Why are people so delighted at the downfall of Elizabeth Holmes?
We dislike Silicon Valley’s grifters, but the glee over the Theranos founder’s ruin seems disproportionate
Ten minutes prior to the announcement of the verdict in the Elizabeth Holmes trial on Monday, reporters in San Jose, California, tweeted a heads up that the jury had returned. The news hit Twitter like oil on a hot frying pan, triggering not only anticipation, but a frisson of spite. Holmes, whose outfits over the course of the 15-week trial – dowdy, pale, and unthreatening – were interpreted as a contrivance equal to the black turtlenecks before them, isn’t a sympathetic figure, and there is always satisfaction to seeing confidence tricksters called out. But the level of enjoyment in her ruin, it seems to me, falls outside the normal range. “Ha,” I thought childishly when the guilty verdict came in. “Serves her right.”
This was a particular and not wholly flattering form of schadenfreude. Holmes was found guilty of defrauding her investors on four counts; she was found not guilty on four counts relating to defrauding patients; and the jury couldn’t reach a verdict on three further counts. In all likelihood she will go to jail, and the sheer size of the numbers involved – Holmes defrauded investors to the tune of almost $1bn – will affect the length of her sentence. None of which quite explains the scale of contempt for the woman. I can’t summon a particular face or any real antipathy towards the board members of Enron. I loathe the architects of the 2008 financial crisis in a vague way that has never attached to a single image. Here is Holmes, however, with her too-red lipstick and wispy hair; and up it comes, a violent surge of dislike.
Obviously there are sexist biases involved, which knowing them to be such does little to neutralise. The woman thing aside, however, it’s clear that in the popular imagination, Holmes is carrying the can for a lot of unpunished hubris. Jeff Bezos with his ludicrous space hobby; ditto Elon Musk, with his mad tweets and – if we’re going to bring hair into it – ludicrous solution to baldness. If Holmes did something shady to investors, her greater crime was being part of a wealth class that has separated itself from the rest of humanity. It makes you wonder about Leonardo da Vinci – were people sitting around the coffee shops of early 16th-century Florence, bitching about what a big-headed arsehole he was and hoping for his imminent demise? Did we feel this way when Martha Stewart went down?
One could write the whole thing all off as class envy were it not linked to some deeper dismay at the world into which we have apparently sleepwalked, one in which the grifters and influencers of Silicon Valley have come to inherit the Earth. Most of them appear to be bomb proof. Liars and plagiarists can lay low for a few years, before popping up to start peddling baloney again. What makes it worse is that, for the space of a few years, many of us willingly drank the Kool-Aid. Facebook allowed us to keep in touch with far-flung friends and family. Social media democratised marginalised voices. Getting a taxi was easier than it had ever been. All these things may be true, but they are not the whole truth, particularly at this time of year when one is encouraged to take stock and remind oneself, sternly, that happiness is sitting on a rock reading a book, or learning to play the harp. Instead, here we go again, passed out on the sofa not merely scrolling, but hate-scrolling.
Which brings us to Elizabeth Holmes. What happened at Theranos, the creation of a phoney blood-testing technology, was not a “victimless crime”, but the victims, according to the court, were a plucky group of venture capitalists that it’s safe to say no one will be rustling up a quick crowdfunding campaign for. Regarded in a different light, and overlooking the patients for whom this technology was intended, Holmes almost did us a favour, exposing the credulousness of a system intent only on profit. But that’s not how it landed. The story had nothing to do with me, I thought, not for the first time, but there it was; a thrill of satisfaction when the verdict came through, that was only vaguely related to justice.
Even for the fraudian and even for Brockes this is a ridiculous stance. First of the "obvious" sexist biases, which are apparently so obvious she doesn't bother to detail them or back them up with any evidence. Maybe she forgot how people hated on "Pharma Bro" Shkreli. Was that because he was a man? No, it was because he was an overprivileged scumbag who thought he was above the law and then found out he wasn't. So it is for Holmes.
Then she compares Holmes defrauding people out of hundreds of millions of dollars and pushing a technology that gave people wildly inaccurate medical test results to Bezos going into space and Elon Musk and "his mad tweets". Pathetic and worthy of criticism these things may be but they aren't illegal and didn't put people's health at risk.
Nice sleight of hand on the "the victims according to the court were venture capitalists" seeing as they couldn't reach a verdict on the charges of defrauding patients. This doesn't mean those people weren't victims (particularly the one who died, noted below).
Then she comes out with this absolutely insane idea, "...overlooking the patients for whom this technology was intended, Holmes almost did us a favour...". Right, ignoring all the people who got bad test results which could have resulted in their health and lives being at risk (at least one person died of a heart attack after treatment based on these bad results) she was a whistleblower! We should give her a medal.
Funny how Brockes is keen on people exposing "a system only intent on profit" but hasn't been calling for Assange to be freed or corrupt bankers to be jailed. As for sexist bias, I bet she wouldn't care a tenth as much if this was some random tech dude.
Utterly bizarre garbage.