Tara Isabella Burton on Putting Faith in Data to Find Out Who We Are

Elizabeth Holmes, founder and former CEO of Theranos, left, speaks at the Fortune Global Forum in San Francisco on Nov. 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Last month, Vanity Fair profiled the final days of disgraced entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes at Theranos, the shadowy, now-shuttered biotech company that promised consumers the ability to run dozens of vital tests from a single droplet of blood. Holmes’ language was visionary, even utopian.

“We see a world in which no one ever has to say ‘If only I’d known sooner,’” Holmes told The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta back in 2014. “A world in which no one ever has to say goodbye too soon.”

Implicit in Holmes’ rhetoric was the idea that Theranos wasn’t simply a highly effective biotech company. Rather, it was a gauntlet thrown down toward death: a challenge to the very structure of human frailty. Theranos was knowledge. Knowledge is power. Power can overcome death.

As the Greek tragedians might have told us, Theranos’ confidence in the ability of human beings to play God was misplaced.

Since John Carreyrou’s 2015 investigative report in The Wall Street Journal first suggested that Theranos’ blood tests didn’t, well, work, the company has imploded. Once the youngest (and richest) self-made billionaire in the world, Holmes became an international laughingstock, her estimated $4.5 billion fortune is now worth approximately nothing and she is facing trial on fraud charges. (She has pleaded not guilty.)

But the rise and fall of Theranos tells us as much about our hubris as Holmes’. The company was only able to convince the world of its worth because we’ve all become used to believing that an atomized portion of our bodies contains a secret key to ourselves.

We can see a similar faith in the success of companies like 23andMe, the Silicon Valley DNA analysis concern that sells consumers genetic information about themselves taken from a mail-in spit sample. For a bargain-basement $199, the company delves into your genome to learn your propensity to be struck down with a raft of diseases like Alzheimer’s, whether you’re genetically disposed to prefer salty snacks to sweet ones or whether your ancestry is what you thought it was.

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Source: Religion News Service