Elizabeth Holmes, founder of start-up Theranos and short-lived Silicon Valley star, has just been sentenced to eleven years in prison for fraud by the San Jose court (she is appealing). Theranos had been wildly successful in the 2010s, reaching a $9 billion valuation, promising to revolutionize medical testing with a simple drop of blood taken from a finger.
It turned out that its technology was not perfect, that most of its blood tests were performed unobtrusively on traditional machines, and that the results communicated to patients were incorrect. By methodically concealing these malfunctions, Theranos had become the Potemkin village of medical expertise.
To understand Elizabeth Holmes’s resistible rise as well as her Promethean fall, one must read “Bad Blood” by John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal investigative journalist who uncovered the deception. We are giddy at the mafia-like violence of the American professional world, the permanent legalization of human relations, the cult of secrecy that turns into paranoia, and the impression of amateurism that seeps under the decorum of lawyers and bodyguards.
O studied construction of the character of Elizabeth is fascinating. With boundless cynicism and cruel ambition in the day-to-day management of her business, she presents her investors and the media with the face of the Valley’s dreams: a young blonde imposing herself in the world of men, a prodigy leaving Stanford to revolutionize science, an idealist full of empathy for the suffering of the sick. No doubt she was finished, looking at herself in the false mirror of the schizophreniaper believe your own lies🇧🇷
Remarkably neutral and factual throughout his story, Carreyrou only allows himself to conclude about his heroine that “her moral compass was perverted”. But what morality are we talking about?
The end result: making an impact
Capitalism offers so much freedom to its actors that it cannot function properly without them respecting a strong personal ethic; otherwise, he is doomed to excesses and their consequences, hyper-regulation. Before becoming the thinker of the wealth of nations, Adam Smith was a severe moral philosopher, author of a “Theory of Moral Sentiments” according to which self-esteem can only derive from the conscience of one’s own duty and the practice of generosity; conversely, only the corruption of our moral sense leads us to admire riches. Max Weber would theorize a century later the intrinsic link between the spirit of capitalism and the Protestant ethic, made of personal austerity and discipline at work.
There is no doubt that Elizabeth Holmes, with her personal cook and her private jet, is at odds with the Protestant ethic. However, maybe she follows a moral code, that of Silicon Valley, which is based on two principles. First, “get over yourself”. Fascinated by Steve Jobs, from whom she borrows her eternal black turtleneck, Holmes inscribes the silliest personal development formulas on the walls of Theranos. So, “change the world”. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad: the main thing is to make an impact. The company then becomes a quasi-religious entity. Elizabeth regularly gathered her employees to convince them that they were preparing to save humanity, even distributing copies of “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho to those who would accompany them on this mystical quest. If Elizabeth Holmes had launched a social network instead of a biotechnology one, she might have achieved her goals. He would have been forgiven for his exaggerations in the name of the Valley’s first order: “Fake it ’til you make it.”
A Teenage Arrogance
Through Elizabeth Holmes, it is contemporary capitalism that the San José court has just condemned. Wanting to “transcend oneself” or “change the world” would have been considered by any Greek philosopher to be the alarming symptoms of adolescent arrogance. It was much better to know and respect the order of nature. Two ancient principles that would be very precious to us today. It is not enough to embarrass capitalism with CSR, as if a company could assume the slightest “responsibility” when its directors refrain from doing so. It is the capitalists themselves who need a new personal ethic. Γνῶθι σεαυτόν! [Connais-toi toi-même, NDLR]
THE AUTHOR: Gaspard Koenig is a philosopher and founder of the think tank GenerationLibre.