Hordes of oglers by the 3-D printers. A media mob around 50 Cent and his me-too headphones. Ad hoc TED-style talks. Dishwashers that tweet. Acrobats.
Walking the floor of last month’s Consumer Electronics Show was like wandering a Turkish bazaar. Only busier. I finally found an oasis of peace and quiet in a $7,000 massage chair (that nearly put me to sleep). And then, later, within the solitary, white plastic igloo in the middle of the exhibition floor.
I am seated inside that inflatable tent. The door is zipped closed. A wraparound headband is fitted across my temples. I am handed an iPad, my brain waves undulating on the screen.
A male, Siri-inflected voice commands me to imagine as many countries as I can in 30 seconds. When the device is calibrated, I am directed to close my eyes, slow my breathing, and…imagine nothing. When my thoughts deviate, I hear thunder and storms from the iPad. When I am serene–and, rarely, I am not–I hear birds chirping, the sound of a trickling brook.
The Muse, invented by the Toronto-based InteraXon and available to consumers this year, could be big. I say that because the crusade for quietude has suddenly become a public fixation. A cause. Is this Susan Cain’s doing? Maybe. “Mindfulness” made a February cover of Time–a lengthy piece that looks at how to mitigate stress in an age when virtual and literal reality vie for attention. The idea of mindfulness (in one case, brought to you by Goldie Hawn) also figured prominently at the 2014 World Economic Forum.
“Only two years ago, mindfulness and mindful leadership were discussed at Davos for the first time. Since then, almost all of the mindfulness-related events there have been oversubscribed,” wrote Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at MIT, on the Huffington Post. This year at least 25 sessions in Davos were dedicated to wellness and the adverse impact of technology on the human brain.
The Holy Grail of modernity, then, may just be serenity. The Muse and other mediation apps, like Get Some Headspace, are evidence that entrepreneurs are turning their talents toward bringing humanity into balance with the “Self.”
What does this mean for the youngest, wealthiest generation of entrepreneurs that this country has ever seen? For one thing, a market opportunity. From Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskowitz’s productivity company Asana, which lists “reason balanced with intuition” and “balance” in its top three values, to “neural self-hacking” at Google, to fresh takes on long form journalism, we are now deeply in the mindful mogul era. Look around at all the meditating, unplugging, chia seed-chomping masters of enterprise and it seems only a matter of time before the new hot yoga move is Downward Facing Alpha Dogs.
“I love what I do because ideas can change the world,” says Chris Hughes, publisher and editor-in-chief of The New Republic. “We reach over 3 million people in any given month. That kind of reach…it’s an immense opportunity to really have an impact.”
Hughes, 31, whose net worth skyrocketed with the Facebook IPO, could have done anything with his fortune. Instead, he bought The New Republic in 2012–when print media was already in a free-fall, including the circulation of TNR, which had plummeted by nearly 50% and 50,000 from 2000 to 2009.
Buying a declining media asset–at least by circulation standards–took some bravado. Hughes was prescient in his reasoning: the cultural deficit of longer, more thought provoking journalism.
Hughes’ rationale for taking over the venerable publication has everything to do with being a countervailing force for the life of the mind amid the din of devices. “There is a strong group of people who value getting past headlines and the hype of news cycles, spending more time with an issue,” says Hughes, who just finished reading Mark Edmundon’s book, Why Read?–an impassioned treatise in defense of the humanities and the transformational promise of literature.
“The top traffic pieces in 2013 for us, half of them are long-form, thought-provoking, carefully articulated pieces. That’s the kind of journalism that I want us to do here,” says Hughes.
In the time of Snapchat, a focus on permanence seems a Sisyphean task.
The idea that ubiquitous technology is rewiring the human brain is well publicized. We are so overburdened with terabytes of input that, it might be said, we experience mere pixels of reality. We may never read Plato’s Republic, but–fear not!–there is a Wikipedia summary of it, and a tidy two-minute video lurking on YouTube that explains it.
The contemporary yearning for lasting happiness should not be confused with the unlimited freedom in the choice of pleasures, which Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident who believed Western society was in the midst of a spiritual decay, warned against in his famous 1978 Harvard commencement address:
If humanism were right in declaring that man is born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.
