Watching the fevered coverage of a rapidly inflating tech bubble, you could be forgiven for thinking that we are living through an unprecedented age of false promises. We exist in a constant state of anticipation for the advent of the latest panacea, which will enrich, liberate, glorify or unify us. But all that has really changed is the efficacy of the mechanism by which such false promises are delivered; we have always been at the mercy of grandiloquent grifters and charismatic chisellers. In Charles Mackay’s great 1841 compendium of “moral epidemics,” Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, he comments that “In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit.” Anyone who has recently lost all their apes will no doubt shudder with recognition.
The willingness to be fooled has led us down some very dark and bizarre avenues of late. Nobody symbolizes this inclination better than Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, whose rise and fall is documented by Alex Gibney in The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019). Holmes was able to leverage the genius creator myth promulgated by a cheerleading tech press to sell her boondoggle to the military-industrial elite, with everyone from Henry Kissinger to Bill Clinton lining up to sanctify Holmes’ vision. Holmes became the poster child for an enlightened few who will realign the parameters of life, if we only get out of their way and let them do as they please. Everyone wanted to believe that Holmes was the reincarnation of Steve Jobs, that she would disrupt the health technology industry as Jobs has disrupted the consumer electronics sector, and nothing was allowed to intrude upon the meticulously constructed facade. It was only when the edifice began to collapse under the weight of its own fraudulence that Holmes was jettisoned, transfigured into an apostate from the credo of startup technocracy.
Holmes was immured in the notion of her own destiny, dropping out of Stanford like her idols to pursue an idea she was told by her professors was impossible. But her heroes — Jobs, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin and Larry Page — were not cowed by such naysayers; they dared to see farther. Holmes grew up reading classical literature, with its stories of great leaders waging world-altering wars, and Moby Dick left its imprint; like Captain Ahab, she pursued a single-minded objective, knowing that oblivion was likely. It was the vision at the expense of all else. It was apparent from the outset that Holmes conceived of her ascension “as a movie”; she understood the power of the story she was telling, how it would resonate with the journalists, investors and lawmakers she beguiled. Holmes could exhibit the requisite level of sincerity; she pedaled the same stories like a well-honed repertoire of emotive magic tricks; she found it difficult to distinguish between where her narrative ended and her obligations began. On a wall of the Theranos headquarters at the Stanford Research Park was a quote from Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Holmes uncovered a troubling truth about capitalism: that it is largely guided by emotion.
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Investors like venture capitalist — and Holmes family friend — Tim Draper (replete with his Bitcoin tie) and board members like former Secretary of the Treasury George Shultz speak of the intangible quality Holmes exuded, some spark in her unblinking gaze, but they can never pin down the specifics of the product, or the viability of the business. It was the story that sold Theranos to high-profile investors like Larry Ellison, Don Lucas, Rupert Murdoch and Betsy DeVos, whose gut instincts solidified the credence of the idea that the company was a can’t-fail proposition. The whole thing was ethereal, swathed in the mythos of the brilliant ascetic. Holmes surrounded herself with powerful older men, using them as armor against scrutiny; she was heralded by the Obama Administration (Joe Biden is shown visiting Theranos headquarters) as a catalyst for change in healthcare. For all their talk of innovation and disruption, the “unicorn” startups are bound inseparably to the pre-existing power structure, existing on government largesse; they constitute the next evolution of the military-industrial complex, the decisive elision of the state apparatus with the bromides and bravado of the new capitalist class. But you cannot move fast and break things when people’s lives are on the line.
Theranos named their signature analysis machine the “Edison,” after the fabled entrepreneur and self-promoter. It was aptly named, the perfect artefact for a black box culture of private companies unwilling to go public and display what is behind their scrupulously maintained veneers. Edison was the master of promising first and delivering later, the godfather of “fake it ‘til you make it,” manufacturing his own image as a trailblazing “great man.” Holmes sought to “make it true,” closely guarding the specifics of what was contained within the Edison’s sleekly designed exterior, quoting Martin Luther King that one must “take the first step in faith” as she sold the idea of a machine that never worked to the Walgreens chain of pharmacies. Like the first viewers of Edison’s Kinetoscope, the media, political and financial classes were overwhelmed by the succession of images that gave the illusion of motion and life. As Theranos research engineer Tyler Schulz — grandson of George — puts it, “You want it to be true so badly.”
