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Bill Gates, the Last Decent Big-Brand Billionaire

The new Netflix documentary series about the Microsoft co-founder might be called ‘Inside Bill’s Brain,’ but it’s really about his heart

Is Bill Gates evil?

You’d be forgiven for considering the answer. He’s among the richest men in the world, having built his wealth by starting one of the most powerful technology companies in human history. He has been accused of using antitrust schemes to unethically cut down competitors, and his legacy stands on the work of countless employees whom he belittled and overworked as a matter of course. In all, he was a sore loser whose single-minded need to win made him blind to the cracks and rust he left in some of his closest relationships, notably with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. 

His life and work makes the parallels between him and other nefarious big-brain billionaire types easy to see, whether we’re thinking about Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos. These are characters who have increasingly become villains in the public eye after initial reverent rises to stardom. Part of the problem is the human cost of their innovations; another is that they’re filthy rich in a way that no amount of brainpower or business savvy can really justify. 

But after watching the new three-part documentary Inside Bill’s Brain, I’m tempted to view Gates as the last of a kind. He sounds like a man inspired more by curiosity and a desire to fix human problems, rather than one obsessed with his place in a shining technocratic future. On a variety of subjects, Gates comes off as humble and self-aware of his past sins. So much of the documentary, helmed by lauded director Davis Guggenheim, stumps for how Gates’ enormous wealth is being used in philanthropic projects around the world. Yet despite that framing, all the wealth still feels secondary, somehow. Gates isn’t defined by it. He comes off, if anything, reflective on the absurdity of being so rich in a world where every minute kids still die of something as treatable as diarrhea. 

This is a moral arc we’ve yet to see with so many of our tech-minded billionaires. Instead, most of them appear to take turns at being inhumane, entitled and willingly obtuse. Zuckerberg is obsessed with making Facebook ever-more powerful, despite the signs that its growth may be, er, kind of illegal and also putting users in danger of massive hacks. Bezos is running a sweatshop and sells a doorbell that’ll snitch to cops. Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the oracles of Google, have engineered a mega-corp that dodges taxes and probably will destroy us all. Peter Thiel is a vindictive prick whose medieval ideas about democracy are only overshadowed by his love of evil surveillance technologies and enabling ICE raids. Musk has been more of a punchline than pioneer as of late thanks to his overconfident vanity projects and big mouth.

I wonder what sort of documentary would result from a Guggenheim treatment of any of these men, but I have a feeling they’d lack the essential wisdom Gates brings to Inside Bill’s Brain. It’s kind of ironic, as Guggenheim makes sure to depict how Gates has struggled with emotional intelligence, whether it’s failing to empathize with burned-out employees or coping with the early passing of his mother. Gates’ story begins with his deep introversion and infinite thirst for reading as a child (“He would chew pencils, just… pondering,” his sister Libby notes). Later, he developed an edge in his precocious nature: “My parents’ authority seemed arbitrary,” Gates describes. He once considered blowing an admissions exam for a prestigious middle school because he wasn’t sure he wanted to attend. Still, he ran circles around peers in class, and won math competitions routinely. 

This is typical child-Mozart stuff, but it’s fascinating to see the impact his family — and particularly his mother — had on a young Gates. She forced him to socialize, despite his awkwardness, in order to teach his grace and humility. She also remained a force in his life well into the early Microsoft years, helping oversee his day-to-day needs — like ensuring he wore something nice for magazine shoots. 

We all end up dating our moms, in a sense, and maybe it’s no coincidence that Inside Bill’s Brain highlights the same nurturing that wife Belinda provides Gates, whether it’s motivating him to work on his public presence, running their foundation or just keeping her scatterbrained husband on schedule. (She jokes his brain looks like the cluttered apartment he shared with Allen in the startup days; a friend of Gates’ adds that he’s “the only person on earth I haven’t heard complain about their wife.”)

You get the feeling that Gates’ upbringing, and the influence of strong women in his life, have fostered his natural brilliance while tempering some of his nastiest habits. Sure, he can read 150 pages in an hour and has an unbreakable work ethic — I mean, the man once had a habit of licking Tang drink powder straight off his palms instead of eating lunch, staining his face and keyboard orange amid a sugar-high coding session. But he also was the asshole infamous for screaming “that’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard” at programmers and icing out employees who took time off. 

Did stepping away from Microsoft in 2008 to focus full-time on his foundation, thereby immersing himself in the ills of developing nations, change him? Was that already happening as he grew older and raised a family? Or did that humanistic streak always reside somewhere in him, even at the peak of Microsoft’s frenetic growth? 

Inside Bill’s Brain only leaves us clues for some of these more critical questions. I’d add that the death of Allen, one of Gates’ earliest best friends as well as his first business partner, clearly played some kind of role. The duo had a bitter split over ideas, power and pay in 1982, but Gates re-entered Allen’s life with reconciliation in his heart last year. Allen was battling cancer, which he died of complications from at the age of 65 in October 2018.  

You can see the hurt on Gates’ face when he considers all the things the duo could have achieved together in their time apart, and it’s the same look when he considers why children die of polio in Central Africa despite purported access to vaccines. No, philanthropic capitalism isn’t the answer to the world’s woes. And yet, it’s so clear that the thought of letting someone else do the work bothers Gates on a spiritual level — or better put, why let someone else do it when he can? 

The self-assurance that made him suspicious of his parents’ authority as a child, and later inspired him to call employees fucking stupid all the time, has been shaped into something more moral. It’s easy for him now to call for a major increase in taxing the wealthy. It’s easy for him to make the call to spend so much on global projects and leave his kids just a whiff of the cash. No wonder he’s such good friends with Warren Buffett — another megabillionaire with exceptional social capital and, somehow, very few pretenses about the bullshit swirling around him. 

Early in episode one, Guggenheim asks Gates a series of silly rapid-fire questions. No, he eats nothing for breakfast. Dogs are his favorite animals. Cheeseburger, his favorite food. 

“What is your… greatest fear?” 

Gates leans over, rocking side to side as he thinks in his signature way. “Mmmm… for my brain to stop working,” he replies. 

A predictable answer, for sure. But Gates doesn’t just have a brain. He’s apparently got a semblance of real heart and maybe even a little deeply considered empathy. Gates might just be one of the last big-brain billionaires to care about the rest of us. That shouldn’t feel so unusual, but here we are.