Backhanded praise for Holmes, SBF, et al.

Brandon Avery Joyce
5 min readDec 23, 2022

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I, for one, would like to thank Elizabeth Holmes and Sam Bankman-Fried for their service. These two are no heroes, but they may have been the odious, ethically-vacuous, Gotham City villains we needed. Along with all the schadenfreude the last few months between Holmes’ conviction in November, the collapse of FTX, and the arrest of SBF in the Bahamas, came the usual raft of explainers and critiques of crypto and start-up culture. These are usually pretty good, right? — well-landed, well-deserved, and from what little I know, accurate in their exposure of the profound fraudulence of Holmes, SBF, their entourage, and fundamental aspects of their industries. However, even I sense certain lapses or blindspots in many of the “house-of-cards” critiques, especially when they sensationally dwell on the psychopathy of the founders.

The first blindspot is the assumption that, as a house of cards, these schemes were always doomed to collapse and that anyone who bought in early was merely a sucker now enjoying their just desserts. The second (and much worse) blindspot is that, by always and everywhere underscoring their fraudulence — their deceit, their scamminess, the infeasibility of their claims — they rarely get around to asking the more fundamental question about all such claims and innovations, which is that, if they had been true or in good faith, and if they were widely adopted, would they have actually been good for the social whole?

Holmes was put in the stocks for her big lies about the Theranos blood-testing machines and all her unhinged girlboss behaviors, and rightly so — the girl was banging on the gates of Hell. But in the end, thank god she was lying! Had she not been, and Theranos had really been able to deliver on the promise of her prototypes, the media and general public would have continued its Hallelujah-chorus of praises for this next-Steve-Jobs, and some Walgreens-Theranos partnership would have likely quickly moved in to disrupt and prey upon an already desperate American healthcare system. Once locked into a dominant market position, they would’ve been able to exert a monopolistic advantage with proprietary technologies that Americans simply couldn’t afford to refuse. This would have been real Idiocracy hours in the timeline of American healthcare, and we would’ve swallowed it whole simply because everything was technically above board, as if the law has ever been a compass for the social good.

Really, Holmes’ downfall was more a matter of hubris and shitty timing than any intrinsic scamminess of her entrepreneurial vision. She’s not that different from many of her widely-adulated heroes like Edison and Jobs, who were just more successful at parlaying myth into reality, and her claims were not nearly as infeasible as all the exposés are making out. A number of other companies like Truvian and Genalyte have already gotten within striking distance of her original goal of the “decentralization” of diagnostics, only this time around because of the doozy that Holmes wrought on public confidence, we might greet these innovations with a little more caution and skepticism. If we were smart (we’re not), we could even stop to ask ourselves whether this kind of commercial decentralization is desirable, or whether this is even decentralization at all or, as usual, merely recentralization under new management. It’s important to remind ourselves that, under the current biopolitical situation of the United States of America, even a cure for cancer could lead to terrible moral and social consequences.

Likewise, much of cryptocurrency’s hopes for institutional legitimacy has been thoroughly bankman-fried, and no less of a huckster than Martin Shkreli has predicted that SBF may have single-handedly spooked larger players and institutions from ever admitting crypto to the table of “legitimate” investments. Most people by now — I hope and pray — get that crypto is a non-productive asset, basically without fundamentals, whose profitability depends on greater and smaller forms of multilevel marketing and pump-and-dumps. But how qualitatively different is this from so many other scams-made-good operating at the heart of our economy and society? Consider the recent tweeting regarding grad school as the “crypto of the left,” or for that matter, Rousseau’s remark that “the first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, said this is mine and then found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.” Fraudulence is always either a secondary or superficial critique because it’s determined with respect to a legal and economic system whose very legitimacy should be brought into question.

And what if it wasn’t fraudulent? If crypto ever did become fully integrated as an accepted alternative currency, it wouldn’t have turned out to have been a bad investment from the standpoint of the self-serving homo economicus. It wouldn’t have been a mere Ponzi scheme like Bernie Madoff’s. It would have been highly profitable for creators and investors up until total saturation, at which point the coins would — correct me if I’m wrong — just turn into stores of value, like glorified gift cards. But why isn’t such profitability a huge red flag? Most things that are extremely profitable for the one are terrible for the many, particularly when the profiteers are so flagrantly producing absolutely nothing of social value. This is why people like Holmes, SBF, Shkreli, or Kim Dotcom deserve our backhanded compliments for really parading their ethical bankruptcy and delinking profits and virtue in the eyes of the public. They’re like the noticeable symptoms that provide early warning of a more serious disease — a disease that I think gets misdiagnosed by any well-intended critiques that distract us from all the other creators, investors, schemes, and innovations working through perfectly “legitimate” means.

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