“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair
By Nina Heyn – Your Culture Scout
Living in the past, for instance in the pastoral 18th century – when nature has not been yet destroyed by industrial revolution and global wars have not yet ravaged the souls and cities – would have some appeal to modern people if not for lack of antibiotics, complex surgical interventions or even aspirin that we have access to in modern times. Without what we call modern medicine, more or less universally available after the WWII in large parts of the world, life is really hard to live. No wonder then that people have always had a dreamt of universal cures.
If you have not seen Elysium, a 2013 movie starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, you probably should do so. Not only it’s an entertaining dystopia about two worlds of the future that we seem to be inching towards every day but also it talks about the eternal desire for an instant and absolute medical cure. This is what lies at the core of the Elysium fantasy – the 10 percent of the rich and powerful have left the ravaged and overpopulated Earth to live on an orbital station where the quality of life is enhanced by a medical machine in every home. Whatever ailment you have – leukemia or heart disease – a short stint in the machine will realign your cells and cure you in seconds.
This fantasy has had its real life version when, in 2012, a Silicon Valley start-up called Theranos announced production of fairly cheap and universally available home machines that would be able to diagnose hundreds ailments through a painless draw of a drop of capillary blood. The company was started and promoted by a beguiling young woman called Elizabeth Holmes, a Stanford drop-out whose trademark black turtleneck more than evoked Steve Jobs. The idea touted by Holmes at countless investor meetings and presentations was that a device that can fit into a box the size of a microwave oven would produce fast, accurate and inexpensive blood tests for everything from diabetes to HIV without any need for draws of vials of venal blood. One finger pinprick and you have a fast diagnosis on the spot. Not only the idea was so seductive, so was the inventor- a young, earnest entrepreneur, who evoked all the great Silicon Valley inventors, and who was able to stack Theranos board with everyone from Henry Kissinger to former Secretary of State George Schultz. The technological world, politicians, Silicon Valley VIP’s, and large commercial organizations from Walgreens to Safeway, went wild for both the idea and the leader.
When this “too good to be true’ dream came crashing down, no wonder that it became a subject of a documentary by HBO called The Inventor: Out for Blood In Silicon Valley. The documentary itself has a fairly classic structure of mixing a montage of Holmes’ public appearances with testimonials of company whistleblowers who were sued into oblivion by heavy-weight lawyers. An ironic twist to the story is provided by the fact that it was one of Schultz’s grandsons, Tyler Schultz, who was hired as one of the company’s engineers and who became one of the prominent whistleblowers after realizing that the company is all publicity and no science. At the outset of the Theranos’ meteoric rise only a Stanford medicine professor Phyllis Gardner was a lone dissenting voice of reason calling out the medical theory behind Theranos an impossibility. When the company finally crashed, it burned through almost a billion of investor’s money. Holmes now faces lengthy legal proceedings and Theranos ex-employees have probably even worse resumes than those of Enron a decade ago.
The Inventor was released in April 2019 and it seems to be on a tail end of “old HBO,” a company that was part of the Warner Bros family of companies but which operated independently in terms of artistic output. For decades, HBO has been the Rolls Royce of television production – both for TV shows and documentaries. It’s enough to mention such shows as The Sopranos, The Wire, or Game of Thrones and the endless string of Emmys and other awards granted to HBO year after year for amazing output of highest quality TV entertainment and investigative documentaries.
ATT’s takeover of WB may or may not change this streak but The Inventor, by the sheer weight of its subject matter, is heading for awards consideration at the end of the year. This documentary talks about so many important things – our impatience with the 20th century medicine that has not caught up with our 21st century expectations of painless and universal cures, the business world’s insatiable appetite for the next great thing, and the ease with which an earnest communicator with an idea can seduce the smartest people in the room.
There are plans for a feature film about Holmes with Jennifer Lawrence attached to the project, and a Hulu limited series with Kate McKinnon. This might turn out a better financial legacy of Theranos than the actual company- at least for the entertainment stocks. And if you want to see a medical fantasy, Elysium is always good.
For more on the Theranos subject, please check out Catherine’s comments: