Over the last few months, I’ve watched three documentaries on two frauds perpetrated by con artists – Fyre, Fyre Fraud and The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.
Whenever I encounter stories like this, I wonder why the con worked and whether the success of the con suggests something meaningful about our culture. The people at the center of these stories are not wildly charismatic (or if they are, that charisma is not captured by the camera). They are outwardly bland and unmemorable by the standards of American pop culture, the kinds of figures who you might find occupying a crowd scene in a movie to help sustain the illusion of normalcy. Neither appear to be the next coming of P.T. Barnum or salespeople who could sell water to a whale.
The films suggest a connection between the two scams and broader cultural trends. The two documentaries about the failed Fyre Festival focus on social media and modern celebrity (and youth culture more broadly). The one about the scandal surrounding the fall of Theranos suggests a link with the entrepreneurial start up culture that has developed around (and is associated with) Silicon Valley, where many tolerate extreme levels of secrecy and celebrate charismatic monomaniacal leaders. Theranos also benefited from being part of an environment where investors are hungry for the newest revolutionary product or service that will disrupt our understanding of how the world (or a sector of the economy) works. This explanation is plausible, but feels somewhat incomplete.
The Inventor tells the story of Holmes’ rise to prominence through the media narratives that documented and helped fuel her early success. The initial narrative was one about a hard driving female entrepreneur who dedicated all of her energy (and every waking hour) to innovation. It was inspirational to many of those eager to see a story about a woman succeeding in a corporate world dominated by men. Holmes wasn’t just a female ceo, she was a visionary founder in the style of Steve Jobs (the legendary (and infamous) ceo of Apple), a model for Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg’s ’lean in feminism’. Some of this turned out to be true. Elizabeth Holmes was indeed a hard-driving person who worked all the time. The twist was that her goal was not to revolutionize medicine, it was to persuade people to give her funds for a product that would never be delivered.
The product in question was a magic machine (the “Einstein”) that could run a wide range of blood tests from a tiny amount of blood (which would eliminate the need for more expensive and cumbersome traditional blood withdrawals and lab tests). The Inventor tells us that Elizabeth Holmes convinced a lot of powerful people that she was a real inventor and that her machine really worked. We saw many men who spent a lifetime building reputations as ‘serious men’ in the worlds of politics and the media embracing a con artist and proclaiming her a genius. The film gives us some insight into why the media fell for the scam, but it’s less clear why the ‘serious men’ turned out to be suckers. The obvious answer is that they knew little about technology or medicine and were swayed by Ms. Holmes’ ability to convey a sense of unwavering conviction, but even that’s somewhat dissatisfying, as I imagine that these men could have easily consulted with experts in the field (any field) to vet her claims. But they did not.
There are two other women prominently featured in the Inventor. One was Erika Cheung, a young lab associate who became disillusioned by Holmes and eventually blew the whistle on the company. She voiced her concerns about the company from within but ultimately opted to depart. She shared her concerns with a journalist from the Wall Street Journal and became a whistle blower after Holmes tried to intimidate her with the threat of litigation. The other is Phyllis Gardner, a professor of medicine at Stanford who Holmes consulted as a possible mentor/advisor early in her journey (when she was a undergrad sophomore). She immediately recognized the impossible nature of Holmes’ vision. Holmes eventually found another mentor at Stamford, Channing Robertson, a male tenured faculty member (with two endowed seats!) who was also a former chair of Chemical Engineering at Stanford (and an engineer himself by trade). The Inventor does not spend much time exploring why Professor Gardner’s vision was clearer than Professor Robertson’s vision.
Would Professor Robertson have fallen for the scam if the con artist weighed more or if had different features? Or if they were not white? Or came from a different socioeconomic background? Maybe. Or maybe not.
It’s difficult to determine how much of a role identity and privilege played in this scandal from a single documentary, but The Inventor did (inadvertently?) inspire thought about the blind spots in a patriarchal social system designed to preserve the domination of political, economic and cultural institutions by people who call themselves white, especially those who have the right pedigree. We have a tendency to give people from the right socioeconomic backgrounds with the right physical attributes the benefit of the doubt. We are inclined to believe that a young white person from a privileged background who attended an exclusive Ivy League institution is an innovator, even if the evidence (strongly!) suggests otherwise. We don’t spend enough time thinking about the risks of that assumption.
