Dan Hough

My Opinion of the podcast, Bill Gates and Rashida Jones Ask Big Questions

Published 04 January 2021 in Vancouver, Canada (~7min read)

Late last year, actress/director/writer/activist Rashida Jones and businessman/developer/philanthropist/uber nerd Bill Gates launched a podcast together, Bill Gates and Rashida Jones Ask Big Questions.

My first thought on hearing about it was of Mitchell and Webb’s BIG TALK Sketch. Thankfully, the hosts are much less pushy than Raymond Terrific, and the expectations (they are not trying to “solve AIDS”) are much more realistic.

The big questions faced tackled in Gates’s and Jones’s conversations cover topics such as COVID-19, inequality, climate change, conspiracy theories and whether people can change. These are big topics, but not at all novel.

What I do find to be novel is the dynamic between the two hosts. Sometimes they agree with each other, but quite often they disagree and are not shy about it, although it never becomes hostile.

It feels to me like a conversation between two people who fundamentally fall into the same broad political bucket – “liberals” – but who have different takes on whether big changes in our society are positive or negative.

Whenever an opportunity for disagreement emerges, Jones often seems to veer towards the “institutions bad, corporations bad, distrust authority” camp while Gates tends to suggest that he generally trusts markets to guide humanity towards progress and that in general, the forces currently at play are a net positive for us.

For example, during a conversation with Yuval Noah Harari, they discussed the increased use of surveillance to try to curb the spread of COVID-19 around the world. While Bill Gates asks, “can you have benign surveillance like [watching people in laboratories/nuclear weapon facilities]?” Jones quickly points out that there’s a difference between surveilling people in a lab and people “just walking down the street.”

This point may seem obvious, but it’s one I’ve heard missed by friends who I consider to be like-minded with me. I tend to straddle the line between the ideas that surveillance is a force for good and that it’s a slippery slope. To me, the idea that we can have “benign” surveillance which is only implemented in a way that we are all comfortable is the ideal one - but can we simply trust that the people watching will not abuse their power for their own personal gain?

Gates then agrees with Jones on the difference, but it doesn’t appear to be at the top of the list of his concerns. And that’s good - for a healthy debate, people with different priorities about the same subject should be coming together.

There are 21 years between Jones and Gates - not a huge age gap - but they are most certainly from different generations. In 1997, when Gates’s Microsoft was 22 years old, Jones was graduating from university and starting her professional acting career. It isn’t often that I listen to people from different generations, willing to disagree with each other publicly, on a podcast. It’s a breath of fresh air and I’m enjoying having my own opinions challenged, even if the challenge is relatively weak.

How this podcast came to be - how these two people met each other - is a mystery to me. It seems like an unlikely pairing, but it works well.

In summary, Big Questions is no bubble-breaker for liberal-minded cosmopolitan types, but it is by no means always a straightforward exercise in confirmation bias. With two charming hosts and some very well-known guests, it’s a very enjoyable and thought-provoking listen. Highly recommended!

I’d like to make special mention of Podyssey.fm, where I discovered this podcast in their charts feature.

Heckle me on Twitter @basicallydan.