Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Dropout, Super Pumped and WeCrashed are good TV, but bad lessons

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Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

For a moment, closer to the turn of this century, startup founders stood somewhere between rock stars and gods. From the early to mid-2010s, the founders ruled Silicon Valley and America. Any company would disrupt something and change the world. Everyone idolized Steve Jobsflash mobs were a thing, and similarly, anything seemed possible. It was in this Obama era of techno-optimism that a number of millennial founders — Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, Travis Kalanick of Uber, and Adam Neumann of WeWork — rose to prominence, among venture capitalists and ordinary Americans alike. It was the moment before each would fall.

A wealth of books, podcasts and reporting has been published about these former founders in recent years. These stories of fraud and bad behavior were easy fodder for the entertainment industry to make shows: The Drop outabout Theranos; super pumped, about Uber; and WeCrashed, about WeWork. It’s no wonder: Holmes, Kalanick and Neumann are young, charismatic and complicated people who represent a kind of bygone American dream. Each in their own way sought to supposedly make the world a better place, while a combination of founder worship and free-flowing venture capital heightened their worst impulses. Their stories write themselves and streaming services stumble upon themselves to be the first to broadcast them.

But by elevating these stories the way they do, they could fall into the same trap they want to warn against. These founders have already gotten too much money and attention. Placing them at the center of TV shows, even when they’re critical, risks reading them as a hagiography rather than a cautionary tale.

Of course, these stories are very exciting, especially for the technology companies that produce them. Holmes, whose blood-analysis equipment never actually did what she said it did, was found guilty of defrauding investors and facing jail time. While Kalanick and Neumann are not in legal trouble, they have both shown their share of bad behavior — bad enough that they were also evicted from the companies they founded. To give a taste, the ride-hailing founder was recorded berating a driver who said it had become difficult for him to earn a living. Kalanick held strip club gatherings and fostered a corporate culture that allowed sexual harassment of female employees. His top man was floating digging up dirt on journalists criticism of the company (at a dinner intended no less to improve Kalanick’s image among journalists).

The hard-partying CEO of office rental Neumann weed transported on a company plane across international borders, filling his own pockets with leasing real estate from his business that he personally ownedand treated his staff like dirt† Perhaps most embarrassingly, he claimed that his office leasing company would “raise the awareness of the world.” That’s not to say of the hundreds of millions of dollars in other people’s money that these founders burned, with no prospect of profit (or revenue, in the case of Theranos), while acting as if they were God’s gift to the world.

Past biopics of tech founders like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (The social network in 2010) and Apple’s Steve Jobs (Jobs in 2013 and Steve Jobs in 2015) were certainly critical of their protagonists, but these films were made when their companies were relatively highly regarded. At the time, people were certainly concerned about using social media, but Facebook was not yet tool for genocide and overthrow democracy† Apple was still being praised for its revolutionary iPhone and had not yet received widespread condemnation for labor violations in its factories and the use of conflict minerals mined by children† We didn’t know that mottos like “move fast and break things” really broke things, and that those things were often people. The films are also made for the government sued Facebook for illegal monopolization and allegedly started considering suing Apple for antitrust behavior around the App Store.

“Always be Hustlin” in this economy?
Elizabeth Morris/Showtime

The latest generation of tech entertainment has also been informed by the myriad societal changes that have taken place since the heyday of these hyped unicorns. The Me Too movement emerged to hold men in power responsible for sexual harassment and marginalization of women — long-standing problems in Silicon Valley. Black Lives Matter protests have been directed against the systemic oppression of people of color in the US, while the top positions of tech companies have remained largely white and male. Wealth inequality grew and Americans blamed billionaires, many of whom made their money in technology. And finally, a global pandemic has killed millions of people around the world, urging people in various industries to rethink the place of work in their lives. The hustle and bustle these startups thrived on — “Always be hustling” (Uber), “Rise and grind” (WeWork) — became passé.

As such, these new shows are making a concerted effort to tell about the collateral damage these companies have caused. We see the Uber driver whose car was impounded, the cancer patients who didn’t know the blood tests they were getting from Theranos weren’t real, the women at Uber and WeWork who were sexually harassed at the hands of lion boys.

But in all these shows, these kinks feel a little weak. While we are more aware of the other characters, they are not the focus. This isn’t primarily the story of an Uber driver or a cancer patient or a female tech. It’s still a story of tech founders, and we’re still largely captivated by them. The founder’s cult has been complicated, but it hasn’t been undone.

In these shows, criticism of these flawed protagonists is tempered by sympathy. We learn that Holmes was sexually abused at Stanford and conclude that she deepens her voice to succeed in a world made for men. We learn that Neumann was, in fact, a failed door-to-door salesman before WeWork and that his wife, Rebecca, was mourning her father going to jail when she told WeWork’s summer camp that it was vocation of women to help men. We learn that when Travis Kalanick wasn’t… joke about a service for women on demand called Boob-er, counted women like Austin Geidt and Arianna Huffington as top advisors. Of course people wouldn’t have made shows about these people in the first place if they were purely bad or unrelated. That wouldn’t be good television.

The shows are also careful to divide the blame — rightly so — beyond their protagonists and into the Silicon Valley economic and cultural environment that enabled and encouraged these founders to fly too close to the sun. Softbank CEO and chief WeWork investor Masayoshi Son instructed the already overconfident Neumann to think much bigger. Kalanick’s followers and board members played on his ego and promoted the idea that the founders know best. Holmes wasn’t the only person who considered himself the… next Steve Jobs† But perhaps the blame lies more with the founders.

Elizabeth Holmes, played by Amanda Seyfried, sits in front of a catchphrase

Startup slogans have been so for the last decade.
Michael Desmond/Hulu

Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle, told Holmes while looking around his yacht that he had provided software that was full of bugs, but she should have known that this is not the same as cheating people in need of medical care. These founders didn’t seem to understand that people (Uber) and office space (WeWork) don’t scale in the same way as software. For some reason, their visionary talents didn’t extend to themselves or their behavior. They were so intent on cementing their own glory by changing the world that they perpetuated many of its worst parts. The tech companies producing these shows looked no further than their own backyards for train wrecks with stories that don’t disappoint.

And perhaps it’s no coincidence that these tech hubris stories are being produced by other tech platforms like Hulu and Apple TV, as well as premium cable network Showtime, who are engaged in their own questionable battles. The streaming wars — in which tech companies stumble upon themselves to produce more and more content for an already saturated audience — are just one more indication of the ongoing frothiness around tech companies. As they fight to get their audiences the content they want quickly, they may not have time to fully internalize the lessons of the stories they tell. As with the readily available venture capital that propelled Theranos, Uber and WeWork into bad behavior and, by extension, to the silver screen, we have to ask: is it sustainable?

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