Elizabeth Holmes is more than the sum of her identities and we should not look solely to those identities to explain the Theranos scandal, but our bodies are not neutral and it’s hard to ignore the impact that the categories we place her in – white, female, affluent, upper class – may have had on her story. As I was watching the documentary, I kept thinking about the Saturday Night Live “Them Trumps” sketch, which imagines an Empire-style dramatization of the chaos surrounding the “First Family” currently occupying the White House starring African American actors. Every skit follows a familiar structure. Someone delivers a monologue about a lightly fictionalized version of some real life scandal or controversy and suggests that time’s running out and a moment of accountability is imminent. Kenan Thompson’s Darius Trump (equally inspired by our current President and Terrence Howard’s Lucious Lyon) responds with defiant hubris – he is a powerful man who sits in the highest office in the land, and even though he’s black… The cops enter the moment after he says ‘black’ and declare that he’s under arrest. Thompson’s Trump doesn’t sound surprised at all. He says ‘that sounds about right’ as the theme music plays and the credits roll.
As I watched the Theranos documentary, I imagined all the moments when an African American female version of Holmes would have been carried away by the police (accompanied by a credit roll and fade to black).
The Inventor does not explore the ways in which Elizabeth Holmes’ gender impacted coverage of the scandal once the truth of her con was revealed. The cost of being a female corporate con artist is most visible in the reactions to the Inventor and media coverage of the Theranos scam. There’s a breathless quality to the coverage of this documentary that you don’t always see with the many (many) scandals perpetrated by male con artists. There’s more anger, more critiques of the women (especially the white ones) who promote survival techniques like ‘lean in’ feminism (and not many discussions of why some believe that the technique is necessary). The conversation about Ms. Holmes’ appearance has shifted. She’s not the fascinating (and attractive, don’t forget attractive!) intense young female entrepreneur and innovator. Her emulation of Steve Jobs was admirable, but now it’s creepy. She’s not just a liar and a fraud but someone with implied mental health problems whose words ‘don’t map onto reality as you and I know it’. The intensity that was praised when she was successful was mocked and carefully dissected. Did you know that she rarely blinks during on-camera appearances?Or that she modulates her voice to sound deeper in some interviews? She’s not just another in an endless line of con artists who separate fools from their money. She’s weird and spooky, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel.
The Inventor is not very concerned about the ways in which Ms. Holmes’ identities impacted the scandal (and our feelings about it). It’s far more interested in exploring if Ms. Holmes was an innovator whose hubris led her to engage in fraud and criminal conspiracy or a con artist who got caught while in the middle of a very high class con. The film begins with references to Thomas Edison, the famed inventor with a series of extremely shady marketing plans. Edison had so much… let’s be generous and call it ‘confidence’ in his ability to solve technical problems related to his inventions that he would jump the gun by feigning to have solved problems that he had yet to figure out. It was an extremely deceptive practice, but he was still committed to innovation. The Elizabeth Holmes we see in this documentary doesn’t seem particularly committed to solving the problems with her device. She doesn’t hire the best and brightest or encourage collaboration between teams. We see a few talented Theranos employees, but it was clear that they were weeded out and gradually replaced with younger, less qualified and inexperienced employees who were less likely to question authority. As the pressure to produce results intensified, she created and reinforced silos within her organization to discourage collaboration instead of pushing staff to work with each other to identify solutions. The silos and the hiring strategy reduced the risk that employees would figure out the full scope of the scam and blow the proverbial whistle to the authorities.
There are moments when all three documentaries suggest that these schemes were disastrous failures, which complicates any efforts to explore why the scams were so successful (at least at the outset). If you believe that Elizabeth Holmes really planned to invent a magic machine or that Billy McFarland (organizer of the Fyre Festival) actually planned to provide his customers a Woodstock for modern influencers, the question of how they were able to fool so many people for as long as they did becomes less relevant. A story about criminals who lied to steal money from vulnerable people becomes one about wannabe innovators whose reach exceeds their grasp.
The Inventor is a middling film about a fascinating topic. It has enough raw material to spark interest in the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, but doesn’t explore some of the more complicated ideas lurking just beneath the surface.