Elizabeth Holmes’s Guilty Verdict Won’t Change Silicon Valley
To see the headlines tell it this week, it was as if Silicon Valley had been reformed once and for all—as if the tech world, which has led to so much societal chaos, which has been blamed for the rise in bullying and teen suicide, which has augmented fake news and and conspiracy theories and lured billions into the grip of evil algorithmic overlords, had finally been baptized and absolved of its sins. Why? Because of the guilty verdict in the Elizabeth Holmes trial. The same verdict the Drudge Report called a “landmark Silicon Valley case” and that NPR splayed at the top of its morning report with the headline, “What Elizabeth Holmes’ guilty verdict could mean for Silicon Valley.” In reality, with the exception of Holmes and the company she founded, almost nothing in Silicon Valley has changed as a result of her trial—and I’m willing to bet that nothing will.
In almost every respect, the Elizabeth Holmes saga ended the way it began: as a spectacle. Back in May of 2016, when I first wrote about Theranos, I noted that plenty of people allowed the lie behind Holmes’s company to flourish and grow in the manner it did. There was Holmes and her then boyfriend, Sunny Balwani, also the COO, who lied to almost everyone with whom they interacted. There were the venture capitalists who looked the other way for the promise of piles of cash. There were the members of Theranos’s board who had a spell cast over their responsibilities. But more than any other entity, the media allowed Holmes to cause the harm she did. “If you peel back all of the layers of this tale,” I wrote at the time, “at the center you will find one of the more insidious culprits: the Silicon Valley tech press. They embraced Holmes and her start-up with a surprising paucity of questions about the technology she had supposedly developed. They praised her as ‘the next Steve Jobs,’ over and over (the black turtleneck didn’t hurt), until it was no longer a question, but seemingly a fact.” It was a non-tech reporter, John Carreyrou at The Wall Street Journal, who recognized that something about Holmes was off.
At the time, there was a glimmer of hope. Amid Silicon Valley’s immoral pillars—Uber was mired in sexual harassment scandals and machismo culture; Twitter was allowing lies to be spread by a sitting president; Facebook looked the other way at Nazis—Theranos fell. Holmes and Balwani were charged with fraud. (Balwani has pleaded not guilty.) It felt, for a moment, like justice would come home to roost.
But once the trial began, it quickly became another example of media theatrics. For several months, throngs of reporters, TV crews, podcasters, and Holmes look-alikes descended on the federal courthouse in Santa Clara County as though it were the “Storm Area 51” meetup, which inspired events where more than a thousand people dressed up as aliens and danced in towns near the famed U.S. military base (with a few unsuccessfully trying to ‘storm’ the base). When the verdict finally came in, there was a race to see who could tweet it first—then a race to concoct the funniest meme. The verdict consumed the national conversation on Twitter for a good few hours (the equivalent of a decade in internet years), and now it’s on to the next meme. This was the O.J. Simpson trial of our time: our Enron, or our Martha Stewart insider trading scandal, or our Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. Each of these was its own spectacle, but when the camera crews put away their gear and the tech bloggers close their laptops and the podcasters turn off their microphones, what will we have actually learned?
One reason why Holmes became the face of Theranos’s lies is that she was the face of the company to the media. She was the one who oversaw a blood draw onstage at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, even though her technology wasn’t working. She was the one profiled in The New Yorker, and she was the one on the cover of T: The New York Times Style Magazine. (I should note that Holmes also appeared on Vanity Fair’s 2015 New Establishment List and spoke that year at its New Establishment Summit.) Becoming the face of a company is by design. Steve Jobs did the same thing to create the persona of a design genius—a narrative that helped to elevate his company and the products Apple made. Elon Musk has done the same at Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink, and the Boring Company; he’s clearly his own marketing genius, using his massive social following to help boost his businesses. Mark Zuckerberg does it happily too, acting as the face of the company he founded so he can deflect the bullets aimed at Facebook and Instagram.
We all know that none of these people act alone. Balwani should not be the only one held accountable for deceiving the media and partners alongside Holmes; Theranos investors and board members should likewise answer for their negligence. The same can be said for board members and major investors of all tech companies—Tesla, Facebook, Twitter, Uber, and so on—who so often look the other way as long as they can draw a profit.
Yet six years after Carreyrou wrote his first story on Theranos, the industry is still plagued with scandals, and investors and board members continue to be blinded by money and power. As Bloomberg’s Ellen Huet wrote regarding the Theranos trial, those who fund these companies haven’t come close to changing their tactics. “When investors are competing to get into a round, one way they can edge out a rival is through speed,” Huet wrote, pointing out that through November 30 of last year, investors had given $305 billion in funding to start-ups—nearly double the amount of the previous year. That’s amid all of the congressional hearings around tech, the anti-vax movement that has largely proliferated because of social media, and the sloshy, scam-riddled world of crypto and Web3.
When Holmes fell, her backers simply suffered a slight scuff on their résumés. Tim Draper, once one of the most vociferous Theranos defenders, is now a darling of the crypto world, praised for making a billion dollars on Bitcoin. Henry Kissinger, a former Theranos board member, is still being hailed a genius in the media (he recently had a book written about him) and also coauthored a book on A.I. that is being praised for its foresight. Famed lawyer David Boies, who was outside counsel for Theranos, on the company’s board, and another major advocate for Holmes, is still the chairman and a managing partner of Boies Schiller Flexner; he is being lauded in some corners for representing Jeffrey Epstein’s victims, recently telling the Daily Mail that although Ghislaine Maxwell was found guilty, the Justice Department should continue to pursue other Epstein coconspirators. “They too are not above the law,” he said. “They too must be brought to justice.” I couldn’t agree more. If we really want to change the way Silicon Valley works, maybe it’s time to start holding the boards of these companies, and the investors behind them, accountable too.
— The Story Behind the Only Known Photo of Prince Andrew and Jeffrey Epstein— The 140,000 COVID Orphans Left in the Shadows— It Sure Sounds Like Trump Was Screening Don Jr.’s Calls on January 6— Of Course the Ridiculous Bible Photo Op Was Ivanka’s Idea— CNN and Chris Cuomo on the Brink of All-Out War— The Prosecution Is Fumbling Its Case Against Ghislaine Maxwell— Hunter Biden Paints His Truth— From the Archive: Inside the Ultra-Exclusive Bohemian Club— Not a subscriber? Join Vanity Fair to receive full access to VF.com and the complete online archive now.