Friday, December 26, 2014

Bill Gates: "I was pretty naive"

Just before Christmas, the Seattle Times provided coverage of the Gates Foundation's report about their decade's worth of progress with their goal of fixing the world (the Grand Challenge). After a billion dollars spent on improving lives and health care in the developing world, Gates had to report, "I was pretty naive about how long the process would take."

In his quest to make the world a better place, Gates invested in all sorts of research. But it turns out that research can only happen as fast as it can happen. Sometimes science takes time.

Not only did he underestimate some of the scientific hurdles, Gates said. He and his team also failed to adequately consider what it would take to implement new technologies in countries where millions of people lack access to basic necessities such as clean water and medical care.

The foundation has tweaked the Grand Challenges approach in a variety of ways, but still doesn't really know whether any of it is actually succeeding. In many cases, they know it is not. There are several examples, but let's look at toilets.

Gates funded high-tech toilets in the Indian city of Raichur, at a cost of $8,000 each. These beauties have automatic sensors that run lights, fans and FM radio when a patron uses them. Some prototypes in the toilets project wing of Grand Challenges also throw in solar power and other amenities. But in Raichur, the rollout had some technical difficulties, and then- the public just didn't use them.

As it turns out, there are already people working on the toilet problem, but not with high tech answers. Jason Kass, founder of Toilets for People (which, as a name-- really? to distinguish them from Toilets for Cattle?) took Gates to task in a New York Times piece "Bill Gates Can't Build a Toilet" in which he notes, “If the many failed development projects of the past 60 years have taught us anything, it’s that complicated, imported solutions do not work."

But Gates is a technocrat with a deep commitment to techno-solutions to problems, like a plan to stop Dengue Fever by injecting bio-engineering mosquitoes to with bacteria that block disease transmission, instead of more directly addressing the living conditions and general health of the affected regions.

Drawing a line between Gates's naivete about fixing world health problems and his naivete about education systems is like shooting fish in a barrel, but some fish just need to be shot.

My impression of Gates is not a power-hungry greed-hound who is somehow trying to leverage the world's suffering into personal gain, but someone who is blinded to any view of the world but his own. He's used to being the smartest guy in the room, the boss, the man. It would be understandable if he had succumbed to a belief that he's fundamentally better, wiser, cleverer than most other people. He is a computer engineering systems guy. Systems are his hammer and everything in the world is a nail.

With much of his health initiative, you see the same basic outline-- technology will allows us to set up this awesome system, and because it is so obviously the Right Way To Do Things, people will just fall in line, and if they won't we'll just have to find a way to get them to. It's the same pattern some techno-critics see in many Microsoft failed products-- this is how people ought to want to do things, so this should work (and if it doesn't, it's the people, not our product). How any of you got a Zune for Christmas?

Gates wants to use systems to change society, but his understanding of how humans and culture and society and communities change is faulty. It's not surprising that Gates is naive-- it's surprising that he is always naive in the same way. It always boils down to "I really thought people would behave differently." And although I've rarely seen him acknowledge it print, it also boils down to, "There were plenty of people who could have told me better, but I didn't listen to them."

The non-success of Grand Challenges is just like the failure of the Gates Common Core initiative. Gates did not take the time to do his homework about the pre-existing structures and systems. He did not value the expertise of people already working in the field, and so he did not consult it or listen to it. He put an unwarranted faith in his created systems, and imagined that they would prevail because everyone on the ground would be easily assimilated into the new imposed-from-outside system. He became frustrated by peoples' insistence on seeing things through their own point-of-view rather than his. And he spent a huge amount of money attempting to impose his vision on everybody else.

We can say, "He's a rich guy. He can spend his money on what he wants," and that's true. But the opportunity cost here is staggering. Imagine what could be done if we started with, "Here's a billion dollars. Let's get the experts together and decide how it could best be spent." Instead of "Here's a billion dollars that we're going to spend on my solution no matter what."

I keep wondering when the light bulb is going to go off. After the failure of his small schools initiative, Gates had the chance to say either "This small schools things didn't work" or "My whole approach to finding solutions for education is messed up," and he seems to have chosen the former. It's nice that he can occasionally look back and call himself naive. It would be nicer if he could look around and recognize when he's doing it again, right now. It would be best if he could really recognize what he's being naive about.


  1. That's why it would be better to tax the rich more and have that money put to better use, as long as decisions on how to use it are made at the local level. We don't need government OR corporate mandates.

  2. Is it possible that Gates went looking for education experts and just found the wrong ones, or the wrong ones found him first?

  3. This formulation is wrong, Peter.
    "Gates is a technocrat with a deep commitment to techno-solutions to problems."

    No. Gates has never been an engineer, and finding solutions to problems is a false front. You're giving him a free ride, and not even referring to the public central tenet of his "philanthropy". He claims, right in your face, that corporate profits are the only possible driver of progress for the world's disenfranchised majority, and he demands ideological obedience to that tenet. Are we really too cowardly to call him on it?

    His contribution to world health and to public education is to make himself the richest man in the world through political leverage, lobbying, regulatory capture, and extortion. He donated a privately controlled a data-analysis center in Seattle, through which he demanded and got control of the world's public health efforts, and he turned the World Health Organization into an administrative apparatus for his own corporate global domination.

    Gates is a monopolist, and his commitment is to profit through market domination. His insistence on "market-driven" education reform and "market-driven" health in the third world aren't naive, data-driven, or technological. They're just hypocritical.

  4. “It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.” –Bill Gates
    We're nothing but lab rats to him,