The false promise had taken on a life of its own: Theranos had a staff of 700, and was valued at $9 billion; Holmes sat with presidents, and was the subject of breathless encomiums from the likes of Ken Auletta at The New Yorker, who speaks in The Inventor like a disappointed parent in his recollection of how he was wooed by this “rare creature.” Holmes had an air of plausibility; she reeled off the same origin story at countless events like a well-worn music hall routine; she was everything the media and capital wanted; she embodied everything they promulgated, and the dimensions of the lie had become too big to acknowledge. The Inventor footage from inside Theranos depicts a workplace beset by a sense of mission, cultic adulation and growing paranoia; lab associate Erika Cheung admits that she was “super-naïve, and I almost drank the Kool-Aid.” Holmes struggled to reconcile the contradictions between what Tyler Schulz describes as “the carpeted world and the tiled world” (Cheung and Schulz would both blow the whistle on what they witnessed at Theranos). Chief Creative Officer Patrick O’Neill describes the pitch as “the Apple of healthcare”; Errol Morris was hired to replicate the work he’d done for Apple; it was a consumer brand which spoke to the desperation engendered by the U.S. healthcare system, creating pathways which permit solutions like a literal menu of 250 blood tests. The noble cause permitted a cessation of norms; Holmes asks her staff: “What higher purpose is there?”
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But the false promise can only sustain itself for so long; the exponential gains at some hazy point in the future began to recede with withering press coverage and regulatory issues. Those on the inside who started to ask awkward questions, like R&D Ryan Wistort, were told that “maybe you aren’t a Silicon Valley person… if you don’t believe in this vision of the product.” Chief scientist Ian Gibbons was driven to suicide by an impending court deposition. Chief Operating Officer Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani tells the staff “We’re being attacked,” and the loyalists hunker down to fight the malign forces standing in the way of the vision. Holmes packaged the perception of progress and newness, but the chaos of the tiled world would eventually overtake the equanimity of the carpeted world. The spectacle became one of collapse, the fall was relished as much as the rise, an example had to be made of those who failed to uphold the integrity of the promise. Holmes was suddenly cast as a wild anomaly, described by Auletta as “a zealot”; her inability to pull off the prestige deflected from the trick itself. The assumed neutrality of technology serves to obscure the mendacity which powers the Valley, its faith in the inviolable rationality of systems allows for moral relativism to flourish.
Holmes’ story traces the rise of celebrity as a wing of business, feeding into the belief that we can all participate in the endless party that is the new economy, if we have the price of entry. It was a lesson that Billy McFarland took to heart. Such was the magnitude of McFarland’s empty promise that it inspired dueling 2019 documentaries — Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened and Fyre Fraud — and an ongoing contention swirling around him (everyone involved is in agreement that McFarland is a grifter, but nobody can entirely condemn his “vision”). Something about McFarland seemed to blur the certainties of his surrounding milieu; he was a uniquely gifted conman who was able to weaponize cultural capital and twist reality to his purposes — equal parts P.T. Barnum and Bernie Madoff. McFarland understood millennial anxieties about the post-financial crash world into which they were entering adulthood, and he was eager to exploit them. He began with Magnises, a glorified frat built around a stylish credit card and private “networking” clubhouse. As with all of McFarland’s schemes, it was designed to produce the perception of wealth and exclusivity.
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One of the artistes paid handsomely to perform at the Magnises penthouse was musician Ja Rule, with whom McFarland began an unlikely partnership, pursuing a lifestyle in which they were “living like movie stars, partying like rock stars, and fucking like porn stars,” or “selling a pipe dream,” as Ja Rule puts it in a moment of intoxicated campfire candor. An air of belligerence undergirds the swashbuckling attitude which propels McFarland’s clique towards its defining moment; the tech bro bonhomie quickly dissipates when things don’t go their way, and everyone is revealed to be a prop: from the supermodels hired to cavort on Pablo Escobar’s former private island for the slick promo video, to the Bahamian dayworkers who hastily constructed the festival site. Fyre Festival was a moment of peak hyperreality; as far as its organizers were concerned, the promo video was the festival, and everyone else would be content to exist in its afterimage, to live with the ghosts of the opulence it promised. The distinction between the actual event and its online depiction became indistinguishable; it was enough to make Baudrillard’s head spin.
The super-spreaders of this plague were the “influencers,” who with the help of digital snake oil merchants like Jerry Media were able to create a febrile wave of hype. As with Magnises, Fyre Festival offered the signifiers of an unattainable lifestyle: you could party on a former drug lord’s hideaway with supermodels and stars. But hype is a mercurial beast; no sooner have you harnessed it than it whips back to sting you. The very platforms which elevated the fraud also exposed it, setting off a torrent of snark and schadenfreude as imperiled influencers documented the parlous state of the collapsing festival — the footage from the festival grounds plays like a post-apocalyptic found footage film. While many would have slunk away in shame, McFarland grew up in a paradigm in which visibility, engagement and attention are the only currencies, where one’s life is turned into a monetizable commodity, where everything is a backdrop for content, a Warholian nightmare in which the commodified self is constantly performing, and he was determined to cash in on the opprobrium. For McFarland, the hustle never ends, and he never stops seeking out fresh shortcuts to the promised land of prosperity.
