In this week’s Last Word, The Guardian’s Amit Katwala recounts the history of the polygraph and its successors—a tale of self-deception in which the biggest con may the one that believers in the lie detector have pulled on themselves. The nearly century-long history of efforts to find a machine that will distinguish truth from lies is a modern twist on what’s really a timeless story. It’s the emperor’s new clothes, plus a bit of technology. When it comes to the little things, people want a machine that will tell them what’s true. But on the really big things? As often as not, people want to be deceived, and find the truth a disappointment. Or, as the great essayist Francis Bacon said, “A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure.”
Which brings us to the stock market. If you want an extra dose of timeless stories of deception and folly, it’s always worth turning to the world of business. The past year has witnessed a rush by “unicorns”—mostly money-losing companies ostensibly worth a billion dollars or more—to sell shares to the public (see Best columns: Business). Many of these companies have spent years spinning optimistic stories, or simple lies. Now the unicorns are getting gored as investors rebel. The shares of some of the most highly hyped companies are falling through the floor. Other firms are failing to go public at all. WeWork, just weeks ago said to be worth $35 billion, is doing the corporate equivalent of scavenging through the couch cushions to keep the lights on. You don’t need to know a lot about finance to have a pretty good idea of where this story goes. Dishonesty and self-delusion always give way to what the markets call “a correction.” In the end, lies are like those flowers that are supposed to bloom for only one night in the desert: They are certainly appealing, but always have a limited life-span.