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Wisdom2.0: it came for our heartbeats, now Google wants our souls

發表於 2014-9-22 10:02:56 | 顯示全部樓層 |閱讀模式
Wisdom2.0: it came for our heartbeats, now Google wants our souls
Tech companies are embracing mindfulness to help staff deal with stress - and help seize back control from the gadgets that have taken over our lives

Carole Cadwalladr in Dublin
theguardian.com, Friday 19 September 2014 07.00 BST

Intel engineers meditating. Photograph: Intel Free Press/flickr

Dublin’s Google headquarters bears all the hallmarks of the modern tech workplace: an industrial chic aesthetic, endless free snacks, designer furniture in primary colours that looks like it’s been hijacked from a children’s playground, and, this week, the advanced forces of what may or may not be the Next Big Thing: not a new mobile phone, or a really super fancy watch, but something even more radically cutting-edge: “wisdom”.

Because for three days this week, in an auditorium at the heart of the city’s hi-tech cluster, an unholy alliance of Googlers, Buddhist monks, techies, HR directors, MPs and recovering CEOs bandied around words like “compassion”, “empathy”, “communion” and “consciousness”.

This was Wisdom2.0, a Californian conference that grew out of the west coast’s twin obsessions of technology and self-actualisation, and that came to Europe for the first time this week.

It has already held events in Google’s Mountain View office and at Facebook and since its inception six years ago, it’s been enthusiastically taken up by the tech industry. More than 2,000 people attended Wisdom2.0’s main event in San Francisco this year, and it’s attracted high-profile supporters like Arianna Huffington and Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, and now it’s looking to take the message to a global audience.

‘Stroke the person next to you - feel the connection’

It might be called a conference, but to the uninitiated it looked more like a revival meeting or religious gathering - just without the religion bit getting in the way. Prayer bells called the delegates back to session, regular “stillness” breaks were built into the agenda, and at one point participants were told to put their arm around the person next to them, softly stroke them “and feel the connection”.

It’s technology that’s at the heart of this, or at least what technology is doing to our lives. And Wisdom2.0’s mission is to address this, “the great challenge of our age”: how to “live connected to one another through technology … in ways that are beneficial to our own well-being.”

Another take on it is that the tech industry having captured our attention, our time and our bank accounts with their endlessly distracting devices, and created apps that measure our heartbeats and quantify our physical health, has taken the next logical step: it is now after our souls.

Mindfulness: overtaking yoga as the must-do metropolitan activity

Soren Gordhamer, Wisdom2.0’s founder, explained to the delegates who had paid up to €600 each, that at its heart it represented an attempt “to bring ancient wisdom into the modern age”. And at the vanguard of the movement is mindfulness, the secular version of meditation that is said to do everything from slowing ageing to improving your sex life.

It’s currently vying to overtake yoga as the must-do metropolitan leisure activity but it’s also had proven clinical results – to reduce stress, aid sleep, and improve both physical and mental well-being – and Chris Ruane, the Labour MP for the Vale of Clwyd, told the audience about how, having introduced to the House of Commons, an all-party parliamentary group is now trying to roll it out into wider public life after the next general election.

But that is just the beginning. Alfred Tolle, a senior sales manager at Google who was the host for the event, went even further. It was, he said, about trying to create “a collective consciousness” that would hopefully “make the world a better place”.

“Ten years ago, if you’d said this sort of thing, people would have said ‘Put the hippy in the ground’,” he said later. “But today, people are starting to get it. Even in management meetings, I talk about connecting inner and outer worlds and people look at me suspiciously, but they sort of get it.”

‘Our relationship with technology has become something even its creators can’t control’

Tolle has been practising Zen meditation for 25 years and on top of his sales remit, he seems to have taken it upon himself to become Google’s unofficial chief soul officer. He said he wanted to hold the event because “we have to reconnect to our souls and ourselves in order to use technology wisely. I see it as my job to drive Google in that direction.”

There is, said one of the participants, a Dublin-based technologist called Frazer McKimm who studies human and machine interaction, “an increasing sense of disquiet. There’s a sense that our relationship with technology has become something that even the creators of it can’t control. Even the dominators are being dominated. It’s infantilising us in a way.”

The challenge, according to a Scottish app developer, Rohan Gunatillake, is to deal with it without “pathologising our relationship to technology”. He proposed that mindfulness should be built into all technology, and suggests solutions including a traffic system warning for websites and nutrition information-style labels that detail what they do to our mental health; he singled out newspaper comment sections, which should carrying a big red flag. “Technology is not the problem,” he told the conference. “Bad technology is the problem.”

In fact, says Gordhamer, it’s no surprise that questions about meaning and purpose have been embraced so enthusiastically by the tech industry. “If you look at the tech founders they all found success so young that it’s only natural that they should now be asking, ‘What else is there?’”

And, it’s that question - what else is there? - that had drawn participants from as far afield as Australia. Katrin Bauer, a 46-year-old consultant radiologist from Dundee, said that she’d discovered meditation as a means of coping with the stress of technology.

“I work on a computer all day and they break, they go wrong, we don’t have the most up-to-date software. I didn’t tell my colleagues at first. These eastern practices are seen as a bit of a taboo in the NHS but so many of my colleagues are off sick - very capable, talented people who just burn out. And there is an absolute clinical benefit to mindfulness that goes far beyond just churning out more pills. There is so much more that could be done to improve people’s well-being.”

Training staff to have compassion

Just as mindfulness secularised an ancient spiritual practice that’s been used for thousands of years, so the new wisdom industry has taken other concepts, more usually associated with religious practice, and given them a fresh new spin, foremost among them “compassion”, the buzzword of Wisdom2.0.

Tania Singer, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute, who has led the biggest research study so far in to the effect of mindfulness on the brain, gave a talk in which she showed her research into neuroplasticity and “affective training”. Compassion, she claimed, is distinct from empathy. It can be taught. And it had the effect of making new areas of the brain light up: in effect, it made its subjects happier.

Kelly Palmer, head of “talent transformation and inclusion” at LinkedIn made in her talk entitled “Fostering empathetic connection: lessons from compassion Efforts at LinkedIn” which included the information that “sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do is to let an employee go.”

The cynical take on all this is that it’s big business trying to create a new generation of happy worker drones. The chief people officer – or what used to be called the head of HR - for Zynga had come to look for new ideas to take into the workplace and she explained that it was not enough to provide industrial chic furnishings and a free lunch any more: “Millennials want more than that. They want meaning.”

There has been “a convergence of work and personal life,” she said. “People are never really off so we have to address the whole person. And if we can help people, it helps employee retention. Anything that helps people personally has benefits that apply to the whole company.”

But for all the corporate talk, there was, at times, more than a touch of the Timothy Leary to the event.

“What is money?” asked Google’s Alfred Tolle, at one point. “It’s just a bunch of zeros.” And a significant proportion of the audience had already tuned in, turned on and dropped out. Participants included the former CEO of a Norwegian TV station, a former barrister, Neil Seligman, who now teaches lawyers at big City firms how to be more “conscious”. Friedhelm Boschert, former CEO of major European bank, Volksbank International, said that he used to do weekly Zen meditation with his top managers and is now teaching it to other bankers as part of something he calls “New Banking” - top-down old banking apparently having got us into the current financial mess.

Is it the start of the push back? Or simply corporate America’s latest initiative to bend the world to its will? “We don’t check people at the door,” said Soren Gordhamer.

“My work is to show up and be present for people who care. The only moment we ever have is right now. Life is more fulfilling when we show up without an agenda.”
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