February 17, 2014
On Saturday morning at the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco, Karen May, vice president for "people development" at Google, was taken by surprise. Not long after she opened a panel discussion dubbed "3 Steps to Build Corporate Mindfulness the Google Way," protesters stormed the stage, unfurling a banner that read, "Eviction Free San Francisco." Lately, Bay Area activists have been blaming Google and other tech giants (and their allies in government) for displacing residents, and the annual gathering of Silicon Valley's mindful elite presented them with the perfect opportunity for protest.
The crowd at first applauded ("Was this some kind of new Google performance art?"), but they soon caught on. Wisdom 2.0 cut the live feed and deleted the interruption from their video archive. Fortunately, someone in the audience captured a video of the scene:
Bill Duane, a senior manager at Google, attempted to neutralize the situation with "grace and compassion"—and more than a little condescension. He directed the crowd to "check in with your body" and "feel what it's like to be in conflict with people with heartfelt ideas" after a spirited tug-of-war for the banner concluded at the edge of the stage.
The Wisdom 2.0 team issued a rapid response, lauding its corporate sponsor for its kindness and compassion. Of course, only in a country where corporations are legally people could a corporation be mindful, too.
Policies that privelege tech companies like Google, Heart of the City activists write, come at the expense of local residents, and contribute to "displacement, privatization of public assets, for-profit surveillance, profiling, policing, and targeting of activist communities."
In an interview in the current issue of Tricycle, novelist and cultural critic Curtis White had a few things to say himself about Google's program and corporate mindfulness in general. The following is an excerpt:
As for Silicon Valley, it has a legitimate interest in the health of its workers, but it has little interest in [Simone] Weil’s notion of the "authentic and pure values.” Its primary aim is to bring Buddhist meditation techniques (as neuroscience understands them) to the aid of corporate culture, such as in the Search Inside Yourself program developed at Google. This is from the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute website:
Developed at Google and based on the latest in neuroscience research, our programs offer attention and mindfulness training that build the core emotional intelligence skills needed for peak performance and effective leadership. We help professionals at all levels adapt, management teams evolve, and leaders optimize their impact and influence.
Mindfulness is enabling corporations to “optimize impact”? In this view of things, mindfulness can be extracted from a context of Buddhist meanings, values, and purposes. Meditation and mindfulness are not part of a whole way of life but only a spiritual technology, a mental app that is the same regardless of how it is used and what it is used for.
. . . .
Bringing Buddhist meditation techniques into industry accomplishes two things for industry. It does actually give companies like Google something useful for an employee’s well-being, but it also neutralizes a potentially disruptive adversary. Buddhism has its own orienting perspectives, attitudes, and values, as does American corporate culture. And not only are they very different from each other, they are also often fundamentally opposed to each other.
A benign way to think about this is that once people experience the benefits of mindfulness they will become interested in the dharma and develop a truer appreciation for Buddhism—and that would be fine. But the problem is that neither Buddhists nor employees are in control of how this will play out. Industry is in control. This is how ideology works. It takes something that has the capacity to be oppositional, like Buddhism, and it redefines it. And somewhere down the line, we forget that it ever had its own meaning.
It’s not that any one active ideology accomplishes all that needs to be done; rather, it is the constant repetition of certain themes and ideas that tend to construct a kind of “nature.” Ideology functions by saying “this is nature”—this is the way things are; this is the way the world is. So, Obama talks about STEM, scientists talk about the human computer, universities talk about “workforce preparation,” and industry talks about the benefits of the neuroscience of meditation, but it all becomes something that feels like a consistent world, and after a while we lose the ability to look at it skeptically. At that point we no longer bother to ask to be treated humanly. At that point we accept our fate as mere functions. Ideology’s job is to make people believe that their prison is a pleasure dome.
–Alex Caring-Lobel, Associate Editor