The danger of hype

The danger of hype

The danger of hype

I’m happy that blood test provider Theranos is shutting down. The hype it generated took a life of its own and possibly enabled its founder to continue with fraud for longer than she should have.

Years ago I read many news items about the US $9 billion drug startup Theranos and its brilliant founder Elizabeth Holmes who dropped out of university at the age of 19 to change the world with blood tests that used tiny amounts of blood. Holmes’ treatment by the media was hagiographic; she reportedly spent most of her time at her company, did not date, and believed that her work was too important to spend her time on such frivolities. At the time, there were few publicly available hints of her flaws. Her news site depictions were comparable that of Steve Jobs and of Elon Musk (Musk – until about a year ago).

Fast forward to 2015, whistles were finally blown to reveal Holmes and her company as frauds. Holmes instituted a culture where criticism of the top was not tolerated. Theranos’ much-hyped tests did not work, so they were forced to use more traditional products bought from competitors to perform the tests. In the process they diluted the small samples of blood taken from patients to get “sufficient” blood for testing, further corrupting the results. Various authorities in the United States took legal action against Holmes, eventually fining her large sums of money and stopping her from being an officer or director of any public company for ten years. Everyone who remains at Theranos will soon be out of their jobs. 

Some of the other idols have also begun to crumble. Steve Jobs created the template for a new kind of technology company founder who would ape his style, speaking to large crowds in casual clothes while announcing new products. His “inspirational” messages frequently show up on my LinkedIn news feed. There is no end of books and articles about his talent. However, Jobs is given a not entirely positive portrayal in his biography by Walter Isaacson, written shortly before his death. Jobs’ successes at Apple are not in question, but the manner in which he dealt with people is. He cheated his friend Steve Wozniack of a sum of money for a job that Wozniack mostly did when they were in college. He created a toxic culture at Apple, pitting teams against each other. The CEO he hired to run Apple, John Sculley, was eventually forced in 1985 to push him out from the company that he founded (Jobs’ second stint at Apple was very successful). Jobs’ colleagues enabled his poor treatment of his employees on account of his genius. His treatment of his daughter was heartbreaking. It included refusing to acknowledge the child as his for many years and then generally being cold to her as she grew up.

Elon Musk is another brilliant person who is doing a variety of things to “save the world”. While he has delivered some very clever products and significantly improved the costs of sending things to space, it has come at the cost of punishing levels of effort on the part of his employees. Yet, Musk never came close to building the network of “superchargers” for easily charging Tesla cars that were gloriously spoken of in his 2015 biography by Ashlee Vance. He has used creative fundraising tactics to keep his companies afloat (especially Tesla), knowing that traditional automakers have the edge on most innovations including artificial intelligence while Tesla maintains the edge primarily on the basis of being electrically powered. Recently his efforts have been dedicated to having arguments with random people on Twitter and calling someone a pedophile, repeating it and then doubling down to calling him a child rapist. More recently he came up with Tweets on privatising Tesla that unsettled the stock and brought increased scrutiny on his actions by regulators. He has even borrowed from the fascists’ handbook and turned on the media for daring to criticise him, stating that he is coming up with his own media company. 

All of these giant personalities were lionised by the media at various times. Musk still has everyone’s attention, but a lot of it is negative. Articles of Jobs’ actual successes are now tempered with how he was sometimes a painful human to deal with. At their height of their popularity, insufficient attention was focused on the manner in which they achieved their real or perceived successes or even whether they were successes while it happened. With the exception of the few who questioned, plenty were happy to talk about the blood testing that was going to change the world or about the electric car. Theranos’ blood tests never materialised. Tesla started producing Musk’s target number of Model 3s per week, needing to rework 86% of cars that came off production lines, after many months of delays. The company then increased the target, but failed to meet even the old target consistently in August.

My point is that we should not be uncritical. People sometimes do wrong, not necessarily intentionally. Geniuses are not immune to this. The same goes for technology. It may sound promising and that is a good thing. But wishing for it to be real and effective is not the same as it being real and effective. Wanting it to succeed does not mean it should not be scrutinised for damaging weaknesses that can harm its users. It would have been a great thing if Theranos had succeeded in creating blood tests that used a fraction of the blood currently used and produced results of comparable quality. That does not mean it was OK to give its founder a free pass and accept her promises without question. There is a place in the world for naysayers.

Key References

Theranos shutting down – https://money.cnn.com/2018/09/05/technology/theranos-elizabeth-holmes/index.html

John Carreyrou’s 2015 article on trouble at Theranos – https://www.wsj.com/articles/theranos-has-struggled-with-blood-tests-1444881901

New York Times article about Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ book, Small Fry – https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/23/books/steve-jobs-lisa-brennan-jobs-small-fry.html

Elon Musk’s recent antics – https://www.marketwatch.com/story/elon-musk-is-more-famous-than-ever-and-maybe-more-dangerous-2018-08-31

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