The Correct Lesson on Hype from the Theranos Verdict

Looking at the verdict of the court in the case finding Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes guilty of fraud, Brooke Masters (2022) argues that ‘there is a crucial difference between rosy optimism and outright fraud’. I agree that an entrepreneur is unlikely to enrol investors and colleagues into a venture that the entrepreneur does not believe in and effectively sell. So it is difficult to imagine innovation without some level of hype. On the other hand, hype needs to be questioned and hype can be negative as well as positive.

For decades, social research on technology has warned against utopian and dystopian hype. Perhaps most famously, Emmanuel Mesthene (1969) alerted us to people tending to view technology as an ‘unalloyed blessing’, an ‘unmitigated curse’, or something that deserves ‘no special attention’. In my field of internet studies, such as current debate about social media, technological hype comes from both directions, painting both utopian and dystopian scenarios.

The basis of this is a belief in one or another technically deterministic perspective as opposed to a belief balanced by systematic empirical research, which often brings positive and negative hype down to earth. For example, if you look at empirical research, social media is not going to democratise the world, nor is it going to drive people to tear down democratic institutions. We should be leery of such extreme techno-deterministic hype and look carefully at empirical evidence.

Courtesy of Arthur Berger

Of course, investors are needed before evidence might be available on the ground. But that does not mean that historical, comparative, or experimental evidence cannot be used to be analytically critical of claims made about technologies – whether positive or negative.

Expect hype. Enjoy the hype. But be analytically sceptical and anchor expectations in research on the actual use and impacts of technologies in society. People can foster rosy optimism or dismally pessimistic scenarios so we need to look at the actual realities through systematic research. This may seem like common sense, but it is so often lost in the excitement of innovation.

References

Masters, Brooke. (2022), ‘Theranos verdict is a cautionary tale for failing entrepreneurs’, Financial Times, 5 January, p. 23.

Mesthene, E. G. (1969), ‘Some General Implications of the Research of the Harvard University Program on Technology and Society’, Technology and Culture, October.