Opinion Tara Isabella Burton: Religion Remixed

From Theranos to 23andMe, putting our faith in data to figure out who we are

Elizabeth Holmes, founder and former CEO of Theranos, left, speaks at the Fortune Global Forum in San Francisco on Nov. 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

(RNS) — Last month, Vanity Fair profiled the final days of disgraced entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes at Theranos, the shadowy, now-shuttered biotech company that promised consumers the ability to run dozens of vital tests from a single droplet of blood. Holmes’ language was visionary, even utopian.

“We see a world in which no one ever has to say ‘If only I’d known sooner,’” Holmes told The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta back in 2014. “A world in which no one ever has to say goodbye too soon.”

Implicit in Holmes’ rhetoric was the idea that Theranos wasn’t simply a highly effective biotech company. Rather, it was a gauntlet thrown down toward death: a challenge to the very structure of human frailty. Theranos was knowledge. Knowledge is power. Power can overcome death.

As the Greek tragedians might have told us, Theranos’ confidence in the ability of human beings to play God was misplaced.

Since John Carreyrou’s 2015 investigative report in The Wall Street Journal first suggested that Theranos’ blood tests didn’t, well, work, the company has imploded. Once the youngest (and richest) self-made billionaire in the world, Holmes became an international laughingstock, her estimated $4.5 billion fortune is now worth approximately nothing and she is facing trial on fraud charges. (She has pleaded not guilty.)

But the rise and fall of Theranos tells us as much about our hubris as Holmes’. The company was only able to convince the world of its worth because we’ve all become used to believing that an atomized portion of our bodies contains a secret key to ourselves.

We can see a similar faith in the success of companies like 23andMe, the Silicon Valley DNA analysis concern that sells consumers genetic information about themselves taken from a mail-in spit sample. For a bargain-basement $199, the company delves into your genome to learn your propensity to be struck down with a raft of diseases like Alzheimer’s, whether you’re genetically disposed to prefer salty snacks to sweet ones or whether your ancestry is what you thought it was.

A 23andMe ancestry kit. Photo courtesy of 23andMe

While 23andMe has never been accused of putting profits ahead of people’s true prognoses, it relies on a similar revelatory, even magical rhetoric as Theranos: It’s not just sequencing our DNA, it’s discovering our true identities and, just possibly, overcoming death.

There’s nothing new in our desire for immortality; what’s worth noting is the vital hunger in contemporary America for increasingly democratized, increasingly quantifiable, increasingly measurable information about our bodies that we hope will solve the question of what makes us who we are. We’re looking for the makings of identity that used to rest in our individual choices, and in our national, ethnic and sometimes religious backgrounds in the higher truth of a genetic sequence.

Or, as 23andMe’s come-on reads: “Behind every data point is a human being.”

There’s nothing new in what some will do with such information: DNA tests have become a means, for some Americans, of “diagnosing” racial identity and ethnic origin: In a 2016 Vice article, Elspeth Reeve reported that white nationalists were using 23andMe’s services to establish their de facto whiteness quotient. Alt-right leader Richard Spencer recently publicly released his own results. (Never mind that 23andMe has been accused of overstating its ability to actually analyze ethnic background.)

What has made 23andMe popular is less the scientific understanding its results provide than the possibility of an unknown social self. The company’s marketers have partnered with Instagram influencers who tell a compelling story about being born anew.

An influencer with the moniker TheBlondAbroad posted on a 23andMe-dedicated blog an artfully posed picture of herself next to the Eiffel Tower, with a caption celebrating her newly discovered ties to French culture. “Learning more about my DNA breakdown inspired me to plan a solo trip to France,” she gushes. “This trip has been a whirlwind of hot summer sun, cobblestone streets, and a better glimpse into a culture that I feel more connected to now than ever.”

Another, AtasteofKoko, on learning that she was “1.3 percent” Korean, posted a photograph of herself in Seoul. “I always thought that I was Taiwanese but when I took @23andme, I learned that I’m 1.3% Korean so I booked a flight to Korea to learn about my Korean heritage and eat all the Korean food!”

