Silicon Valley's Hypocritical Spirituality

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is the latest example of the tech industry exploiting Eastern religions.

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Jan 3 2018, 7:21pm

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Image: JD Lasica/Flickr

On January 1, as we marched into a new year hopeful and hungover, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey laid one on thick.

But his expression of performative spirituality came at the exact wrong time, the day before President Trump used Dorsey’s platform to send an especially harrowing threat to North Korea about US nuclear power.

Hours later, protesters in San Francisco were projecting messages of Dorsey’s complicity on the exterior of Twitter’s headquarters. This was the umpteenth time the Silicon Valley executive was accused of fostering an online culture and platform that has allowed abusive and violent language to thrive, while simultaneously and arbitrarily censoring other speech. In his tone deaf tweet about gratitude and meditation, the CEO of a company that facilitates and thrives on frivolous, toxic speech online was touting the benefits of silence.

The tech industry has embraced meditation and other mostly Eastern spiritual practices for decades now. Successful leaders like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson have openly espoused the importance of these practices in their careers, while Mark Zuckerberg and Jeffrey Skoll have traveled to an ashram in northern India to find their own dose of meaning.

But Dorsey’s tweet about a vipassana, the oldest Buddhist meditation practice, drives home a problem with this self-proclaimed nirvana-seeking population: Silicon Valley is exploiting age-old spiritual practices for the benefit of tech companies. And it’s in direct conflict with the actions of the people who are leading the industry.

Google, for example, promotes mindfulness and programs like Search Inside Yourself, which teaches employees self awareness and emotional intelligence, using techniques like—surprise—meditation. But Google employees have also complained of being overworked and unimaginably stressed. Replacing safer and healthier work standards with meditation is just a fancy way, it seems, of turning a industry-wide issue into an individual problem.

Silicon Valley is exploiting age-old spiritual practices for the benefit of tech companies.

The more tech seems to embrace spirituality, the higher the price tag on it becomes. Vipassana is traditionally offered by donation, and the retreats, if you can get a spot like Dorsey did, are technically available to everyone. But other popular getaways for the Silicon Valley crowd, like Esalen, a popular 50-year-old private retreat, can mean spending thousands of dollars, even if you bring your own sleeping bag.

Of course, the more tech companies promote meditation and spirituality, the more they also stand to gain from their own shiny version of superconsciousness, or highest spiritual potential. The meditation and mindfulness “industry” was worth $1 billion in 2015, according to Fortune, with dozens of meditation apps and services. And it’s only growing: former Twitter VP Ross Hoffman is now the chief business officer at Headspace, the biggest meditation app on the market. And Kevin Rose, tech investor and founder of Digg and Milk, announced his new meditation app, Oak, in October.

“It will be a great addition to the many other meditation apps you might be using today,” Rose wrote in a Medium post, acknowledging the redundancy. “I’ve learned through my studies of Zen, Vipassana, and Transcendental Meditation that it’s best to try different methods and choose the one that works best at that moment in time.”

Mindfulness, meditation, and yoga are not bad things. In fact, they are very good things. But to strip these practices of their context is to strip them of their power and authenticity. Vipassana on its own is one tiny part of Buddhism—there are other parts, like dharma, which loosely translates to duties and correct actions. If you want to get granular about it, it would appear that Jack Dorsey is shirking his duties by allowing for the proliferation of violence and hate speech on his platform.

Another important part of Buddhist teachings, and the foundation of various Eastern religions and spiritual practices, is sangha, or community. None of these practices are meant to be done in a silo. But Silicon Valley focuses on individualism, and promotes using meditation and mindfulness as a means of disruption, to get ahead, rather than collective growth.

It’s hard to watch a bunch of white dudes in one of the most affluent parts of the country, and possibly the world, cherry pick from ancient traditions and religions and claim they’ve found a new path. But it’s even harder to watch them use it as a distraction, a sort of spiritual bandage, while enabling actual abuse and negligence to happen on their watch.