Saturday, July 19, 2014

Going into Gates Territory

Over in Seattle center you'll find fun things like the famous space needle, the EMP (a sort of SF museum housed in a 1950s vision of what 1990 would look like), and across the street from the EMP, an unassuming little building that houses the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitors Center. I sometimes tell you that I've read or watched something so you don't have to. Well, this time, I visited a place so that you don't have to.
Out front the sidewalk has some sculptures of books, vaccines and other good things, with quick data points on the big windows.
The center is free, and there's a front desk and pleasant welcome lady right there once you enter.
Then there's an entire room that's pretty much devoted to faces.
This face motif runs through the entire rest of the center. The entire space is open and clean, separated more into different sections than actual rooms. Each section has a family of displays, like this one
There's even a piece of display addressing the question of disagreement with the foundation's work, though it doesn't specifically name their education initiatives
One display focuses on education and vaccination. It includes one of several panels that can be toggled back and forth between two different talking heads.
 In this case, we have a choice between Melinda Gates on vaccinations or this guy on education (specifically, teacher effectiveness).
There were several panels that rotated quotes. I snapped shots of several of the education quotes.
Are students happy? Are they getting something of value? That's a really interesting pair of questions to answer, both relying on hugely subjective judgments. Happy by whose standards? Value as assigned by whom?
Well, that was back in 2012. I don't think charter operators ever got the memo.
Yes, projector Bill Gates is still saying this, even though real Bill Gates has since dropped the idea.
As is often the case, the key here is some form of standardization of students.
Interesting word here-- "assigned." Some Higher Authority just needs to put teachers where they should be (and the Higher Authority knows where that would be).

There are also several displays dedicated to getting drinkable water for folks all over the world, and some interactive displays for all ages. One offers folks a chance to offer their ideas about improving education. I admit that it was pure snark that led me to photograph this one, which was not working when we were there.
The place in its entirety can be toured pretty quickly. It's modestly sized, not glitzy, and a little bit retro in style. It's hard to gauge whether it's the product of someone close to the Gates or a group of summer interns.

So, no, the visitors' center did not look like Darth Vader's lair or an evil mind-control facility. And I'm sure I could slam it for being a self-aggrandizing ego shrine, but if it didn't exist, I could slam the foundation for their secrecy or lack of transparency. So let's stipulate that if you hate the Gates Foundation, it's easy to spin the center to prove how awful they are, and move on.

It didn't particularly change my perception of Gates, which has never been that he is some sort of evil nefarious genius. When I read his writing and watch videos of him, I'm always left with two impressions:

1) This is a man who has been completely in charge of a large operation for basically his entire adult life. He literally has no idea how things work in a setting which people him aren't automatically going to follow his instructions. And he's pretty sure that people do as he says because he's right. I get no sense of a man who pays people to agree with him-- he pays people to get things done, and he knows what things need to be done. I think he's ruthless, but I don't think he's power hungry for the same reason that I am rarely food-hungry-- he has always had power, and when things interfere with it, it's like when you or I get a sleeve snagged on the corner of a desk. Just yank it free and move on.

It's instructive to look at his first run-in with DC (over the Microsoft monopoly issue). He's not outraged that he's being questioned. He's more puzzled-- I'm right, so why can't you guys see that I'm right? He's learned a lot since then about how to smooth his path, but he's not trying to take over the world-- he's just trying to get the world to see that he's right about what the world should do.

The critical thing about people like this (and Gates is not the only one who exists) is that they do not believe they are being selfish. They are trying to help. They are trying to Make Things Right. Can they help it if they happen to have a vision of how to do that? You can see it in his flummoxed reaction to Lindsey Layton's interview question. Gates is just different from other People of Vision in that he has always possessed the resources to pursue his vision and people who are disinclined to tell him his vision is faulty.

The visitors center reflects all of that. It really isn't about how great Melinda and Bill are, but how great their vision for Making the World Right is.

2) Gates is a systems guy. I've written about this before, but here's the basic idea. Systems guys like nice neat systems, and they will give you one that works properly just as soon as they get all the parts lined up and in their places.

Hence the quest for scalable standardized solutions. If everybody would just act the right way, the system would work. If we could find a way to remove all the individual variation, the system should run smoothly. If every cog in the machine is properly manufactured and installed, the machine should hum along and do just what it needs to do.

The old education was so messy, had so many non-standardized parts. That sort of thing bothers systems guys just like a persistently out-of-tune singer makes a perfect-pitch musician nuts. It's like riding in a car while your grandmother drives. Good lord in heaven, if you would just let me fix this thing right here!!!

Again, it's not "I want this so I'm going to get it." It's "Can't you see how wrong this is??"

Now, I think these two aspects of Gates make him blind to many things, including the motives of some of the people who have hopped on his school reform gravy train. And those blind spots are potentially highly corrosive to someone's moral center. They also make someone more potentially destructive than an authentically evil person, because someone who's on a Righteous Crusade neither listens to nor stops for anyone who disagrees with them, and they're usually plenty comfortable with all manner of collateral damage in pursuit of a Higher Good, while authentic evil tends to pay attention to cost-benefits analyses. 

And I am acutely aware that I am making huge suppositions on the basis of exactly zero firsthand knowledge. But what's a blog for, if not for WAGs? Still, I could be dead wrong. Gates could be Darth Vader with a goofy smile or the most evil, manipulative, power-hungry bastard ever or a completely misunderstood guy. If you're ever in Seattle, take a look yourself.


  1. "They also make someone more potentially destructive than an authentically evil person, because someone who's on a Righteous Crusade neither listens to nor stops for anyone who disagrees with them, and they're usually plenty comfortable with all manner of collateral damage in pursuit of a Higher Good, while authentic evil tends to pay attention to cost-benefits analyses."

    Reminds me of this quote:

    "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be "cured" against one's will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals." -C.S. Lewis

  2. Haven't I heard that Bill Gates is on the autism spectrum? That would go a long way toward explaining his black-and-white thinking, his inability to see things from other people's point of view, and his belief that a "system" is the answer.