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In 2004, Theranos, a fraudulent blood testing startup, pitched what seemed to be technology that would revolutionize blood analysis testing as we know it: The Edison machine, Theranos' primary product, which the company claimed would be able to run multiple medical tests off a single drop of blood and provide the results within the hour. This promised technology seemed too good to be true—and it was. The Edison machine couldn't, and would likely never be able to, accomplish this feat.
Ultimately, Theranos would go on to negatively impact the health and wellbeing of many Americans and scam Silicon's top investors out of billions of dollars. For her role orchestrating the scam, Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes was found guilty of four felony counts of fraud and conspiracy earlier this year.
After revisiting Holmes' story, I became interested in Theranos, because I realized that STEM students don't get much training in radical political frameworks and ideologies. For a long time, I've wanted to make meaningful contributions at the intersection of health care and technology. However, I now understand the importance of political education and the harms that come when it isn't prioritized or at the forefront of our education systems, innovations, and business deals. This analysis didn't come by way of my undergraduate degree in computer science from my historically Black college and university. Instead, this understanding was made possible by building community, struggle, and willingness to say no to the bare minimum.
For the 2022 74th annual Emmy Awards, pop justice is featuring critiquing this year's award-winning copaganda—and highlighting abolitionist storylines lurking in our favorite shows.
After having held engineering and computer programming positions in big tech and now academia, I've learned the importance of how technology can exacerbate social and historical injustices. Serious issues arise when our politics don't radically align with Black liberation and anti-capitalism. Yet, there's still a push to use technology to transform flawed industries like health care without attending to or considering those core issues first. Previously, I didn't have the analysis to fully grasp the gravity of what Holmes did, nor the impacts it had or could've had on people's lives both in America and worldwide. Now, however, I do.
After watching the Emmy-winning show, The Dropout, a Hulu drama series about Holmes and the rise and fall of Theranos, it's clear Holmes successfully garnered continued support from investors and public figures by playing into the illusion that a portable blood-testing device could be used on the battlefield to save American lives.
Of course, there are many reasons why Holmes, a white woman "technologist" with faux progressive politics, was able to scam Silicon Valley. She's currently facing 65 years in prison, though she's yet to serve any time. It's not hard to imagine a future in which she pays no real consequence for her actions, given the protections she's received thus far. Most importantly, not a single investor or public figure will be held accountable for how they contributed to the harm Theranos carried out. That said, it's equally important to understand that most of Holmes' protection—and her ability to get as far as she did with a make-believe technology—tie back to her commitment to advancing the military and prison industrial complex through the guise of "technology for social good."
How could a college dropout with limited knowledge of biotechnology sway the hearts, minds, and pockets of investors and public figures, without evidence of a scientifically reproducible product? What can bring U.S. political figures under opposing political parties together? The answer to both questions: U.S. imperialism, or the promise to advance it.
It's hard to fathom that someone could rack in billions of dollars from investors without evidence of a viable, working product. Nevertheless, history shows us that the budget and support for police and military funding is limitless. Technology has always been a tool used to advance western imperialism; the implications of this oftentimes result in the death and destruction of our most vulnerable and under-resourced communities. So it's unsurprising to learn that the billionaires and public figures who supported Theranos didn't do their due diligence to better examine the company's claims. These same individuals have shown us, time and time again, that there's no expense too great, including the lives of poor and working-class people, to expand the military and prison-industrial complex further.
Theranos' board of directors included notable political figures like Henry Kissinger, James Mattis, George Shultz, and William Perry, to name a few. During that time, as Holmes testified last year, Theranos would pay each board member $150,000 a year, along with $500,000 in shares in the company; Kissinger would receive an additional $500,000 a year as a consulting salary, according to Holmes.
Many of the names listed on the board held high-ranking positions in the military and defense sector, notably under Reagan, and, later, the Trump administration. These individuals have a history of supporting war, bombing innocent people, and increasing police presence in the U.S. For instance, Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Secretary of State under the Reagan Administration, is infamous for his controversial role in the Vietnam War. According to a 1973 Pentagon report, Kissinger would be responsible for approving 3,875 Cambodia bombing raids in 1969 and 1970. By the end of his bombing spree, a total of 110,000 tons of bombs killed between 150,000 and 500,000 civilians. Likewise, James Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of Defense under the Trump administration, led U.S. Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s. Mattis was known to command marine troops to shoot at, terrorize and kill Iraqi civilians during the Iraq War.