Unlike other financial swindles, Fyre Festival unfolded in real time. It was a clarifying moment, underlining where the promise can lead in the hands of a skilled charlatan. As the festival approached, a war seemed to be taking place between perception and reality, as online Cassandras like financier Calvin Wells battled the marketing machine tasked with eliminating anything which might “degrade the brand,” as one Jerry Media apparatchik describes the growing numbers of frantic messages from bemused ticket holders raising legitimate concerns. What is clear from everyone orbiting McFarland is that nobody wanted to be the first to sink the vessel of illusion which was careering towards the rocks, content to go down with the captain rather than articulate their “persistent feeling of growing dread,” as product designer Shiyuan Deng describes it. It is the millennial condition to assume that this is just how the world works; everything good has already been taken, and you have to grab what you can, all the time projecting an image of endless positivity, enjoyment and confidence on your socials.
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Event producer Andy King uses the chaos swirling around the original Woodstock festival as a point of reference, suggesting that victory could have been snatched from the jaws of disaster. But the comparison doesn’t hold water; whatever the faults of Woodstock, it was premised on an idea of communality (however spurious and self-serving that turned out to be). We see in the survivalist scramble that ensues as darkness falls on Fyre Festival’s first night that no such feeling exists in the aspirational millennial mind. Seeing people trample over each other for their luggage, hoard mattresses and urinate on beds in the neighboring FEMA tent to prevent it from being occupied offers a powerful metaphor for the neoliberal condition of being alone together. Fyre Festival told us that this is all that remains of the cultural event, everything has been hollowed out, and the wealthy get to sample a residue of significance, scouring the landscape for Insta fodder, capturing their presence and curating their experiences. What The New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino describes as a “Big snowball rolling down scam mountain” was a culmination of conditions, encompassing social media artifice and financial malfeasance. From the outset, McFarland understood that the line between publicity and journalism had blurred to the extent that he could use it to mould his public profile, creating the perception of himself as a gifted predictor of millennial desires, fears and impulses, and a safe bet for venture capital.
When Ja Rule describes Fyre Festival as “the cultural experience of the decade,” he may have been right, just not in the way he expected. Fyre sums up the bluster and bravado of the Silicon Valley mindset, the bold promises and stylish packaging for a concept without a core. Ja Rule and McFarland — who gave each other the hubristic soubriquet “Magic Bird” (referring to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird) — are described by festival organizer Marc Weinstein as being either “full of shit or the smartest guys in the room.” He could well be speaking about any number of Silicon Valley luminaries who tread the line between invention and idiocy (at this point, it almost seems like a strategy of masking one’s megalomanic designs by feigning fecklessness). Whatever their intent, Magic Bird practiced a kind of leisure colonialism on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma, posing as job creators while bringing misery and recrimination, then fleeing like an overthrown junta when things turned sour. As with Holmes, the professed benignity of the mission allowed for all manner of abuse. The masters may have your best interests at heart, but they remain masters. The platform may promise a seamless convergence of the user and the brand, but the user will always be subservient, no different from the workers on Great Exuma who didn’t get paid for their labor. What is clear is that Billy McFarland believes his truth, even as he serves six years in prison. His story captures the millennial tendency to reject limits, and construct a tolerable reality in the face of converging catastrophes.
WeWork’s Adam Neumann took such reality moulding as an article of faith, and he built a cult of personality which at its height was valued at $47 billion. Neumann promised the itinerant classes of millennial “creators, entrepreneurs and freelancers” looking for a sense of purpose that they could have it both ways; that together they could “build something that has intention,” and “make money while making the world a better place.” It was an impressive pitch to a generation reassessing its relationship to work; but like all such promises, it could not deliver on its central premise. As with the commune movement that sprung up in the mid-60s, the “sharing economy” Neumann was at the forefront of could not sustain its utopian ideals; hierarchies would emerge, and the strongest personalities would assert themselves on the community. Neumann’s “capitalistic kibbutz” — modeled on the Israeli communes of his childhood — would kickstart the “We revolution” and “elevate the world’s consciousness” (bear in mind that WeWork was leasing office space and subdividing it). The grandiosity of Neumann’s vision would be laughable, were it not for the fact that lots of people were willing to follow him, and major investors were willing to underwrite Neumann’s “experiential” games.
