Theranos vs. Thanatos
"Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss in life is what dies inside of us while we live.”- Norman Cousins
I have been fascinated by the Elizabeth Holmes saga. She founded Theranos, a medical company that claimed it could lower the health care cost of blood tests for 234 health conditions. It required a pin prick of blood that was contained by a "nanotainer" which was the size of a vitamin, rather than a needle drawing out traditional tubes of blood called "vacutainers". She became the world's youngest self made female billionaire. She purposely pulled every lever of power to have her company valued at nine billion dollars, while not having the technological capacity to test for anything other than herpes with her company's own technology.
At first glance, the fraud that has been perpetrated by Elizabeth Holmes, looks to be financial. But when it is unpacked(a term loved by tech gurus like Tim Ferris) it is a mythological one. The myth that Elizabeth Holmes hijacked to become a billionaire was the myth of technological progress. This myth implies that what technology offers is a higher quality of life, lived closer to immortality. At this moment a company called Netcome is taking ten thousand dollar down payments from tech billionaires like Sam Altman. It offers to euthanize their clients and download the contents of their brains onto a hard drive, bestowing immortality. Meanwhile Elon Musk's fantasy of colonizing Mars, "requires" exploding hydrogen bombs to melt ice caps and create a "livable atmosphere”, this too dovetails into the pursuit of immortality. The furthest extrapolation of this premise is the question about whether or not reality is a simulation created by a supercomputer. Quantum Physics has already disproved this as nonsense, but still it is discussed by technologists like Musk all the time.
My perspective on this phenomena is granted by my birth. I was born in 1968. I lived 20 years of my life without a personal computer, and close to thirty years( I can't recall exactly) without a cell phone, or access to the internet. While I do recognize the value of this technology, I also recall life before it existed, and am quite sure that other than the convenience of this technology, and the democratization of information, the quality of life is no better now than it was before these technologies existed. I think it valid to question whether the quality of life as affected by distraction may have even declined.
Elizabeth Holmes ticked every box on the ‘visionary granting access to immortality’ checklist. Growing up the child of International aid workers in Washington D.C. she was marinated in the fantasy that the underpinnings of the pursuit of wealth and the power were actually the desire to engage in philanthropy. Philanthropy can also be a way that people demonstrate superiority to those in need of their help. She grew up understanding that being associated with power grants power. Her admission to Stanford as well as Henry Kissinger being the the initial famous person to draw others into her circle of aspirations, shows she understood very well, that association with powerful people can make someone appear powerful. She cloaked herself in all the affectations of a selfless leader who thought it was a privilege to "serve people in a decentralized process." Her inspiration? “Loved ones lost before their time”( as if there is really such a thing). Her response to those who questioned the veracity of her impossible technology was, "First they think you're crazy, then they fight you, then you change the world." This along with her pretentiously sonorous voice, Steve Jobs like black uniform, hid a sociopathic entrepreneurial spirit that was second to none.
What she delivered was valueless, what she sold was the fantasy of democratized access to the secrets of science. She was above all an "engineer", despite dropping out of Stanford after two years. She posed with beakers, and droppers, wearing academic glasses that gave her the air of a scientist. All the while she received the support of wealthy donors who also wanted to be part of the democracy of health as the internet had once been the democratizer of information. The only problem? None of the technology was operative. The pinprick of blood that went into a "nanocontainer" was farmed out to the same companies that tested regular vials. She knew this was the truth and continued to defend her technology in her monotone and mock turtleneck. When the lead scientist of Theranos committed suicide in 2016(the flipside of immortality fantasy) rather than rushing to comfort his loved ones, Elizabeth rushed to take control of any of the information he had on his computer that may have revealed that none of the technology worked. Now the SEC has charged her with fraud.
Elizabeth Holmes' experience reveals a lot about the myths we currently live by, and how they can be manipulated for enormous financial gain. The fantasy, whether it be her scam, or having a brain downloaded into a computer, or human colonizing Mars, comes from what is "out there" in technology, or on other planets, an immortality that escapes us wherever we presently find ourselves. If we could just leave our present limitations whether they be of consciousness or of physical location in the universe, we would have access to unknown aspects of ourselves that transcend life and death.
The aspiration to transcend life and death in this very life is very human, very virtuous, and not at all new in human experience. It has been the interest of The Egyptians in their books of the dead, by the Alchemists, and the Kabbalists. These esoteric groups and many others pursued the same aspiration; the possibility of attaining the knowledge available once physical life ends, while alive. This is the actual democritization of consciousness that the internet seems to promise. These Esoteric groups are the antecedents of todays technologists, who see technology as the road to transcendence. Technologists are just using the tools available to them, as alchemists once used chemistry, and Gnostics used the tenets of Christianity. Technology is our emerging mystery tradition, or so we think it is. Virtual reality contains nothing that physical reality doesn’t.. It's another form of dream reality, that can be monetized by the Oculus Rift. We are being sold our own dreams. Just like our technological fantasies are being sold to us as pathways to immortality.
Our current technology culture is the heir to alchemy. As the alchemists aspired to transform lead into gold, we aspire to transform our isolation into transcendence. Whether that is isolation from knowledge, wisdom, or other people, we misinterpret it all as symbolic isolation from our immortality. From access to that which has always existed, to that which will always exist, no matter what happens to our human vessels, our biosphere, or our entire physical universe. Our question is what survives the passing away of all we know about ourselves and our lives. Answering this question is paramount to focus on what matters right now, today. That is what everyone seeks, no matter how they pursue it. How can I right now do the things that make the transcendent temporal, because that is the only pursuit that has any ultimate value. Everything else is just whistling in the dark. Whether it is creating impossible technologies, fantasizing about living on distant planets, downloading brains into hard drives, or creating alternative realities. the real question is, “What is my relationship to all that has ever existed, or will ever exist, and how am I related to it right now?”
Ultimately the myth of technology leads nowhere. Our fascination with technological progress is valid but experienced in reverse. All advancement comes from human consciousness. Technology is a tool to express in physical reality what has existed in potentia in human consciousness. As splitting the atom, or mapping DNA has demonstrated human capabilities for efficacy and understanding, we fantasize that technology can move us closer to eternal truths and realities. All technological advances unearth capacities of human consciousness, they do not create them. Elizabeth Holmes tried to reverse engineer human consciousness. She tried to see the future of human development without first experiencing it in herself, or understanding the roots of the experience of advancing technology into the further realms of human consciousness. Her “nanotainer” granted access to none of the technological or human advancement it implied. Let’s stay vigilant in developing our human capabilities, while not falling prey to charlatans who try to convince us that they have found a pathway into our limitless abilities. Let’s make this world as livable and beneficial to all using all our capacities, rather than fantasizing that there is another one, where our capacities will be more accessible.