Theranos promised to revolutionize medical testing as we knew it. Entrepreneurs pedal semi-permanent Bluetooth implants to the investors on Shark Tank on a fairly regular basis. The promise of a hyperloop killed the California high speed rail, and a juicing machine that pretty much just squeezed liquid out of a bag (instead of, you know, juicing whole or cut fruit) was just barely laughed off the table. Bizarre startups litter the investing landscape.
The message is clear – if a business can simply over-promise, if it can pretend that its product is going to somehow revolutionize their market, even if it’s clear that they could not possibly meet the standards they set, they’ll make sales right up until they’re hit with fraud charges.
In the 80s, a movie about time travel came out. It pictured an optimistic, comfortable world where flying cars were commonplace in 2015. Before that, Star Trek depicted a world in which humans had advanced so much as a society that famine and homelessness were a thing of the past, and now we traveled space as researchers and adventurers. Before 9/11, there was a real sense that peace could be permanent and progress would be a natural result.
Even outside that window between the Cold War and the Iraq war, there have always been people shooting for the stars when it comes to technological advancement. Children used to die semi-regularly of smallpox, measles, diabetes, and more, but through the steady work of people who weren’t doing it for the money, hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of lives were saved. People have always said ‘it doesn’t have to be this way’ and found ways to improve living. They’re still doing it now!
And it’s not just ‘noble’ tasks like discovering new antibiotics or ways to treat polio – when tech companies first made home computing possible, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were heralded as revolutionaries, doubly so when the iPhone came out and totally changed the way people thought of their phones. It seemed to many like we were already living in the future. With the phone in your hand, you could access the entirety of the internet and learn anything you wanted to. With Twitter, you could hear from people all over the world, and oppressive regimes were powerless to stop dissenters from talking online about the injustices they were facing.
And there were apps, apps that could do anything! Apps for banking. Apps for dog walking. Apps for games, apps for gambling, apps for hotel renting, apps for car parts, apps for shopping, apps for points – the phone enabled a new generation of convenience items to enter the market, and culture changed around it noticeably, with classes popping up to teach people of all ages how to code and make their very own apps. If you could dream it, you could make it, and if you could make it, you might be able to sell it.
However, not everything can be a revolution in its field – it’s just not possible. The labor and research that goes into a new vaccine or a new type of computer is back-breaking work, usually done by entire teams of people. The adoration of the masses does not come easily… or does it?
Sometimes a figurehead is owed a lot of the credit, and of course new devices are allowed to be pricey: the first iPhone was fairly expensive because it was a total revolution of the technology, and without Steve Jobs to guide the team, it might not have come about so quickly … the iPhone 14, it’s descendant, is so expensive now because of the Apple branding combined with a lack of computer parts caused by a global pandemic. That is artificial. The physical storage isn’t increasing, either, because cloud storage handles that for users, often without them asking it to. Apple is not re-revolutionizing the market because it lacks a visionary at the helm, and re-inventing a wheel with minor upgrades is a more stable source of profit than trying to make a bicycle next.
Similarly, with the benefit of hindsight, Elon Musk coming out with a flamethrower and a giant boring (as in hole-cutting) machine were cool, but… the Cybertruck hasn’t hit the market, Teslas are pricier than other EVs for a less-tested product, and he continues to self-sabotage every time he hits the ‘tweet’ button, which is screwing with stock prices across the board. If the product is so good, why are nonsense tweets affecting its stock price so much? That’s weird! It’s almost as if the stock is so hyped because Musk was talking directly to consumers as a wannabe Tony Stark, not because it was actually worth that much, and now that he’s not cool enough to wear the Iron Man suit anymore, the hype and the stock price are retreating.
Of course, snake oil has always been a thing – but the modern age gives these people a platform like no other. The result is that groups of people have once again become vulnerable to buying something because the person selling it is charming, and promises their product can fix your life and save the world. Holmes and Musk wanted to be the next Jobs and Gates, but both managed to fumble it – if they had ‘it’ at all.
