As I head into the summer recess for my Bits blogs, I find myself contemplating the cultural significance of the rise and apparent fall of Theranos, the troubled biotech startup that was once heralded as a disruptive force that would revolutionize the blood testing industry, and, not so incidentally, produce a new generation of high-tech entrepreneurs to rank with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. On the face of it, of course, this would not appear to be a topic for popular cultural analysis, but bear with me for a moment, for when it comes to the new technologies, everything relates in some way or another to the manifold currents of everyday life that popular culture expresses.
What has drawn my attention to Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos saga is the publication of a book by the Wall Street Journal writer who first blew the whistle on the company in 2015: John Carreyrou's BAD BLOOD: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup. A brief synopsis of that book appeared in Wired just as it was being released, and it was a single sentence in that synopsis that really got me thinking. It appears in Carreyrou's narrative at the point when things at Theranos were beginning to unravel and various high-ranking employees were abandoning ship. In the wake of such resignations, Elizabeth Holmes allegedly summoned every remaining employee to an all-hands-on-deck meeting to demand loyalty from them. But she didn't call it loyalty: according to Carreyrou "Holmes told the gathered employees that she was building a religion. If there were any among them who didn’t believe, they should leave."
Building a religion: Holmes was telling a truth that was deeper than she realized. For when we situate the story of Theranos in the larger system of post-industrial America, we can see that our entire culture has been building a religion around what Fredric Jameson has called America's postmodern mode of production. On the face of it, the object of worship in this system is technology itself, which is viewed as a kind of all-purpose savior that will solve all of our problems if we are just patient enough. Steven Pinker's new book, Enlightenment Now, makes this point explicitly, but it is implicit every time some new tech startup promises to "fix" higher education, clean up all the trash in the ocean, and use architecture to save the natural environment (see, for example, Wade Graham's "Are We Greening Our Cities, or Just Greenwashing Them?", which provides both a survey and a critique of the eco-city movement: you can find it in the 9th edition of Signs of Life in the USA). The religion of technology also produces its own demi-gods, like Elon Musk, who can announce yet another delay (or change of plans) in his money-losing product line and still see his Tesla stock rise due to the unwavering adoration of his flock.
Oddly enough, as I was writing the first draft of this blog I came across an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education that examines a related angle on this phenomenon. There, in a take-down of the "design thinking" movement (an ecstatic amalgamation of a Stanford University product design program and the Esalen Institute that promises to transform higher education into a factory for producing entrepreneurially inclined "change agents"), Lee Vinsel compares the whole thing, overtly, to a religious cult, acidly remarking that the movement "has many of the features of classic cult indoctrination, including intense emotional highs, a special lingo barely recognizable to outsiders, and a nigh-salvific sense of election" —concluding that "In the end, design thinking is not about design. It’s not about the liberal arts. It’s not about innovation in any meaningful sense. It’s certainly not about 'social innovation' if that means significant social change. It’s about commercialization. It’s about making education a superficial form of business training."
Thus, I think that Vinsel would agree with my contention that behind the religion of technology is something larger, older, and more universal. This is, quite simply, the religion of money worship. Minting instant billionaires and driving an ever-deeper wedge between a technology-fostered one percent and everyone else, the post-industrial economy dazzles most through the glitter of gold, which overcomes every other moral value, from Facebook's willingness to allow its platform to be exploited for the purposes of overt political manipulation to Theranos's performing a million blood tests with a technology so flawed that the tests have had to be invalidated, at who knows what cost to the patients (one should say, victims) involved.
And what does America do in response? It makes movies, like Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network, and John Carreyrou's own Bad Blood, a film said to be starring Jennifer Lawrence, and due out in 2019, thus turning social anomie into entertainment, and promising even more offerings on the altars of extreme affluence.