Google-Phonics, Or, ‘What Is the Sound of a Thousand Tech Workers Meditating?’

On a wicked-cold Sunday morning early last month, I found myself running through the mostly-empty streets of downtown Boston on my way to a colleague’s presentation at the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies. A crumpled and wet street map in my hands, I stopped periodically at unfamiliar intersections to get my bearings and adjust my rain-proof hood. “What on Earth am I doing here?” I asked myself, thinking, “I could be home in bed reading with my daughter.” At that moment, I didn’t know that I’d soon be asking a pointed—perhaps indignant—question to Google’s in-house mindfulness guru, Chade-Meng Tan.

Arriving late at the Marriott Copley Place, I sat in the back of a seminar room and settled in for one of the few presentations that offered a critical analysis of corporate mindfulness programs. One slide referenced my own critique of the integrity bubbles that have come to characterize Silicon Valley’s spiritual meritocracy. The meditation rooms now commonplace in many corporate headquarters are like tiny bubbles in which small groups of high-powered employees experience a sense of work/life balance premised—wittingly or not—on the externalization of risk and suffering that is endemic to capital markets. From the perspective of socially engaged Buddhism, a key flaw in corporate mindfulness is its neglect of the relationship between personal and institutional suffering (or dukkha). The audience was both intrigued and challenged by such ideas. One attendee snapped photos of subsequent slides.

Quite unexpectedly, Google’s own Jolly Good Fellow walked into the room. Flashing a winning smile at the gathered attendees, he found a seat a couple of rows behind me. Now it was clear why I had run, sweating and disoriented, through the freezing rain toward the Marriott. Two days before, during my own presentation, I had displayed a screen shot from a now-viral video in which local activists from Oakland’s East Bay Meditation Center took to the stage at the Wisdom 2.0 conference, calling attention to the problems of gentrification precipitated by the growth of the tech industry in San Francisco. In the image, Meng sits cross-legged as the activists hold high a banner reading “Eviction-Free San Francisco.”

“For me,” I had explained, “this image represents a distinction that Martin Luther King, Jr. made during the height of the civil rights movement: that between the negative peace of complacency within an unjust system, and the positive peace that arises from non-violent resistance to the status quo.” Readily acknowledging that I was “picking on Meng,” I lamented that he was not present to engage the question of whether corporate mindfulness offered something beyond the negative peace of complacency.

Now he was.

As in any tradition, there is not one Buddhism—there are multiple Buddhisms competing for our attention or, if you like, multiple perspectives about what constitutes authentic Buddhist teaching. These tensions were palpable as discussion ensued after the presentation that Sunday morning. Another high-profile attendee asked for clarification about the concept of civic mindfulness, which had also come up during the presentation. Having posited the idea in my own work, I found myself called upon to explain. The crumpled street map still in my hand, I turned toward Meng.

“I was picking on you a little bit on Friday,” I said as nervous laughter erupted from some seated nearby. “One week early last June, you tweeted that you were in the movie Internship. Something else happened that week too. I posited this as a quiz to the audience on Friday, and no one remembered: that was the week that Ed Snowden’s NSA leaks appeared in the papers as he slipped off to an undisclosed location. It was clear that tech companies like Google were implicated in those leaks. This is not just about Snowden the person. It’s about the institutional frameworks that enabled the leaks—namely journalistic organizations—which are in a state of crisis while the tech industry is booming. These are systemic issues that personal mindfulness training ignores. This is what’s missing from the discussion. This is what I mean by calling for civic mindfulness.”

In Search Inside Yourself, Meng notes that when you cultivate mindfulness, “you don’t take action, action takes you.” Perhaps this is why I found myself jogging through the rain that morning. Action takes not only employees and executives, but activists and critics as well. It had taken Amanda Ream and Erin McElroy onto the stage at Wisdom 2.0, and the thought of their commitment goaded me on.

“Thanks for letting me pick on you a little bit,” I said afterwards as we shook hands. As a small group of us began to chat, Meng insisted that success in the marketplace is consistent with the pursuit of mindfulness. I objected, and raised the pointed question I had asked only rhetorically a couple of days before. “If mindfulness were to take root both inside and outside corporate culture,” I suggested, “we might move beyond market capitalism altogether and arrive in a world that is beyond Google. The key moment in the Buddha’s life is not just when he left the palace, but when he crossed the river and joined those who were underprivileged. So I’m wondering: What would it look like for you to cross the river?”

