In the new Netflix documentary series Inside Bill’s Brain, which focuses on Bill Gates and the fact that he is smart, we’re treated to a scene of Gates at a whiteboard, scribbling furiously as dramatic music and some TED Talk-y narration play in the background. After a shot of Gates staring at his work, concentrating like he’s Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover, the camera shifts behind him and he writes a phrase that will be forever etched into my mind: “Reinvented toilet.” He even underlines it, because that’s what geniuses do when they reinvent things (duh).
the bill gates netflix documentary contains maybe the funniest shot i have ever seen pic.twitter.com/4SyzdA6hCa— drew millard (@drewmillard) September 22, 2019
Directed by Davis Guggenheim, who also made Al Gore’s climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth and a short documentary about Obama called The Road Less Traveled, Inside Bill’s Brain is, if not a work of outright propaganda, at least an exercise in arch flattery. Though the documentary series’s Netflix trailer promises a peek behind the curtain into Gates’s ruthlessness while running Microsoft, each of the show’s three episodes splits its runtime between fawning biographical sketches of Gates along with a look at an issue that the billionaire has dedicated his brain — and more importantly, his money — to solving, from reinventing the toilet (episode one) to eradicating polio (episode two) and climate change (episode three). The zig-zagging between Gates’s life and his philanthropic passions can feel somewhat schizophrenic on a scene-to-scene level, but if you read this juxtaposition as a bit of tonal montage, Guggenheim’s message is clear: That because Bill Gates is a unique genius who knows more about every issue than anyone else, he alone is specifically suited to solve the world’s problems and therefore should be allowed to put his money toward whichever good causes he wants.
In the toilet episode, Gates explains that in many parts of the world, an unsafe mixing of human waste and drinking water leads to untold numbers of regrettably preventable deaths by diarrhea, a frequent symptom of illnesses contracted through consuming contaminated water. Even in cities such as Dakar, Senegal, existing wastewater treatment plants aren’t used, and instead human waste ends up in canals, where it flows into nearby bodies of water which then spreads disease. Because Gates is a tech industry bigwig, he goes about solving the toilet problem in the most Silicon Valley fashion possible — he holds a competition for people trying to reinvent the toilet. Bill Gates then throws a toilet expo, in which teams submit their future-toilets for the technologist’s inspection, and proceeds to stand at a podium delivering a keynote address while holding a mason jar full of human shit. Though perhaps this was not as funny as the time he gave a speech about malaria and then intentionally released a swarm of mosquitoes upon an audience, that’s still some Carrot Top-level prop work from Gates.
The episode homes in on a team has invented a truly groundbreaking toilet, one that requires no electricity or water to safely process waste. The only problem is that each of them cost $50,000 to build. Gates glumly states that such a toilet would need to cost less than $500, and the issue is sort of just dropped. But then just minutes later in the episode, the narrator announces that that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts have yielded a solar-powered public toilet in South Africa, plus a treatment center in Dakar called the Omni Processor, which handles a third of the city’s waste and converts it into water that people drink out of plastic bags for some reason. This is treated as a triumph.
While it’s certainly admirable that Bill Gates decided to put his wealth towards important public health initiatives, let’s be real here. Dude spent $200 million trying to reinvent the toilet and ended up giving a city that already had a wastewater treatment plant a new wastewater treatment plant. As for Bill Gates’s mythical dream of a magic toilet, the episode announces that in November 2018, “one of the world’s largest manufacturers announced it would develop one of Bill’s toilets.” However, as of press time, the toilet has not yet come to market.
When it comes to solving the problems faced by struggling communities, the Bill Gates model of improvement through innovation often falls short. Technology is really good at offering fairly specific solutions, such as allowing you to control your lights with your voice, or letting you stream audio on your phone instead of lugging around a bag of cassettes and a Walkman everywhere you go. But something like making sure the people of developing nations have clean drinking water isn’t just a matter of giving them a really fancy toilet. As Tom Vanderbilt wrote earlier this year in an article for The New Yorker, presenting struggling communities with high-tech solutions for health issues can lead to “a sort of reverse obsolescence,” in which these technologies go unused because they’re either too difficult to repair or too expensive to replace. Instead, those hoping to assist people in these areas with improving their lives today, Vanderbilt suggests, might do best to “[observe] what is actually being used on the ground and trying to create a set of best practices.” To that end, it’s been suggested that rather than looking for the toilet of the future, we look to the toilets of the past — specifically, to develop a portable chamber pot-like toilet that could be sealed and placed on a fire, which would sterilize its contents and make them safe to dispose of. What’s deeply frustrating is that Gates knows that this is the type of thing that works — rather than inventing a low-cost mosquito zapper or whatever, the Gates Foundation elected to address the issue of malaria by handing out mosquito nets. And yet Bill Gates apparently believes he has to go to the moon to find a new toilet.
Pretending that a lack of clean drinking water is simply a public health problem that can be improved by introducing new products, regardless of their price, helps to obscure the role that the Bill Gateses of the world have played in creating these conditions in the first place. These are issues that have their roots in European imperialism, rapid and often violent regime change frequently funded by the U.S. government, the inequitable distribution of infrastructure investment and capital more broadly, as well as the assumptions baked into terms such as “developing nations” that position every society on earth as one that much march forward towards industrial capitalism. In 2017, the Gates Foundation spent a total of $6.3 billion, all but a sliver of it dedicated to funding firms attempting to innovate their way out of complex global issues such as sanitation, education, and disease prevention/treatment. If Bill Gates wants to improve conditions in such nations in the future, he should save himself some time and give each of their governments a few billion dollars and let them address those issues in the ways that make the most sense to them. That sounds a lot like paying taxes, which most billionaires don’t like doing. Then again, Bill Gates likes to claim he wouldn’t mind paying more taxes. Maybe it’s time he gave it a shot.
[Correction: A previous version of this article used imprecise language when characterizing the Gates Foundation’s efforts regarding polio.]