As Tech Seeks Wisdom, It Must Remember Its Humanity

A Surprise Protest

Sometimes social tensions show up in symbolic moments. That happened for me last Saturday at the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco. It was around 10AM and three senior Google staff were on stage, about to talk about “building corporate mindfulness the Google way,” when suddenly, three women appeared, and unfolded an “Eviction Free San Francisco” banner while another blared “San Francisco – Not For Sale” over a megaphone.  Was this part of the session? Like pins in a lock, my mind sifted the possibilities.

Click. No, this was a protest.

Of Gentrification and Wealth

I’d seen news coverage of earlier protests over Google’s use of public bus stops for employee shuttles, but since I live in Seattle, I was only vaguely aware of the connection to the housing markets around these stops. Since Saturday’s protest, I’ve learned that real estate developers have been using evictions and other legal tools to clear many of these formerly rent-controlled housing units for redevelopment – and higher rents. So, these protests were really about wealth disparity, and about a new wave of high-tech gentrification now sweeping San Francisco.

Gentrification is a complex issue, and it takes a powerful toll on those it touches. It dislocates families, disrupts kids’ education, and toughens work commutes – sometimes to the point where they’re no longer viable. We live in difficult economic times. An eviction notice now days can leave people in unrecoverable downward spirals. Often, it leaves them homeless.

In this particular case, the underlying issues stretch far beyond the concentration of wealth in San Francisco. I have written before about technology’s role in increasing wealth disparity through job displacement and profit extraction. These are real outcomes of the winner-take-all network economics of technology; a kind of shadow aspect sometimes overlooked in our delight over technology’s shiny, promising future.

Sympathy for the Buddha

As I watched the drama unfold on Saturday’s stage, I found myself sympathizing with both perspectives though.

I had come to the conference because I believe mindfulness (for lack of a better word) is important to transforming our places of work. While there, I did hear very hopeful stories of what Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter and other tech firms are doing to make their workplaces – and their software – more emotionally intelligent and more humane. This stuff matters, and it’s too bad the protests prevented the Google team from sharing everything they’d learned about building mindfulness into one of the most important companies in the world.

It Takes a Pyramid

Sitting there in that audience, I had this surreal sense we were witnessing tension over different levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The speakers (and the conference in general) were floating at the self-actualization layer at the top of the pyramid, while the protestors were more grounded in actual physiological needs – real things, like transportation and shelter.

It’s hard to express how awkward this on-stage confrontation felt. It wasn’t just the odd feeling of seeing spiritually-oriented people confronted with strong emotions and aggression. No, this was a cold splash of a much harsher human experience, interrupting a dreamy reverie over the future of corporate America. 

Then, with a little meditative introspection to process the emotions, the conference quickly bounced back to its lofty heights. But I still sensed an uneasy shadow hovering in the corner.

A Dharma Lesson

I am excited about this conference and what it might hold for our future. I also believe there may be some lessons to draw from Saturday’s protest.

“…when the hard times come, you know the teacher’s in the room.”                       - Michael Franti

Mindfulness practices can bring us tremendous inner peace. They can also serve as a resource for decreasing suffering in the world. This is the way of the Bodhisattva, and it is one that emphasizes the enlightenment of all over the enlightenment of just ourselves.

There is so much to commend about the Wisdom 2.0 conference. It’s obvious that there is a deep commitment here to serving the world. Just watch the wonderful talks (embedded below) by Congressman Tim Ryan on making mindfulness tools available to all, and by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh on his work in revitalizing Las Vegas. There were many other sessions equally worth mentioning and equally focused on service.

There is no question that this path of the Bodhisattva is clearly present in the Wisdom 2.0 community. The servant’s voice is clear. What I found missing was the voice of the served.

The protestors on that stage last Saturday were a reminder of that voice. And it is a voice that needs to be embraced and integrated into the vision of this community and of our future.

Web of ChangeOver the last ten years, I have been involved sporadically in another very special community. Web of Change was originally established to bridge the tech community, the environmental movement and, to some degree, the spiritual community around Hollyhock in British Columbia. The Web of Change tech community shared a passion for social change, and while we did important work with social change organizations, we were missing the voices of the communities we served.

A few years ago, the Web of Change deliberately opened itself to these voices. The first year was rough. The network experience a kind of culture clash as technologists and nonprofit professionals came face-to-face with the people doing real, on-the-ground organizing for just, sustainable communities. I was privileged to play a small leadership role at Web of Change in the year following that difficult transition year, and I can tell you that, as tough as they were, those birthing pangs were well worth it. The more vibrant, more diverse, community it created has been far more wonderful and rich than anything we originally had.

I happen to be friends with one of the key leaders behind Web of Change’s inclusion and integration efforts, and so I have some insight into just how hard that kind of work is. It is partially about making the event financially accessible, and it’s so good to see that Wisdom 2.0 is already well down that road with its scholarship program. It’s far more than that though. Real community integration requires a very deliberate effort to identify and recruit key people who can serve as connectors to the new networks, and who can serve as cultural bridges between these different worlds.

Wisdom 2.0 is not Web of Change. The goals of these communities are not the same. But they both share an intention to serve a world that is bigger than their original networks of participants, and there may be something that Wisdom 2.0 could learn from the Web of Change experience.

The path to wisdom is not reached solely through the mind. It must also include the heart. When we are connected to and inclusive of those we seek to ultimately serve, we are most open to the compassion of the Bodhisattva. Perhaps this is the most important lesson the tech community can learn in its quest for true wisdom.