What is striking about watching WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn (2021) is the degree to which it mirrors Ondi Timoner’s 2009 documentary We Live in Public about web pioneer/social engineer/performance artist Josh Harris. Like Harris, Neumann framed his WeLive project as a kind of experiment; building “the world’s first physical social network,” Neumann placed seemingly incompatible components together to see how they would interact, corralled free spirits into pods to watch the sparks fly, encroached into every sector of life. Like Harris, Neumann very nearly succeeded in convincing people that he was a prophet. The difference, perhaps, is that Harris was fundamentally a situationist trickster, whereas Neumann seemed to believe that he could become everything he professed to be. Neumann’s real skill was in helping rootless millennials feel good, special, worthwhile, without offering anything more substantive: it was exactly what it seemed to be — a realm of feeling. WeWork’s infamous “summer rager” retreats — described by Eventique founder Liron David as “Fyre Festival gone right” — sums up the company’s attitude to the WeWork universe; it has the feel of an initiation, attendees are encouraged to drink copious amounts of free alcohol, and must attend lectures with the feel of re-education sessions (attendance at these mandatory events was monitored by tracking bracelets). These events were brand rallies; if you can instill unyielding fealty with free Jägerbombs and windsurfing, you’ll have a pliable base.
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Like Harris art projects in the late 90s, there is a sheen of fun overlaying something more doctrinaire and sinister — Neumann speaks out of both sides of his mouth, saying “do what you love” and ‘work “’til you drop.” Neumann sought to revive Manhattan’s freewheeling “Silicon Alley” of the dot-com boom years, “making the Lower East Side the new Silicon Valley.” But speaking of “global citizens of the earth” and the “We generation” becomes somewhat untenable when you are given $4 billion by Japan’s Softbank — with money from the sovereign wealth fund of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — and told to “go crazy.” The final third of WeWork captures what happens when someone follows that injunction. As with Theranos, the “world-changing” rhetoric merely disguised the fact that WeWork was reinforcing the existing structures — namely, New York’s real estate dynasties, who were more than willing to collaborate with WeWork in what Forbes editor Randall Lane describes as “a literal land grab.” Neumann was the pitchman for a new kind of work — lower wages in exchange for largely worthless “equity”; no careers, only gigs with derisory perks; a company town of the mind. What kind of worker would this setup create? A paradoxically precarious and entrenched one.
Neumann and his wife, Rebekah — a filmmaker, actress and cousin of Gwyneth Paltrow — injected new age philosophy and spiritualism into the doctrine of “hustle harder, hustle faster,” as WeWork’s first community manager Lisa Skye calls it. WeWork signalled the supremacy of corporate wellness verbiage, a fig leaf for the final erasure of workplace security. Workers were asked to place work at the center of their lives, but pretend that they hadn’t by playing the clarinet at their desk, or visiting the onsite barista, to plaster over their paralysis with yoga and coconut water. It was just another coping mechanism for the keening awareness that the extended adolescence on offer was insufficient, that the vaunted flexibility of life as a digital nomad was only benefiting those at the top. In all cults, the leader eventually begins to believe their own bullshit, and the disparities become glaring for the rank and file. As the co-working spaces became more cramped, Neumann occupied a spacious office and flew on a $60 million private jet; the company began to conceive of elaborate projects like WeGrow, a private school with the mission of “creating the global citizens of the future” and “unleashing every human’s superpowers,” as Rebekah explained it (the fees were $42,000 per year). WeWork was hemorrhaging money, but it seemed entirely in keeping with the culture — companies like Uber, Spotify and Tesla have been able to earn huge valuations despite rarely turning a profit.
What separated WeWork was its foundation of selling “energy,” “togetherness” and the “spirit of We” alongside its core service. To those who were on board, it felt as much a movement as a real estate company, and Neumann never shied away from ramping up the mythology. When someone like Neumann puts himself on such a pedestal, the resource itself is immaterial, it is the perception of its value they come to represent. Buying into WeWork became a declaration of cultural affiliation, with Neumann as its charismatic talisman. But Neumann had a fatal flaw, and ironically it was transparency. For someone who sold his glass-walled spaces as the apotheosis of openness, the false promise dissolved when it was exposed to the withering light of an IPO. When WeWork collapsed, it raised an existential question: When you wrap your identity in the company, and the company goes away, what are you? The true form of the community Neumann claimed to be creating was eviscerated by the very people WeWork had been allying with — the real estate interests that have economically cleansed New York City.
Neal Stephenson writes in Snow Crash about “religion receptors built into our brain cells” that compel us to “latch onto anything that’ll fill that niche for us.” One has to wonder whether the initial success of figures like Holmes, McFarland and Neumann can be attributed to these receptors; they were able to creep into that niche, and fill a meaning-shaped hole. We cannot comfort ourselves with their failure, because we know that others like them have flourished, and there is always the possibility of their return — Holmes is awaiting sentence for four charges of defrauding investors, but Neumann left WeWork with a $1.7 billion golden parachute, and has a net worth of $750 million, ample resources with which to construct a redemptive arc. The troubling aspect of these stories is that their protagonists are not aberrations; their greatest sin is also their greatest service, in drawing out the boundaries of techno-optimism. But the territory is already inundated; the Silicon Valley mindset finds new ways of stimulating those religion receptors, be it crypto, NFTs or the promise of living a harmonious disembodied life.
D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.