Can Tech Become Ethical, If It Learns to Be Mindful First?

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No matter how recent advances many tech companies have made for humanity, they have also wreaked havoc on our world, from screen addiction to social fragmentation to a depressing sense of isolation. Conflicted tech workers are starting to face the fact that Big Tech hasn’t simply bettered the world, and some are seeking spirituality, psychedelics, meditation, and mindfulness to reconcile this with their traditional notions of success. For The New Yorker, Andrew Marantz examines what he calls “Silicon Valley’s Crisis of Conscience.” Silicon Valley has earned our skepticism, and it’s tempting to dismiss this soul-seeking as PR or another passing trend, like open offices or those little fold-up commuter bikes. “But ultimately if a handful of people have this much power,” asks Esalen institute’s past C.E.O. Ben Tauber, “then, isn’t that worth a shot?” Maybe. So what’s this all look like?

Near the end of a placid April morning in San Francisco, a nonprofit called the Center for Humane Technology convened more than three hundred people in a midsized amphitheatre named SFJAZZ—co-founders of Pinterest and Craigslist and Apple, vice-presidents at Google and Facebook, several prominent venture capitalists, and many people whose job titles were “storyteller” or “human-experience engineer.” One attendee was Aden Van Noppen, who carried a notebook with a decal that read, “Move Purposefully and Fix Things.” She worked on tech policy in Barack Obama’s White House, then did a fellowship at Harvard Divinity School, and now runs Mobius, a Bay Area organization dedicated to “putting our well-being at the center of technology.” “The Valley right now is like a patient who’s just received a grave diagnosis,” she said. “There’s a type of person who reacts to that by staying in deflect-and-deny mode—‘How do we prevent anyone from knowing we’re sick?’ Then, there’s the type who wants to treat the symptoms, quickly and superficially, in the hope that the illness just goes away on its own. And there’s a third group, that wants to find a cure.” The audience at SFJAZZ comprised the third group—the concerned citizens of Silicon Valley.

Before the presentation, Van Noppen hosted a breakfast for a few members of the audience, including Justin Rosenstein, a former Facebook employee and a co-inventor of the Like button, and Chris Messina, a former Google employee and the inventor of the hashtag. Messina wore a polo shirt, revealing a tattoo on each arm: a hashtag on the right, a Burning Man logo on the left. “It’s not nearly widespread enough yet,” he said, of the industry’s capacity for self-critique. “But even to get a group of people together like this and publicly acknowledge the depth of the problem? That would have been impossible a few years ago.”

“A few months ago,” Rosenstein said.

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