February 25, 2014

"Technology's Mindfulness Racket"

Alex Caring-Lobel

In a new article over at The New Republic, senior editor Evgeny Morozov questions the agendas of tech companies that advocate "unplugging" and technological solutions like apps in response to the digital onslaught that has become a fact of daily life. "We are being urged to unplug," writes Morozov in "The Mindfulness Racket," "so that we can resume our usual activities with even more vigor upon returning to the land of distraction."

A similar ethos—what French sociologists Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski term "the new spirit of capitalism," which gets a brief mention in the article—guides workplace implementations of mindfulness meditation. Their purveyors—who tend to be from the business, not Buddhist, world—treat meditation techniques as productivity devices, placing them in the service of capital. "What's good for us as individuals," Arianna Huffington is quoted in the article, "is also good for corporate America's bottom line."

We can be sure that if it weren't, we wouldn't have a corporate media outlet promoting mindfulness meditation so vigorously. Nor would we see such unbridled enthusiasm (not a friend of scientific inquiry, as was recently noted in The Guardian) for research that is still very rudimentary, as many involved will oftentimes readily admit (something to look forward to in the next issue of Tricycle).

What makes these "new spirit" programs so seductive, and to baby boomers especially, is that they recuperate the "artistic critique" of capitalism—the romantic and libertarian undercurrents of '68—that values radical individualism, the primacy of individual well-being, and horizontal network structures over heirarchical control.

If you believe that corporate interests and human interests are one and the same, this is a moot point, but clearly not everyone is buying it.

I encourage you to check out Morozov's article here.

–Alex Caring-Lobel, Associate Editor

Image courtesy of The New Republic/Aidon

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mrsmuse@gmail.com's picture

At each technical and economical revolution, there is a new ethos and with it goes a new way of defining happiness. But mindfulness meditation with compassion taught to improve rentability only (and management style) will not help wolves to become sheep, I mean by stopping aiming at the top, whatever the competition game is.

It is sad to see just a transfer of meditation techniques without compassion, I mean, the well being of other sentient beings is not reached just with a techno-economical solutions ending into buying more objects, in a world suffocated and dying because of so much materialism.

DB's picture

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't.
—William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I, ll. 203–206[5]

I have been practicing some form of mindfulness meditation and / or yoga since the late 90's and I believe that I'm calmer, kinder and more flexible today than I would have been without those practices. As a critical care nurse I face massive stress levels with sick patients, multi tasking and advanced technology. It is crystal clear to me that what my co-workers and I need to make it through the day is an increase in decision making power in the workplace. We need to stand up for our patients, our sanity and our professional credibility against an onslaught of changes driven by the bureaucratic need to protect the bottom line at all costs.

Patients may fall, they may develop pressure ulcers, they may be psychologically neglected. The moral hazard to nurses is acute when we realize that these problems are preventable but god dammit there isn't a single moment to spare. A healthcare system that only sees in terms of the financial bottom line cannot truly respond to suffering. Welcome to life under unrestrained capitalism. I believe that the mindfulness revolution MUST be accompanied by what Dr King referred to as a revolution in values (https://zinnedproject.org/materials/a-revolution-of-values/).

The stakes could not be higher. Our present day reality was foreseen by visionaries of the 20th century like Aldous Huxley as in the 'Brave New World' we now inhabit. Writing a centurry ago Huxley envisioned a future totalitarian society in which "Soma" functioned as a palliative. If religion is the opiate of the masses, mindfulness may be something like fentanyl. What is corporate mindfulness in religious and ethical terms? Is it "Selective awareness optimized for pleasure"? in a word, Ignorance.

What I do know is that when I report to my hospital unit tomorrow if the patient assignments are overwhelming to the point of madness it wont be meditation that I will call on to make it through the day. Instead I will remember my ancestors in the labor movement and those who have stood up for human rights and democracy. I will call on my co-workers to take collective action, to push back against a system that has become inhuman and abusive. If my employer wants to pay for my yoga classes that'll be just fine but I'm not going to close my eyes to the reality of suffering in front of my face and the knowledge of how our society is structured to produce extreme inequality.

Dominic Gomez's picture

2,500 years ago Prince Siddartha arrived at your same life-state after glimpsing the reality of life's suffering outside his palace gates. Rather than tip-toe back inside he courageously set out to find the truth of life, beginning 50 years of teaching the Law (dharma) to his fellow human beings.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism restates Arianna's comment as "What’s good for us as individuals is also good for our fellow living beings". She omitted the bodhisattva vow.

jespersr's picture

Mindfulness as a tool to increase share value and meet other corporate goals is arguably an inevitable outcome of the secularization of traditional Buddhist meditation practices. With all due respect to Jon Kabat-Zinn, bless him, whose methods have helped tens of thousands of medical patients and sufferers of chronic stress, the secular wave he began has now also come to this. No matter. The fad will fade. Buddhism itself has been appropriated by far worse barbarians than corporate CEOs. Think of how Zen institutions bent to the will of Japanese warlords in the 1930s and 40s, for instance. That, too, did pass.

It is also interesting to see the sneering attitude toward mindfulness practice in general coming from the political left, as reflected in Morozov's article. The left, at least once upon a time, was rooted in compassionate concern for the common person, just as non-secular Buddhist practices are. But it's apparent that at least some on that side of the political spectrum are as hidebound and reactionary in their materialistic views as the villains of WalMart and Wall Street.

Rik Jespersen