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Generation Wired…and Wise?

by Matthew Gilbert

Wisdom and technology had their friendly faceoff at the second annual Wisdom 2.0 conference as some of Silicon Valley’s finest mixed comfortably with a trio of mindfulness masters and an audience of new media pioneers. And if those in the sold-out crowd (or among the 130,000 who watched the streamed version) had any question of what they were in for, Zynga co-founder Eric Schiermeyer quickly reminded them: “In order to succeed in business, forget an MBA. Learn how to be mindful.”

The theme of mindfulness weaved its way throughout the conference, in no small part because of the presence of Jon Kabat-Zinn, renowned scientist-author and founding director of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts. His wry and sometimes solemn mien gave the event some necessary gravitas, assisted by Zen Abbot Joan Halifax (who attended the 2010 conference) and popular Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield. The juxtaposition of their collective wisdom against the relatively nascent spiritual impulses of the other speakers provided some helpful perspective – not to take anything away from anyone on stage or in attendance. Everyone seemed passionately immersed in their own journey of exploring how to wisely co-exist with an explosion of technological tools that are re-defining what it means to be connected – and, in some cases, to be human. 

Indeed, the impacts of external neural networks on our internal ones are attracting more and more attention, and leadership consultant David Rock (who readily admitted that “learning about the brain is addictive”) offered some insights. His bestselling book, Your Brain at Work, draws liberally from the findings of modern neuroscience. “The primary principle at work in the brain,” he began, “is minimizing danger and maximizing reward. It does this constantly. [And according to recent studies], social experiences activate reward/threat responses more than anything else!” Using the acronym SCARF, he explained that there are five major threat/reward activations: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. Social media, he says, drives behaviors and responses in each area, and “our ability to self-regulate is very poor.” In other words, we are more often slave to rather than master of the relentless distractions of the digi-sphere.

There were several presentations about bringing mindfulness practices into the workplace. One such effort was made by the biotech company Genentech, where the program had to find a way past HR so as not to alert the woo-woo police. Fortunately, reported Genentech vice-president Todd Pierce, the results exceeded expectations, not by emphasizing “performance benefits” but by emphasizing personal growth. “We focused on applied mindfulness without the Buddhist terminology.”

Meng Tan, Google’s Jolly Good Fellow and a highlight from last year, spoke in detail about Google’s employment development program, “Search Inside Yourself,” which focuses on attention training (using mindfulness), self knowledge, and creating permanent mental habits (loving kindness and compassion). There is a lot of emphasis on emotional intelligence and a process that balances accessible language and the right dose of feel-good, backed by hard data. It’s an engineering company, after all.

The dark side of technology showed up in a few different ways. There is, of course, the irony of bringing mindfulness to places that enable their employees, in the words of Facebook’s Stuart Crabb, to “never switch off. There is no work-life balance in this generation. They are always sprinting.” Twitter exec Michelle Gale said that the company is desperate for tools to help its stressed-out workers. Most of these companies are hiring hundreds of people every month; integration and performance pressures are high.

In his Huffington Post blog titled “Are Our Minds Going the Way of Our Waists?”, David Rock compares the average person’s expanding waistline with the loosening of our mental faculties and lays the blame at the feet of…social media, which he equates to eating empty calories. “With food,” he writes, “there are worldwide efforts to educate kids about the ‘food pyramid.’ When it comes to the internet, it's a free-for-all, with no education or awareness of what a good mix of mental activities might be required for a healthy mind.” Interactive designer Ben Fullerton of Method echoed these concerns by wondering if social media was “chipping away at my capacity for concentration, denying me the moment in which I am living. Solitude is generative, and under threat.”

It is estimated that Google, Facebook, and Twitter connect two billion people worldwide – nearly a third of the planet’s population! That’s a big responsibility, made all the more complex when you throw a boatload of money into the stew. And yet there is an enormous amount of good intentions in all this – not to mention the role that social media played in energizing Egyptian citizens to topple their corrupt government – and it’s certainly no crime to make money while trying to do good. The runaway popularity of social media reflects a simple fact about human nature: we have a deep need to be social.

Event organizer Soren Gordhamer opened the conference by emphasizing that it was not about answers but about inquiry – a deeply Buddhist practice – and there was plenty of that, perhaps best summed up by Jack Kornfield. “How are we using the technology?” he asked. “Is it reducing suffering?” Ultimately, he concluded, we still need to change our consciousness.

  • JeremiahStanghini Apr 08, 2011

    A very interesting analogy comparing the food pyramid to a non-yet-invented-but-maybe-needed 'brain pyramid' for using the internet. While the first lady's initiative is about obesity, maybe there needs to be an initiative (from another federal office?) about using the internet with purpose.

    With Love and Gratitude,


  • Anonymous Icon

    johnamaral Jul 20, 2011

    Nice post. I like the title of Google's progam: "Search Inside Yourself".

    Social media does seem to SCARF up massive amounts of time and attention, and isn't it all too ironic that the time, energy and focus it takes to research and create interesting posts about connection and humanity can pull us out of that very connection?

    To sit in front of a computer and engage in social media, while at the same time remain totally present, attentive to and honoring of one's internal cues and feedback is surely an emerging art form.

    John Amaral

  • Linda Hassler Aug 05, 2011

    Thanx for the rundown on the Wisdom 2.0 conference, Matthew. Sounds as though the social media giants are as baffled about their technology's real and lasting helpfulness as the political leaders are about how their efforts can be helpful to citizens. Could it be that the business model of go-go-go, grow-grow-grow is off the mark because it doesn't take into account the speed that our bodies and minds naturally WANT to run at peak performance?

    Also, thanx for the films you provided us at the IONS Conference. I hope you'll continue to choose these for attendees and let us know between conferences what you recommend.

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