[17.0] The Bachelor: Bill Gates
It’s time to dump automagic.
Let’s talk about the bachelor, by which I mean Bill Gates.
Bill doesn’t have the notes app (he lacks an iPhone for obvious reasons), so his divorce announcement last week represented a nouveau screenshot genre—disruptive!
Since Gates is a well-known tech founder, centibillionaire, “prophet,” and “philanthropist,” it’s unsurprising that news of his and Melinda Gates’ separation sent shockwaves across certain pockets of cyberspace and the media. Most news outlets have by and large respected their requests for privacy; the media seems less concerned with what the divorce means for the couple than what it means for us. For decades, Bill & Melinda Gates have wielded their massive philanthropic enterprise to influence the public health landscape. Creating “healthy, productive lives” in their image and vision.
The couple has played a keystone role in a slew of public health and educational initiatives. Malaria eradication. Covid-19 vaccine development. U.S. public school policy. More likely than not, your life has been affected by the Gateses beyond your fleeting fling with MS Paint in middle school. As noted previously by yours truly, the Seattle metro area relies on Gates money for much of its pandemic testing and tracing infrastructure. I do think that’s a bad thing.
Philanthropy is an inherently antidemocratic scheme! Isn’t it terrifying that the status of a divorce—amicable? tumultuous? vindictive?—can make such a splash, potentially resulting in the total collapse of oligarch-dependent public health mechanisms?
As Anand Giridharadas explains in Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, philanthropy exists to whitewash and moralize extreme wealth accumulation and keep power in the hands of the (chosen) few; it permits the hyperwealthy to direct minute structural changes, providing a bulwark against higher taxes and more comprehensive policy reforms that would empty their beefy, beefy wallets.
Hence, most recently, how Bill Gates stepped in when Oxford University geared up to make its vaccine open source. Oxford thought the move would permit wide-scale, rapid distribution of its vaccine, bringing a quicker end to the pandemic. Writes the Kaiser Family Foundation’s news outlet, stoking some inter-foundation, peak-plutocrat conflict:
A few weeks later, Oxford—urged on by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—reversed course. It signed an exclusive vaccine deal with AstraZeneca that gave the pharmaceutical giant sole rights and no guarantee of low prices—with the less-publicized potential for Oxford to eventually make millions from the deal and win plenty of prestige.
Beyond the first question—How could the Gateses hold so much power?—is another inquiry: Why would they do that?
Intellectual property is the bread and butter of the Gates empire. Bill’s ascendance took place during an era when it was common practice for software to be open source. Groups like the Homebrew Computer Club created the tech communities (and newsletters!) du jour, bringing technologists together to swap ideas and trade hardware. The Club is credited with inspiring Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and with launching the personal computer “revolution.” The group wasn’t a perfect institution (an oxymoron), but its ethos was defined by exchange and openness.
Meanwhile, in his 1975 “Open Letter to Hobbyists,” Gates derided groups like the Homebrew Computer Club for their “piracy,” which got in the way of his profits. He deliberately made his software technically inaccessible to public duplication as a response. That pathological compulsion drives his intellectual-property ass-covering sliminess in the case of vaccines. If patents become moot in public health, what’s to prevent a slippery slope that ends up with Gates’ tech income slowing to a trickle?
But that first italicized question (How do the Gateses hold so much power?) is important, too. And it is tied to the technological underpinnings of Gates’ allure as well. Here I speak of the automagical agenda:
Automagic refers to the glossy, shiny experience of using certain technologies as a consumer. Things like one-click shopping or the Uber interface. What the consumer experiences is an ever-thinning membrane between desire and manifestation, in which the thought of consumption plus two or three taps on a screen bring the desired thing into being. Behind the scenes are nightmarish supply chains solving for automagic: hellish warehouses; overworked, underpaid workers subjected to legal forms of indentured servitude.
Architecture critic Kate Wagner’s essay “404 Page Not Found” mourns the death of the “the anarchic, sprawling, ’90s net,” which, after the post-9/11 blogosphere, was replaced by “today’s app-driven, hyper-conglomerate social media net.” Where there were once decidedly homebrewed websites—“the personalized, Geocities-ugly ‘Welcome to my Home Page’ aesthetic long hated by web designers and other members of the professional class”—we now face “Website Eugenics,” in which every website features the same general classed aesthetic. Wagner cites tech theorist danah boyd, who writes:
In essence, the “glitter” produced by those who “pimp out” their MySpaces [boyd acknowledges the racialized attributes of this language] is seen by some in a positive light while others see it as “gaudy,” “tacky,” and “cluttered.” While Facebook fans loved the site’s aesthetic minimalism, others viewed this tone as “boring,” “lame,” and “elitist.”