Entrepreneurs like Hughes and Evan Williams seem to embody a new generation of Tech Humanists. Their contributions transcend the trendiness of workplace yoga and mindfulness retreats. They are building a kind of virtual monastery for the mind, a retreat from the everyday strains of the modern world.
“In the early days, I bought into the idea that the Internet would lead to a better world, that the truth was out there and that we didn’t need gatekeepers,” Williams, 41, told the New York Times, in a profile on him late last year. Whereas he, and others who formed Twitter, had believed technology could transform society, “now,” he continued, “I think it’s more complicated than that.”
Williams, whose new venture, Medium, holds nature walks and meditation sessions for employees, is onto something. Cultural evidence of a desire to unplug exists in unusual places. Yoga has grown from a $3 billion industry in 2006 to a $10.3 billion industry today. The Wisdom 2.0 Conference–sold out–is a kind of Davos for secular consciousness and Tech Humanism. The San Francisco event this year features speakers like philosopher Eckhart Tolle, an 88 year-old Benedictine monk, and Zen priestess Roshi Joan Halifax, who has worked closely with the Dalai Lama.
Buddhist values are seeping into the way Tech Humanists are reshaping the realm of philanthropy. Catchafire–a crowdsourcing platform that pairs top, pro bono talent with non-profits–is an example of social philanthropy powered by technology.
“I love what I do because it helps me be the person I want to be,” says Rachael Chong, Catchafire’s 31-year-old founder and CEO, who quit her job as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs to start her venture. Since launching in 2009, Chong says Catchafire has already connected working professionals to over 1,000 non-profits across 1,600 projects.
Chong’s passion for social change, she recalls, began when she was 8, living in Beijing in the early 1990s, just a few years after the Tiananmen Square protests. “The poverty was like something you would see in Bangladesh,” she says. Starving children formed beggar rings. The mentally ill ran naked in the streets.
“When you see these things, it makes you aware how much luck plays a role in who you are, where you are born. It takes empathy to do good, to want to change the world in a significant way,” says Chong, who speaks of growing empathy as some speak of building revenue. Empathy is, in fact, a business pillar for Chong, whose team has perfected an elaborate interview process to root out the most qualified applicant–and the most empathetic.
Empathy and enlightenment are even on display at Google: Thousands of employees are taking in-house Buddhist mediation courses at the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. Others are on a waiting list for classes like “Neural Self-Hacking” and “Managing Your Energy.”
If it’s quietude and thoughtfulness that some are after, Williams’ Medium is a prime example of the cultural revanchism of the Tech Humanists. A counterpoint to the 140-character attention span, Medium, which just raised $25 million in funding, is a communal blog with a well-regarded long-form section. It’s a business venture essential aimed at the general public’s urge to write and think.
Is this starry-eyed? Not exactly. While newspapers watch their business models dissolve, subscriptions for the erudite The New Yorker have held steady. The readership for the highbrow literary journal, The Paris Review, has tripled in recent years.
The new Tech Humanists are not without historical peers in their mission to revive the arts. The Medicis, the Bloomberg billionaires of their time, bankrolled Florence’s artistic Renaissance, the world’s greatest artists, like Leonardo da Vinci, and some of its architectural masterpieces, such as the icon of the Florentine skyline, Il Duomo.
Yet, it’s hard to confuse Chris Hughes with Michael Bloomberg. This Rococo profile in The New York Times chronicling Bloomberg’s future European seat of power–his sprawling, eponymous complex in London’s Kensington Gardens–is a piece we’ll likely never see about TNR’s publisher 40 years from now.
Hughes has managed to build TNR’s readership, publishing long, literary non-fiction, while eschewing the trappings that have ensnared rival publications. He has turned down many offers to host parties at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner (which Bloomberg fell prey to a few years ago). “Our DNA is that we have been around 100 years, and hopefully will be for another 100 years,” Hughes says.
As Silicon Valley struggles with the public’s growing perception that the center of innovation may be doing more evil than good, it could enjoy a Renaissance of its own by modeling itself after the business asceticism of Hughes, and a focus on slowing down to make a lasting impact.
“Belonging,” Hughes says, “is much more important to me than a snazzy party.”