In reply, Meng explained that if Google ever faced a choice between the common good and the survival of the company, he would always advocate for the common good. It was a revealing answer: framing this choice in hypothetical terms implies that Google has yet to face it. It’s a choice that will rarely present itself in one consummate moment, however, but instead appears as a series of smaller decisions with cumulative effect.

Where was mindfulness, for example, when Google decided to subvert the privacy settings of iPhone users? Where was mindfulness when the Street View program ‘sniffed’ for open Wi-Fi connections and surreptitiously collected personal data from local residents? Where was mindfulness when the company decided to consolidate its user privacy policies against the better judgment of consumer groups and over thirty U.S. Attorneys General? Tellingly, none of these issues appear in Search Inside Yourself. They are blind spots within a corporate-friendly version of Buddhist philosophy.

Meng’s version of mindfulness ignores institutional dukkha in favor of a myopic focus on personal stress reduction and interpersonal empathy. Indeed, elsewhere Meng has suggested that Google and other tech companies can streamline mindfulness practice by developing Fitbit-style apps that would allow users to calm their minds more quickly—a development that he says would not only be “good for your career” but would also make customers “happy to spend more money.”

This vision is consistent with Silicon Valley’s utopian view of ‘smart’ gadgets as ever-more-efficient catalysts for the achievement of human virtue. In fact, it is part of a broader ideology that posits information technology as the route to social and spiritual salvation. Yet it is a route that becomes ever-more-perilous to travel as those blind spots multiply over time.

Call it Google-phonics. It’s a term presciently coined years ago by another famous Jolly Good Fellow—none other than comedian-turned-banjo-virtuoso Steve Martin. On a track by that name off his 1979 album Comedy is Not Pretty, Martin mockingly plays the role of a gadget-happy free-spender in search of the perfect sound system. “I bought a stereo. Wow—two speakers. Wild!” It was great for about a month, he says, until he heard the four-speaker “quad” system. “So I got rid of the stereo and got the quad. And this was the sound I was looking for. So I listened to it a couple of days and I said ‘Hey, this sounds like shit.’” He switches to the dodeca-phonic system, with twelve speakers. “But the ear gets sophisticated pretty fast,” he explains, so he upgrades to the milli-phonic system—a thousand speakers—until this also fails to please.

“So finally I got the googlephonic—the highest number of speakers before infinity.” He pauses dramatically before adding finally, “Sounds like shit.” In classic Martin style, he waits for the laughter to die down before adding the final punchline: “So I said, ‘Hey, maybe it’s the needle!’”

The metaphor is apt. The gurus of Silicon Valley tout the benefits of exponential increases in the processing power of hand-held devices and cloud systems, while customers camp out for days to be the first to bring their trophy home. Yet satisfaction fails to abound—especially for the unseen victims lost in the blind spots of techno-utopian ideology. Devices and cloud networks are poised to collect reams of data, but they toss lower-class users into marketing categories that are tantamount to waste bins. Markets expand while the voices of underpaid workers remain unacknowledged and unheard.

In the digital age free-market ideology is a low-fi needle that fails to amplify all voices—listen closely for a while and it starts to sound like shit.

Busy and in-demand, Meng was generous with his time but soon had to leave our post-presentation chat session. Before saying a final goodbye, he asked if we wanted to know his “real goal.”

Recalling Meng’s previous speeches and blog entries, a colleague chimed in: “World peace?”

“That’s the low bar,” Meng explained. Grasping a nearby hand, he confided that his real goal is to “democratize enlightenment”—not through boots-on-the-ground activism, of course, but through a proliferation of wearable gadgets and prohibitively expensive mindfulness seminars. Acknowledging the concerns raised that morning, he emphasized his sincere commitment to expanding his approach by including a greater emphasis on compassion. In a low voice he said, “Let me know if I fuck up.”

I flashed Meng a wry smile and said, “You’re on.”