A tale of corporate mindfulness and modern-day exploitation
Martha had once been chief legal officer of Social Media Corp, a social networking leader. She’d worked side-by-side with the founders and been one of the ‘family.’ For five years she’d enabled the very behavior of which, today, she stood in court and accused them.
In an unequivocal voice she declared, “Just because they provide the pipeline through which user information is delivered does not entitle them to use that information, either directly or indirectly. Even though users check a disclaimer and acknowledge the company’s access to their personal data, they are still protected by the privacy laws of their country. The users of SM Corp can join for ‘free,’ but they nonetheless pay an unwitting — and illegal — cost.”
The defendants felt betrayed by their former colleague. They’d built a bright, progressive company that everyone wanted to work for. They were generous to employees and encouraged their creativity, letting them explore and sometimes fail. They provided a relaxed, high-tech workspace filled with wholesome, free food and beverages. They offered the best health coverage money could buy and a host of wellness options, including mindfulness training.
Which is where it all began.
Mindfulness put her in touch not only with her stress
and reactivity but also with her ethical footprint through life
Martha loved her job. At any rate, she was excited about ‘creating new realities,’ as the slogan went. She enjoyed welcoming visitors into her bright office and talking confidently about the future. She loved being at the forefront of her generation, of working with the brightest minds around.
Still, the job was tricky. Getting people to sign up for a free account was one thing; Turning their aggregated data into a revenue stream — a legal one, that is — straddled a fine line.
Martha’s job was to make sure SM Corp didn’t cross it. In the early days, she was sometimes the only naysayer in a room of inspired engineers, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ She shocked them, but knew how to deliver the news. They respected her.
In return, she knew they weren’t greedy; they didn’t drive fancy cars or live ostentatiously. Out there on the leading edge things just got a little giddy, even electric. Sometimes she ended up just as frazzled as the front-line coders. That’s why she lobbied for the mindfulness class. She read in Time how all the big companies were using it to augment their employees’ health, creativity and productivity.
She took to it like a duck to water. It clarified her thinking and helped her center herself when she felt overwhelmed. She learned the power of silence, to watch what was going on without judgment and to shift the burden of communication from speaking to listening. Things began to change at home too, where she and her husband juggled intense professional lives with parenting their two children. She experienced moments of peace and clarity, and wanted more.
Martha wasn’t interested in religion, but she was intrigued to learn that this modern scientific practice was rooted in an ancient tradition. She signed up for an online Buddhism course and discovered that there was more — much more. Focused attention was just one element. Mindfulness helped her see into herself, but in all that raw data there were patterns to discern, and insights. From those emerged a desire to grow — but in what direction? This, Martha believed, was the essence of ethics.
Without even realizing it, she’d distanced herself one small step
at a time from what mattered to her more than anything else.
Ethics was why she’d become a lawyer in the first place — naively as it turned out; law wasn’t the same thing at all. But she’d invested in school, then in her career, and did what she had to do. There wasn’t much time to think. Without even realizing it, she’d distanced herself one small step at a time from what had once mattered to her more than anything else.
Her mindfulness practice put her back in touch with the thoughtful space in which those thoughts had originally germinated. She contemplated all the small steps, mulled over the compromises of the last five years and questioned her integrity.
Which was what, exactly? Was it just behaving in ways that were acceptable to others? She always felt that was a cop-out. Where was the dignity in that? With her new clarity she saw that integrity meant to become complete in her own eyes. Mindfulness had put her in touch not only with her stress and reactivity but also with her ethical footprint through life. What mattered most was what she was passing on to her children, not through words and ideas but as a role-model, through her behavior.
Martha turned to her parents. They were proud of her success, but had never been as impressed by her employers as Martha. They’d raised her to make the world a better place, and considered social networking a step backward. Martha never argued with them — they were from another time after all — but one day she read in a book review that Google was, “in the business of distraction.”¹
Distraction wasn’t simply an unfortunate side-
effect of social networking. It was the point.
That stopped her in her tracks. She’d been noticing how automatically she reacted to the twitches of her smart phone; how often she turned to technology for momentary distraction; how her attention was increasingly fragmented. She also noticed that, for her colleagues, ‘good’ meant good engineering, and technical progress was precisely equivalent to social progress. It was as if humanity was heading for tech heaven, and they were the priests. Cults were usually fringe groups, but this was mainstream, addictive and, she furrowed her brow — destructive.
She was shocked by her insight. There’d be a price to pay, and she laughed uneasily at the irony. Mindfulness helped her colleagues focus on fragmenting their users’ attention. The more often a user clicked, the more money the company made. Distraction wasn’t simply an unfortunate side effect of social networking. It was the point.
The other side of that irony was that the simple pursuit of inner peace had turned Martha’s life inside out. Here she was in exactly the job she’d worked so hard for, only to find it unconscionable.
Cautiously, she probed colleagues in search of allies. She expected resistance but it was worse than that. They were insulted by her accusations.
“Accusation?” she protested. “I didn’t mean to….”
But the look in their eyes was unmistakable. She’d positioned herself beyond the pale. For them, the company was on the leading edge of a new wave. They were transforming the world, empowering people, creating wealth. What was not to like? Mindfulness was personally helpful and great PR, but it was there to support their work, not to challenge it.
Martha began to feel weirdly introverted, afraid she might be too wrapped up in herself, but the shift in her perception was irreversible. She couldn’t account for why mindfulness had pushed her and her co-meditators to such opposite poles, but she hadn’t felt this sure of herself since college. There was no doubt: mindfulness was growing her integrity; the job was compromising it.
Her parents were supportive; a little nervous for her future but proud to see Martha make sacrifices for what she believed in. They talked into the night about how things used to be. Through their eyes, Martha saw more clearly the challenges of the future. There was no reversing the technology, but the notion that society would be steered merely by what was technically possible was disturbing. To her colleagues, a new ethics, society, politics and economics would emerge naturally in the digital age, not the other way round. Something was wrong with a picture in which users were the product and the corporation owed them nothing.
Once her mind was made up, Martha’s resignation wasn’t the bitter pill she feared. She felt empowered, primed to follow her passion. As she reoriented herself in the following weeks, she came across this challenge from a neo-Buddhist blog site, and pasted it on her wall:
“Does your mindfulness practice penetrate deep into your subconscious to uproot narcissism, greed and confusion; or, does it leave you feeling serene and unquestioning? Is it a tool for unflinching self-discovery; or, is it a way to become the nice person you always wanted to be? Does it reveal life’s ultimate groundlessness; or, does it console you with imaginary certainties?
Martha joined an activist group that lobbied for digital privacy. Meanwhile, the corporation continued its mindfulness classes. On the whole, they made employees happy and boosted the bottom line. As far as they were concerned, Martha was just weird — an aberration.
Martha turned to the jury and showed, as only an insider could show, just how the corporation used its users, offering them a free service that actually cost them their privacy; providing information without cultivating intelligence, creating a hive mind rather than a community of the self-reliant, making people less contemplative, more easily overwhelmed and increasingly distracted.
“Distraction,” she raised her voice, “is their ultimate goal.”
The judge removed his glasses and locked eyes with Martha. She had his undivided attention.
¹ The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr