On Faking It

It is a long weekend in the United States, and like everyone else, I want to take advantage of the good weather and catch up on my long reading list of papers, articles, and books. So, I will keep this weekend’s newsletter short and sweet.

Photo courtesy of HBO

Last night, I watched The Inventor, an HBO documentary about Theranos and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes. It’s a version of the story that was so brilliantly reported by John Carreyrou in his book, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup.

In the retelling, the documentary invokes Thomas Edison, who used a series of lies and half-truths after making a claim that he had solved the incandescent light bulb problem. It would be four years before he could deliver a working bulb, but he faked it till he made it.

Carreyrou, who is interviewed in the film, makes the point that Holmes was part of that same “fake it till you make it” ethos, which has become a part of Silicon Valley folklore. It’s a story I have been told so many times by so many founders. In most cases, the faking was required to buy time to finesse a product. Other times, it was in order to raise money or to get a company sold to a large buyer.

But that kind of thinking has no place in modern technology ecosystem. The opportunities that many of our more successful young companies are targeting have life-altering impacts on real people. Whether it is the algorithms that dictate autonomous vehicles or facial recognition systems, a small error can make all the difference. Dodgy decisions could literally mean death.

Theranos, Nurx, and UBiome are wake-up calls that should remind us why everyone in the ecosystem has to adopt a more conscious and empathetic approach to developing their technology. I am worried that, if we don’t, then the world at large will continue to lose trust in technology companies — a dangerous trend that has already begun with Facebook.

This first appeared on my May 25, 2019, weekly newsletter. If you like to get this delivered to your inbox, just sign-up here, and I will take care of the rest.

A letter from Om

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