Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Podcast review: The Dropout, American Broadcasting Corporation (2019)

I actually wanted to find podcasts by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and stumbled across this one in the process. This American ABC podcast has top-notch production values and has clearly been edited by people who know exactly what they’re doing. That’s not to say that the Australian ABC doesn’t know what it’s doing, just that the way the show comes across differs radically from what we’ve come to recognise as distinctively Aunty.

I first came across the subject of the podcast – tech startup executive Elizabeth Holmes – when I read a book by an American journalist that centred on her company, Theranos. The ABC’s podcast covers overlapping ground but the boundaries of one product do not exactly match those of the other though John Carreyrou (who wrote the book) was interviewed for the podcast and you hear him speaking in some episodes. The diversity of approaches is good because it allows you to triangulate using referents from both of them, and build a more comprehensive picture of how Holmes, a Millennial, tried and spectacularly failed to copy Steve Jobs (a Boomer).

It’s a good joke if you have time for the endless rivalry between the generations. Many do. Most won’t have heard of ‘The Dropout’ and that’s a shame because it’s beautifully made and – like all commercial enterprises that come from America – very slick. Australian ABC listeners might be dismayed by the fawning tone of the presenter when describing Holmes – who was basically a lying swindler – but they shouldn’t let their scruples bother them. 

This is a class act but don’t worry there is a lot of material here to digest, and each episode takes about 45 minutes to run. It chronicles a world where a device or instrument is called a “platform” and where spin steps in to take the place of science. Where acid dreams of boundless wealth fuel grotesque caricatures of innovation, and where those who aren’t pushed to the brink of self-harm eventually go to the press to relieve themselves of the burden of the lies.

And politics is part of the mix, too, due to the eminent board of directors Theranos fielded, including George Schulz, a former republican grandee. What his grandson did shocked him. It will entertain you for hours. 

A note worth sounding is that the program’s title refers not only to the testing regime Theranos proposed – one pin-prick of blood could be used for multiple pathology tests – but also to the fact that Holmes didn’t graduate from university. 

I told you this program was slick. It’s also more penetrating than Carreyrou’s book, and goes to places that product never did, such as old school friends of Holmes. But this persistence betrays a striking myopia. If they’re so dead-set on uncovering wrongdoing, why are Americans unable to address the real problem at the core of their healthcare system?

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