Una Mullally: Tech sector should not be able to get away with baseless claims
Theranos scandal proves that tech start-ups must be exposed to tight peer review
As tech hyperbole increasingly intersects with New Age thinking, a dose of reality may spoil the party.
There’s one particular moment among many jaw-dropping ones during the podcast The Dropout, which details the rise and fall of Theranos, the company headed by Elizabeth Holmes that claimed groundbreaking innovations in blood testing, and was eventually valued at $10 billion despite those claims being false.
Holmes’s present-day position – as she awaits trial facing up to 20 years in prison – is no longer as a start-up genius, but as a key figure in the sprawling true crime industry. Very much, let’s say, in the fraudertainment category, alongside Fyre Festival and the new JT LeRoy biopic.
But this particular moment involves a scientist curious about Theranos’s remarkable claims to run multiple simultaneous blood tests with just a drop or two of blood. The scientist wondered which scientific papers or peer-reviewed studies backed up or commented on Theranos’s technology and claims of innovation. That peer-review process basically didn’t exist.
It’s an understated call to action. In an industry where big claims precede massive investment, what is the peer-review structure in tech? If scientific discovery has to undergo rigorous intra-industry review, then why not tech?
Great ideas are 10 a penny, it’s the execution and follow through that’s important. Anyone can offer up an amazing innovation – solar-powered 3D-printed electric jetpacks for all, tomorrow! – but unless these things can actually be done, the idea is relatively worthless. Or it would be in most industries that don’t lean as heavily on dreaming big and failing better as tech start-up culture does.
Loud and brash
Venture capital investment in US companies hit $100 billion last year. This almost fourfold increase in 10 years is for some a boom and for others a bubble. What is obvious is that, in the clamour for money, the loudest and brashest ideas often cut through. It is inevitable that people oversell their idea to get those dollars. There is so much money floating around (at least in theoretical company valuations as opposed to actual business and monetisation models or actual liquidity), that the impacts on particular tech hubs have been profound. The average house price in San Francisco, for example, has increased by one million dollars to $1.6 million since 2012.
There have of course been genuinely groundbreaking ideas, technologies, products and platforms that change people’s lives, behaviours, environments and communication. These things earn the right to talk the talk. But in order to get on this level, other entrepreneurs and inventors and investors also mimic the inflated rhetoric that surrounds tech or start-ups pitched and positioned as groundbreaking. And then lesser ideas mimic that. Soon, everyone is talking with the same heightened tone.
Tech rhetoric has long surpassed parody. Everything is a movement, everything has a philosophy and values and is going to change the world. I recently booked a couple of nights accommodation in New York on Airbnb only to be directed to the agency’s (I’m sure they would have a fancier word) website proclaiming, “There is a growing need for mobility that can be observed across the globe. An opportunity facilitated by technology today but deeply rooted in our oldest history, when mankind was still nomadic.” Mate, you’re subletting apartments.
Exploration is a human impulse, once all other complicated and often hard to gain aspects of survival and health are taken care of. Exploration is a privilege, in many ways, so it makes sense that those who are the most privileged in society are the ones who tend to spearhead it.
Emperor’s new clothes
Those who are entitled to fake it until they make it, those people whom culture listens to more acutely (young, white, English-speaking men, for example), seem to be given much more leeway to dream big, than others who actually have to prove their worth. And there seems to be a sort of collective magical thinking that fails to hold VC-funded companies and start-ups to the same standard as plain old companies that don’t exist within the bluster bubble.
At some point, the collective Emperor’s-new-clothes-like decision for people not to burst the tech innovation dream will come crashing down. There are always casualties, those companies that are overvalued or do not live up to the utopian, evangelical promises of their chief executives.
Pitchbook cites the example of Uber, “the world’s most valuable VC-backed company”, with an estimate valuation of an astonishing $62 billion: “It’s burning through cash, losing between $500 million and $1.5 billion per quarter on a run-rate basis since early 2017.” Uber has been plagued by sexual harassment scandals, has struggled with employment laws in various jurisdictions, is constantly in battles over regulation, as well as being banned in various cities, but is still raising money.
It does feel that one of the biggest areas of growth in tech today is fixing the things that tech has broken. Another big area is shrouding things that already exist in tech hyperbole and repositioning them as innovations. This Christopher Columbus-syndrome sometimes has hilarious outcomes, such as the oft-cited example of the tech industry inventing the bus. “With Shuttle,” Lyft says, “passengers are matched up with other riders going the same direction with set pick-up and drop-off locations so there are no unexpected detours.”
As tech hyperbole increasingly intersects with New Age thinking, a dose of reality may spoil the party, but rigorous peer-review could be the innovation the industry actually needs.