The professionalization and commercialization of the internet, in other words, follow in line with what Gates desired. The collapse of a Homebrew Computer Club-type eclectic, open-source commons for the privatization of all aspects of cyberspace, including its aesthetics, under the guise of automagic. The ostensible convenience and universality of platforms like Facebook—in which Facebook supposedly has a better “user experience” than Myspace or other sites because every profile has the same basic layout—hide the real intent: to streamline user experiences so as to maximize consumptive practices and extraction.
Social media users no longer have to copy and paste HTML code to make wonky personal sites (whether on Myspace or elsewhere). At best, you tinker on Squarespace before sharing it with other consumers! We surf the information superhighway, automagically.
Automagic has enraptured American audiences for decades. Perhaps most notably and bizarrely through this clusterfuck of a book:
Life is a highway; honk your horns for O.W. “Bill” Hayes’s Auto-Magic* Memory Method. The book doesn’t describe automagic the way we use the term today, but Your Memory—Speedway to Success in Earning, Learning and Living falls into the exact genre you think it does: some charismatic thought leadership/vapidly self-help-y drivel. But it’s good, good drivel, a precursor to How to Win Friends and Influence People-type nonsense. Hayes’s manifesto sold like hotcakes, going through six printings between 1958 and 1961.
Auto-Magic* is mnemonics, turbocharged. The book—which, creepily, is dedicated “to the hostesses of Braniff International Airways”—is the brainchild of an Ur-thought leader who traveled across the United States demonstrating his self-optimized memory to gobsmacked Rotary Club audiences and, occasionally, as is any thought leader’s wont, training the police to use his methods.
Without further ado, this is the Auto-Magic* Memory Method.
Number the parts of a car from one to twenty like so:
Once that’s done, you can place any list onto the different parts of the car according to the needs of the hour. That’s about it! (But first you have to memorize the parts of a car lol.)
“The Auto-Magic* Method will never fail you,” Hayes writes. It’s the perfect solution to any problem—envision ketchup on the hood of your car, for example, to remember to buy ketchup at the grocery store. Like Gates, you too can be freed from the notes app :)
All you need to make the system work is the desire to retain information according to this algorithm. “Desire, repetition, and retention come in that order as a code to success in memory training,” Hayes argues. Approaching banal information the way one would seek to remember a #hot person’s name makes us retain things better, and, coupled with a gamified system, turns desire into outcome—automagically, no less.
And, if the system does fail you, then it’s your fault, as you’re not turgidly desirous enough to make the mnemonics flex to your needs. “My fabulous memory for names has given me added prestige, personality, and income,” Hayes writes, and so! can! you!
The point of this strange scenic route through the automagic of yore is to suggest that, while the term automagic has changed over the years, the grifty types peddling it and their true intentions have remained relatively static. Gates’ pro-automagic preaching (innovation, not open source! philanthropy, not strong government!) has deleterious social effects (wealth hoarding, atrophied public health mechanisms, vaccine nationalism); he follows in the footsteps of Hayes, a snake-oil-selling thought leader of yesteryear, who, too, sold automagic but trained cops, made tons of money, and was explicitly creepy af to Braniff International Airways employees.
For all the curiosity and fleeting attraction to both forms of automagic, though, they both remain scams. If past is prologue, then the Gatesian automagic scam will face increasing public scrutiny and ridicule… which it already is. The Biden Administration has (in a plot twist!) voiced support for waiving Covid vaccine patents. Support for philanthropically dependent public health is low.
The magic behind automagic becomes clearer through inspection of its human hosts. Magic in the way sociologist Émile Durkheim defines it, which, he argues, takes “professional pleasure in profaning holy things,” such as the sanctity of life. In systems of care, automagic products erode public goods for private gain, replacing them with technologically mediated structures seemingly more “efficient” than the old ones, but which cause death and illness by stretching (human) care workers and others to their limit. That startup Ambulnz’s vehicles wail past Airbnb-gutted buildings and hospitals-turned-condos is more than metaphor for the landscape left behind by this magic; it is a literal alarm for the caregiving system currently in place.
Divine Innovation is a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology. Published once every three weeks, it’s written by Adam Willems and edited by Vanessa Rae Haughton. Find the full archive here.