In addition to Theranos' board members, Holmes was also able to influence and solicit praises from other public figures, including former President Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and current President Joe Biden. Like their Republican counterparts, these Democratic leaders desire to advance western imperialism and bolster the military and prison industrial complex. For example, infamously known for pushing and signing the 1994 Crime Bill Act, Clinton and Biden helped expand U.S. mass incarceration. The bill would later end up disproportionately affecting Black people in the U.S., tearing families apart and denying individuals jobs and stable housing. Furthermore, Obama, the first Black president of the United States, embraced the U.S. drone program during his presidency. As a result, President Obama carried out ten times more airstrikes than the Bush administration in countries like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Subsequently, Obama would allocate federal funding and programs that provided equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies during the height of police violence and uprisings following the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, while also deporting more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders.
For the past decade, prison abolitionists, grassroots organizations, and the general public have called on political figures to stop increasing military and police budgets. Instead, there have been more calls to fund and support programs and initiatives like universal health care and complete student debt cancellation that would help fundamentally change the trajectory of people's lives. However, state and federal government officials have turned their backs on and constantly ignored the public's outcry by continuously giving resources to the police and military. The current defense budget will exceed $800 billion next year. Ukraine will receive an additional $40 billion on top of the $13.6 billion granted earlier in the year for military and defense. Meanwhile, our political figures can only seem to give federal student loan borrowers between $10,000 and $20,000 in student debt relief, which may result in an additional $2,500 tax burden—all while continuously stalling out universal health care bills.
The Dropout portrays, with acute awareness of this reality, the priorities and allegiances of our political leaders. Theranos raised $945 million from high-profile investors and public figures. Because of the inaccuracies of the company's blood testing technology, Theranos harmed many innocent lives.
Technology is often revered as a "neutral" entity. Many critics argue that, although misguided, Holmes was trying to "do the right thing" by developing a biotech product that focused on public interest and social good. But there are consequences of wanting to always "engineer" our way out of societal problems. How much more funding would military and police departments receive if the Edison machine worked adequately? How many additional people will lose their lives due to keeping U.S. troops on battlefields for no other purpose other than to impose U.S. ideals and structures? Tech isn't neutral at all. Tech gives state and federal politicians more ammunition to take resources like health care, housing, and education away from people and advance a militaristic society. We must reject all forms of techno-solutionism and think deeply about how technology can be used free from capitalist interests that don't also further expand the military and prison industrial complex.
Over the years, there's been an influx of recruiting efforts to bring people of color, especially Black people, into tech spaces. We are already familiar with the staggering numbers and underrepresentation of BIPOC individuals in tech. While pushing for more representation in these spaces is essential, we must also be more aware of any company's agency and reason for producing certain technical products and systems. Additionally, we must be willing to interrogate why and push back on products that perpetuate harmful structures.
I was mainly made aware of these factors during my time as a computer science student at my historically Black university, North Carolina A&T. Throughout undergrad, I noticed how my HBCU partnered with Big Tech companies to recruit Black computer-science majors into their workplaces; Google-in-residence professors, private job info sessions, and career booth rentals.
Moreover, there was always a significant push from the university and engineering department to secure engineering internships at the career fair with big tech and government companies like Meta, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Lockheed Martin. But there was a minimal emphasis on learning about how these companies play detrimental roles in our communities. We hardly ever discussed these companies' malpractices and questionable business ethics. We spent little time discussing how these tech companies are profiting from users' data via surveillance, data extraction, and automated decision-making while colluding with law enforcement to help exploit, prosecute and criminalize BIPOC, further exacerbating racial and economic inequality.
Our computer science department and curriculum lacked courses and resources around responsible artificial intelligence, critical race theory, and antiblackness. In lieu, HBCU computer science and engineering students received fully-funded scholarships and grant money from the Department of Defense and other government agencies to help establish careers in this sector and carry out research projects that are likely to impact their communities negatively.
I didn't learn about or engage with these topics and frameworks until after matriculating out of college and securing a full-time role in big tech. In my first job, I learned that the big contract I acquired for my employer has ties with the prison-industrial complex and contributes to the oppression and degradation of incarcerated individuals. I would later be conflicted on whether to stay at that tech company while also being made aware of this issue and not having the power to change the outcome—because who was going to pay my mounting student loan debt?
I only began identifying as an abolitionist as a result of the 2020 uprisings. After reading and building community with others, also unsatisfied with how things were and demanded more because we knew that we deserved more, I finally got the nerve to apply to different tech roles and leave that company after a year.
We deserve so much more than police, prisons, and jails. We deserve so much more than Theranos and companies alike, or the shows that glamorize this terror.
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