Can we blame anyone for seeking to convert the data revolution into a clue about our own identities? In an era of Facebook and Twitter, in which our algorithms silo us according to our buying habits and the news we consume, there are fewer overarching collective identities we share with other humans. As our dependence on data grows ever larger, our subcultures and social networks become ever more narrow.

Meanwhile, our ability to interpret the meaning of the data stream we generate from our bodies, via genetic markers, fitness trackers and sleep-chronicling “life-hacking” apps, only gets harder.

About the author

Tara Isabella Burton

Burton, who received a doctorate in theology from Oxford University, is at work on a book about the rise of the religiously unaffiliated in America, to be published in November 2020 by Public Affairs. Her novel, “Social Creature,” was published in June 2018.

8 Comments

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  • We need to quit using those antibiotics, stop purifying water and practicing basic hygiene, drop vaccines, analgesics, and surgery. Those are among the many advances in human knowledge with the express motivation of extending life. (They work, too, as millenia of prayers didn’t. )

    Instead, we should all be content to die early and often miserably, because some couple ate an apple in a garden somewhere along the line.

  • What these two companies are really doing is cashing in on the gullible. Theranos, especially knew from the beginning what they were doing was misleading. Then with slick marketing and the need for people to get in on the ground floor of something the company took off. Holmes desperately wanted to be another tech giant, a young billionaire so she could live the lifestyle. The same goes for the others involved.

    23 & me too wants to get in on the craze. There is nothing protecting your DNA analysis either as law enforcement has already tapped this pool. Then if we wait a little longer we will find that perhaps the results were not so accurate. Just another parlor game in my estimation and one where people just fork over $200 for the excitement of it all.

  • After that comment, we should all pitch in to get a test kit for you. Then, after pinpointing the genesis of your lineage; beat up everyone in the village.

  • When an article leads with an attempt to decry the notion that science can help us better understand ourselves and extend life–which is inarguably true and proven–well, you know it’s not going anywhere.

  • But interestingly, there is at least one parallel between the Garden story and the Theranos story. The talking snake made his pitch to the hubris and gullibility of the first couple, a pattern that has been repeated by political and religious leaders throughout history.

  • “From Thranos to 23 And Me, putting our faith in data to figure out who we are.”

    Confusing article.

    Yes, we are ever being analyzed by one group and another so each group can figure out how best to manipulate us to do what they want. Yes, we can go too far in looking for miracles to prolong life or looking for ancestors of yesteryear to tell us who we are today.

    But, it is very helpful for people now to know what diseases played a role in killing or making difficult the lives of others in their families – lives are saved and/or made better by having that information. Ancestral knowledge can be invaluable in protecting life. This article appears to argue that it is somehow unnecessary.

    It really is perfectly all right for someone to keep up with blood tests that tell them if they need to take steps to save their lives. This article appears to argue that we should not. Does Ms. Burton also believe that vaccines are “putting our faith in data” – just because the data say it is life saving to vaccinate against MMR, is Ms. Burton saying don’t trust data, don’t act on data?

    We can go too far in trusting others, but our problem with Thranos isn’t that they weren’t trying to do something that is incredibly valuable but that they lied about having achieved far more than they did. The problem is they risked peoples lives who depended on their having told the truth. They also cheated investors. Cheaters we will always have with us. But, I sincerely hope that other companies keep trying to find ways for those with diseases that need blood monitoring, to make blood testing easier, less painful, less costly, faster – and I hope that investors keep investing in it.

    I appreciate exploring the idea that we are far more subject to being defined by those who want to make use of what our tendencies are, what moves and motivates us. And being manipulated by them. But the fault is not with blood tests or ancestral tests per se. The problem is not with incredible advances in medical science that we can value because data tells us it saves lives.

    Be thoughtful about what you take away from this article.

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