Charisma is ruining business ventures. Messaging that supporting a cool product makes you cool and trendy means that the people who desperately want to be cool will buy it. Musk selling flamethrowers, for instance, was cool because it made him out to be a sort of libertarian Iron Man, and that messaging followed to his cool, powerful, futuristic cars. His lack of experience in manufacturing was more than made up for with his edgy, I-Did-This-All-Myself-And-I-Tweet-About-It-Too persona. Elizabeth Holmes with Theranos spun GirlBoss energy in the same way up until it came time to actually deliver, and it turned out the product was a bust.
Products can start good but screw it all up later, too! AirBnB was a revolutionary model for people who wanted to do cool stuff away from their home city without paying hotel prices. Users could rent out a spare bedroom, travelers who didn’t or couldn’t get a hotel room could crash somewhere theoretically safe(r) than their car, and the company would scoop some fees off the top for connecting the two. But now, AirBnB may be partially responsible for a lack of buyable homes on the market – for a minute there, it was stupid not to buy a house and then flip it for AirBnB users to rent out, which yielded the income of a hotel room for the price of a monthly mortgage.
In doing so, it totally flubbed up housing in areas where tourists come year-round to visit. Worse, the company itself wasn’t really making money those first few years, so now it’s jacking up fees to get a return, which means the AirBnB renter is now incentivized to nickel and dime the rentee with cleaning fees and the like. What was revolutionary is now deeply annoying and expensive for everyone involved. Hotels have returned as a cheap option, not because their prices went down, but because everyone else went up trying to save their businesses.
“Charming” and “Revolutionizing” are both becoming a short road to “incomplete” and “fraudulent”. On TikTok, there are multiple accounts that have sold some new cool food item to followers only for that food to turn out to be unsafe somehow. Pink Sauce, the most popular, was a condiment that was allegedly so good you could totally drench chicken with it, but when customers bought it they discovered it was just pink ranch that hadn’t shipped refrigerated. The label on the back was misleading at best and totally incorrect at worst, too – the designer had used ‘angel numbers’ in place of actually calculating the number of servings in a bottle of the stuff. Chef Pi, the mind behind it, went from GirlBoss to meme material as her confidence was revealed to be arrogance.
The Juicero, a juicing machine set to launch in the late 2010s, started as an idea for a simple, mess-free way to get fresh juice. Then the scope increased when the company said it could deliver the packets of juice-able fruits and vegetables as well. It turned out that the machine was underpowered, so the packets would have to be filled with fruit bits cut up pretty finely so the machine could still squeeze juice out, and to ensure the user wouldn’t break the machine trying to squeeze something too hard for it, the business owners added a QR code system so the Juicero would only work with fresh, Juicero brand packets. This came to a head when online folks bought packets and demonstrated that you could get the juice out of these packets by hand, meaning the machine was as good as irrelevant, and Juicero refunded it’s kickstarter supporters.
The list goes on. NFTs that don’t actually do anything. Eco-friendly products that use more plastic than their alternative. Vehicles that paywall factory features. Computers that won’t let you repair them yourself. All designed to separate you from your money more efficiently.
This is the pit: the product was expensive garbage trying to frame itself as revolutionary, and because people want to be optimistic and believe in a clean, chrome future where they can have fresh juice at the push of a button, or ranch in an appealing shade of pink, they buy it. Or, if they’re younger, they don’t get that the person selling the product is not actually their friend, and that they don’t need to buy it just to support them. There are revolutions happening in technology right now, but it’s not happening because Musk bought Twitter or because any one person is better than everyone else – these things happen as a matter of team effort, and when charismatic individuals try to make themselves out to be Iron Man, they end up embittering a lot of people when it turns out that they’re not anything close to it.
There’s always reason to be optimistic. Just don’t be so optimistic that you mistake a Roomba for a full-service robot butler.