Dr. Jess Bier, who teaches urban sociology at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands, has published an excellent article arguing that Silicon Valley (SV) suffers from a skewed, uni-dimensional perspective of the world.
Bier notes that SV innovators seek to understand society — and its problems — through the narrow lens of technology. She rightly argues that technical knowledge is insufficient to comprehend the rich complexity of social structures and cultural norms, let alone decipher and resolve the big socio-economic problems we face today such as sexism, racism, inequality, etc.
I do believe Silicon Valley genuinely wants to build a better world. Yet, as Bier keenly observes, SV can’t solve today’s major socio-ecological issues with its skewed, techno-biased perspective. It needs to broaden its techno-centric worldview by enriching it with latest insights from social theory. In particular, SV needs to re-conceptualize and measure progress not in terms of MORE (new tech features in products) but BETTER (gender/racial/income equality and high quality of life for all). SV must learn to assess the value of innovation it generates in qualitative terms (positive social impact), rather than quantitative terms (IP and profit generated).
I believe, however, that understanding social theory — i.e., gaining richer knowledge and deeper insights about society — is necessary but insufficient to make Silicon Valley more socially-aware. We need more than knowledge to meaningfully contribute to society. We are not merely human THINKERS: we are human BEINGS. As such, we need a major shift in our “being-ness” (our sense of “self”) to overcome our alienating sense of separateness and viscerally feel we are an integral part of society. Only then we will be able to engage with society not as an “external thing” out there, but from the “inside out”.
As I discuss in my upcoming book, Conscious Society: Reinventing How We Consume, Work, and Live, it is only by RAISING OUR CONSCIOUSNESS — individually and collectively — could we expand our (self and social) awareness and subjectively experience the interconnectedness of all things. With a heightened consciousness, we become aware that we are not separate and disconnected from others and Nature; we realize “I am Society; I am Nature”. As we become more conscious, our sense of self (“I”) will vastly expand from the narrow confines of our ego and identification with a single race, sex, and religion to an all-inclusive Universal Self. Our dualistic perspective (which divides and polarizes the world into “men vs. women”, “christians vs. muslims”, “black vs. white”) evolves into an integral perspective that sees everyone and everything as part of an interdependent, interconnected web of life. The Other ceases to frighten you as you realize that Other is “a part of YOURSELF that you haven’t explored yet,” to quote Valarie Kaur, a social justice activist (watch her uplifting TED talk). The Unknown becomes less threatening as you become an inner-explorer and Adventurer of Consciousness (the Indiana Jones seeking the Holy Grail of Awareness!)
As we mature in our consciousness, our self-centered belief system and self-serving behavior will also evolve: rather than operate insecurely with a sense of scarcity and strive to always HAVE More (for oneself), we will feel inner-abundance and equanimity and endeavor to BE a Better Person who dedicates his/her life to serving others. As each person overcomes divisions inside him/her-self and experiences “wholeness” within, (s)he will feel empowered to restore wholeness in our deeply-fractured society.
The graphic below captures how, by raising its consciousness, SV could integrate technical knowledge and social awareness to build a better world. In doing so, it could evolve from a self-centered, techno-utopian SMART VALLEY to a WISE VALLEY which applies its incredible intelligence to serve the common good.
The good news is that mindfulness and other meditative practices are now gradually being adopted in SV. These are excellent tools to deepen and expand one’s consciousness. For instance, Google veteran engineer Chade-Meng Tan initiated and scaled up the highly successful Search Inside Yourself (SIY) mindfulness program within Google. In 2012, he launched the SIY Leadership Institute as an independent non-profit organization to teach people in public, private, and non-profit sectors how to cultivate compassion and wisdom so that they can create a better world for themselves and others. More than 20,000 people have taken the SIY program in over 100 cities.
Recently, my friend Simon Mulcahy, CMO at Salesforce, told me the newly-opened 61-story Salesforce Tower in San Francisco was designed with the guidance of Buddhist monks. Every employee floor in the tower has a meditation room known as “Mindfulness Zone”. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff meditates diligently and follows ardently the teachings of Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. I myself took up Vipassana (Buddhist insight meditation) in 2007 when I attended my first silent retreat at Spirit Rock. After 10 years of practice I can personally attest to the valuable mental and physical benefits of mindfulness.
Imagine this: instead of a “brain-storming” room in every floor, wouldn’t it be awesome if every SV office building had a “brain-quietening” room where employees can disconnect from iPhones and social media and (re)connect with THEMSELVES?! That would significantly raise the CQ (Consciousness Quotient) of Silicon Valley!
And there is Wisdom 2.0, an annual conference in San Francisco launched in 2009 by Soren Gordhamer that explores the intersection of wisdom and technology. This year alone, 3,000 participants from 75 countries will come to learn how to mindfully use technology so we can connect with each other meaningfully, enhance our well-being, and be effective in our work and useful to the world. Past speakers include the founders and CEOs of Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and eBay as well as teachers from different wisdom traditions such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, who popularized mindfulness in the US, and social justice activists like Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement.
Silicon Valley is facing growing criticism for being self-centered and disconnected from the real world. Ten years ago when I traveled to Europe and Asia, people were envious that I lived in Palo Alto. No more. Now they mockingly say: WHEN SILICON VALLEY INVENTS, THE WORLD GETS MORE EXPENSIVE AND USELESS GADGETS. As Silicon Valley evolves in consciousness, let’s hope the new global mantra would become: WHEN SILICON VALLEY MEDITATES, THE WORLD AWAKENS.
The term ‘innovation’ comes from the Latin ‘innovatus’ meaning ‘to renew or restore’. Silicon Valley could show humanity how to renew/restore our (spiritual) connection within ourselves, with others, and with Nature.
I am eager to hear from you: tell me what specific steps could SV take to raise its consciousness and build a better world?