating spoof asset classes and financial instruments, and Facebook’s Metaverse. As a multi-lingual American who knows a bit more about the rest of the world, it’s damn right depressing.
- Lastly, to me this story is about enablers. The most shocking, yet not shocking, part of Bad Blood was the bullying and manipulation happening at satirical levels in the story, bashing employees who left, accusations of disloyalty, legal threats, lying to people’s families to humiliate them, giving employees contradictory information, withholding information, and all the things you can think of in a corporate horror story. A lot of this was facilitated by goons in her company and powerful men outside of it. It was only possible with that complicity. I’ve seen people like Holmes who think this is just normal operating procedure. There are social changes happening in American workplaces stemming from the racial reckonings of the summer of 2020 and changing demographics that we’re only starting to sort out as society pushes back on existing structures that work for too few. There’s been an Ok Culture that’s existed too long that tolerated this sort of behavior for an imaginary bottom line that people are finally able to say no to. I’d like to say another Theranos won’t happen again in America, but then again this is a country of scams