We’ve all – by now – heard the story of Theranos. We’ve all picked apart the effects the exposure has had for each of the players in the game – the patients, the investors, the ex-Theranos employees, and – heck – even the journalists who covered them in the early days. From John Carreyrou’s New York Times Bestseller ‘Bad Blood‘ to Vanity Fair’s Nick Bilton’s recent investigations into the last days of the company, the story of Elizabeth Holmes and her fraudulent attempt at creating a machine to test and diagnose with ‘one drop of blood’ have captivated audiences around the world.
But at SXSW – the annual tech, music and film festival in Austin, Texas – the showing of Alex Gibney’s Theranos documentary ‘The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley‘ (adding another story of deception to his documentary repertoire including Enron, Scientology and Lance Armstrong), one more player in the game was not-so-subtlety confronted with their own complicity in this saga: us, the audience.
The new documentary focuses on Holmes’ multimedia storytelling – from articles and TV interviews to TED talks and in-company meetings – to expose how those involved were duped into believing and backing her and the company for so long. Indeed, I asked Gibney after the showing what role the film plays alongside the book and the extensive reporting, and his response was simply that you kind of have to see it to believe it.
Holmes is compelling on film – and even though you watch the documentary knowing the ending, you find yourself seeking an excuse to believe her at every shot; like going into a magic show searching for the slip of the hand the magician makes to fool you, or scanning the photos and life story of a serial killer to reassure yourself you could, and would, have known. She made those videos and interviews for us – the audience – to be fooled by. And we were.
Showing the film at SXSW – the tech festival within it being one of the world’s most influential innovation conferences – made for another dose of complicity. She very well could have been one of the speakers on stage – and amongst AOC and the Instagram founders and Neil Gaiman gracing the main stage this year, there was also Gwyneth Paltrow with her pseudoscience and charm. (And who knows who else was there that we don’t yet know the full story behind, whose idealistic visions we are eating up at every turn.)
During the Q&A, one woman mentioned she was a personal friend of Tim Draper – Holmes’ biggest, and still backing, supporter – and asked if the media could have possibly just over-egged it all. How she could have questioned this after sitting for 90-minutes in that cinema watching that movie is beyond me, but is a further illustration of the power of this deception and the cult of the Silicon Valley elite, along with our desperation to believe those who say they can change the world.
The European deeptech ecosystem is growing at pace – a European Commission report showed total investment in space companies grew almost fourfold in 2012-2017 compared with the previous six-year period; the UK Bioindustry Association reported that the UK biotech sector raised the most investment ever, £2.2 billion, from investors in 2018 – almost double than 2017 numbers. Europe is in a unique position to learn from the entrepreneurship success of the U.S. deeptech companies who have already hit the market – the benefit of learning from hindsight, as it were – and pairing that commercialization know-how with the invention and innovation chops of leading European research institutions. However, in the race to ‘catch up’ with the U.S. and parts of Asia, Europe must also be vigilant in ensuring we don’t get caught up in the hype – that the science and tech which gains the most attention is that which is backed up by data and with clear societal benefits, rather than that which simply captures the imagination.
Gibney’s documentary is an exploration – yes – but it’s also a cautionary tale. Believing in hype and idealism is not just about being conned by master manipulators and liars, it’s also about our desperation and desire for what they’re saying to be true. She was selling, and we were keen to buy. We are dangerously capable of believing blindly and fuelling fires – and the success of the Theranos story, and the obsession of those still hungry for more on it (including you and me, dear reader), shows we are still searching for the answer for how this possibly could have happened. Keeping that question open, as opposed to accepting that we too as a community and as an audience should shoulder some of that blame in letting the critical thinking slip, isn’t enough to futureproof against the European Theranos.
The film does a fine job of proving the power of hype. The question for us all is: will enough of us ‘get it’?