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The headline from Bill Gates’s conversation with Atlantic editor-in-chief James Bennet on Wednesday predictably has been “Bill Gates: 'The Idea That Innovation Is Slowing Down Is ... Stupid.'” Less prominently featured was this gem, which set the tone for Gates’s remarks: “‘We’re big on metrics and it’s getting easier to measure things all the time.’”

You certainly can’t argue with that on the surface. But it reveals a deeper thread that runs through Bill Gates’s thinking, and therefore, his philanthropy. This is the idea that if we could just measure everything—and measure it accurately—we would be able to identify and solve most if not all of mankind’s ills. On closer examination, and to any one with some modicum of common sense, this would be laughable if it weren’t so terrifying, coming from a man who has a few billion dollars with which to throw his weight (and the weight of his bad ideas) around.

Gates actually didn’t speak directly about philanthropy for most of the conversation. But listening to his reflections on a host of other issues—from innovation to education—one quickly gets a sense of what ideas drive his massive philanthropic efforts. It comes as no surprise that Gates is a fervent believer in metric-driven philanthropy, the perils of which have been well articulated. In short, if philanthropy is ultimately about helping people, and if people are complicated, messy, and not neatly summed up by a regression analysis, then it may be the case that philanthropy cannot be reduced to a calculation of numerical inputs and outputs. At one point, Gates even admitted that it took some measure of “luck” to eradicate polio in some countries.

The most striking feature of Gates’s presentation was its metaphysical deficiency. This is a case where the speaker could tell you down to the last penny how much it will cost to save a life, but may struggle to articulate why that life should be saved in the first place or why it is incumbent upon us to help save that life. The quantitative approach is actually, then, the easy road: no need to get our hands dirty with debates about the nature of the good, the true, and the just; if we can just crunch the numbers, we’ll have our answers.

Gates did articulate a steadfast faith in the promise and power of science, technology, and innovation. This bordered on, and sometimes seemed more like full-blown scientism. From this faith flows Gates’ generally progressive project and worldview that can only be realized through technocracy.  

The theme of technocracy was most evident in Gates’ reflections on what he termed the “paradox of democracy,” that is, that American democracy may not be delivering the right decisions and its lawmakers are largely unpopular, even though they are elected. Here, Gates suggested that “the [current] debate does not contribute to excellence in government.” Instead, we need a technocratic, policy-neutral approach to lawmaking. The world painted by Bill Gates has little room for the messy contingencies of civil society, charity, face-to-face interactions and associations, and the impassioned, if sometimes paralyzing, debates that characterize a healthy democracy.  He is wondering why democracy is not delivering the best policy outcomes, but Aristotle already identified democracy as the best of the worst regimes and Plato thought it worse than oligarchy and only better than full-blown tyranny. If we would just check our beliefs at the door and let the number-crunching technocrats (be they in government, business, philanthropy, or elsewhere) do the work of ruling, we would all be better off.

Most in attendance at this discussion were ready by the end to bow down and worship, not at the foot of technology, but at the foot of Gates himself (persons often make far better gods than abstractions). The exuberance and euphoria was palpable. Clearly the man is viewed with great approval in elite, progressive circles. That, combined with his vast wealth, makes Gates and his utopian—even gnostic—worldview all the more powerful. Thankfully Gates has hitherto focused his attention on mostly innocuous—and certainly laudable—projects like disease eradication. I don’t take Gates to be sinister, but rather largely misguided in his underlying assumptions and beliefs. This poses the question: what good could be achieved if Gates put his position and means at the service of sound ideas and what evil could be brought about if he took the ideas he already holds to their logical and natural conclusions? 


2 thoughts on “Technocratic tyranny: Bill Gates and the problem of metrics”

  1. Kathy Carlson says:

    Don’t be so scared of a man who has billions of dollars. Culture is far harder to change with much more money than that.

  2. Scott Allen says:

    Keiran, helpful post. I was discussing it with a colleague and he shared the following thoughts:

    1. If something “can be” measured and the form of measurement is appropriate to what we want to find out about that thing – then this is a good thing. Go ahead and measure. We use metrics in many areas of life and it works for us.

    2. Not everything that is worthwhile, essential, and important can be measured by quantitative methods. Maybe we can find metrics that partially relate to, or tell us something important, but they do not tell the whole story. For example, churches tend to keep a record of the number of people who attend and measure this year to year. If it goes down year after year, the elder board may start asking more important questions. However, this measure by itself does not tell us the whole story about the health or effectiveness of a particular church. Conclusion: Use metrics where available but don’t assume they are telling the whole story or measuring what is “most important.”

    3. This leads to the third point. Because “what is measurable” does not always tell the whole story or reveal what is most important to know, don’t limit your evaluation of something to only “what can can be quantifiably measured”. If an elder board does this, they will make all of their important decisions based on the trends in attendance…and that would lead to some very poor decisions.

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