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Breda O’Brien: Time to question our tech billionaire overlords

Moronic conspiracy theories about Bill Gates wanting to microchip the world only detract attention from the vast, unaccountable power he already wields

The unelected, unaccountable Bill and Melinda Gates have power on a level without precedent in human history. Photograph: Matthew Knight / AFP

Out walking before it was quite dark enough to draw the curtains, I was struck by how many solitary figures were slumped at windows of bedrooms and kitchens. None was looking at the red-gold sky. Instead, they were staring at laptops and no doubt, like me, they had spent most of the day doing just that.

A cultural change with immense implications is already under way, and only being hastened by Covid-19. It is not just about remote working. It is about the huge disparity between the power and influence of tech companies and what we still think of as governments.

As Jennifer O’Connell pointed out recently, the giant tech companies and their founders have had a very good pandemic. Citing Oxfam research, she highlighted that the world’s 10 richest people, including Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, witnessed their wealth grow collectively by €451 billion during the pandemic.

We have a collective sense of unease, a feeling that we are constantly being manipulated, exploited and mined for our wealth-producing data

Such figures are simply too big for the human brain to visualise unless represented by a graphic or a metaphor. The power that such wealth brings works in much the same way.

We have a collective sense of unease, a feeling that we are constantly being manipulated, exploited and mined for our wealth-producing data but it is all just too big, too vast a series of interlocking networks. We shrug, decide that we cannot do much about it and return to our respective screens to make them another few thousands.

The super-wealthy are our overlords. We love them when they are benign, spending their wealth on philanthropic projects – that is, the ones we agree with. There is no doubt that high-wealth donors do a great deal of good. Every so often, however, some fact enters the public domain which makes us think: wait, what?

I had one such moment when reading a Bloomberg Businessweek profile on Prof Sarah Gilbert of Oxford University, lead researcher of what later became the AstraZeneca vaccine. Buried in the story without comment is this line: “during the search for [research] money, Gates pushed [Prof Sarah] Gilbert and [Prof Adrian Hill] to partner with a big pharmaceutical company.”

Journalism funding

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had earlier given the Oxford research team a small grant at a crucial moment in the research. Initially, Oxford University had promised to share the intellectual property rights to its vaccine research in a non-exclusive fashion.

A grant at the right time, a bit of pressure and suddenly, AstraZeneca had exclusive rights to the vaccine. Does it matter? It absolutely does and not just because AstraZeneca encountered delays which would never have happened had the knowledge been shared widely in the first place. It matters because it impacts most of all on the poor, especially in low-income countries.

Gates’s image rehabilitation is being followed in turn by Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg

Gates used to be wildly unpopular, a ruthless chief executive whose company, Microsoft, savaged every rival and had to pay billions in fines for monopolistic practices. What changed? When the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was set up, it was not long before the transition to cuddly philanthropist was complete. In a brave piece last August in the Columbia Journalism Review, Bill Schwab outlined how he examined 20,000 charitable grants the Gates Foundation had made and found more than $250 million towards journalism.

He believes that this partly explains why 20 years ago Gates’s objectives were subject to constant media questioning and investigation whereas today, the balance has tilted towards, in Schwab’s view, “soft profiles and glowing editorials describing [the foundation’s] good works”.

Conflict of interest?

The Nation published an investigation last March which does not mention Covid-19 but provides valuable insight into Gates’s mindset. He is a ferocious defender of intellectual property rights and his ideology revolves around leveraging “all the tools of capitalism” to “connect the promise of philanthropy with the power of private enterprise”.

The Nation uncovered “$2 billion in tax-deductible charitable donations to private companies – including some of the largest businesses in the world, such as GlaxoSmithKline, Unilever, IBM, and NBC Universal Media”. It queried the ethics of “a foundation giving a charitable grant to a company that it partly owns – and stands to benefit from financially – [which] would seem like an obvious conflict of interest”. It also points out that the foundation’s protection of patents which make life-saving drugs prohibitively expensive rebounds on the vulnerable people the foundation is allegedly trying to help. 

Gates’s image rehabilitation is being followed in turn by Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg.

Ironically, moronic conspiracy theories about Gates wanting to microchip the world only deflect attention from the truth which is right in front of us but almost too big to see. The unelected, unaccountable Bill and Melinda Gates have power on a level without precedent in human history.

In 2018-2019, they donated a higher percentage to the cash-strapped WHO than the individual donations of the EU Commission, the US and the UK. Gates discovered that it is more than possible to buy political influence and to shape the course of human history, all while being praised for being such a great guy. Is it not past time to question our new overlords?

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