Why Google Protesters Were Right To Disrupt Wisdom 2.0
They say you can’t be neutral on a moving train.
So can you be mindful on a Google bus?
This weekend, as three Google presenters took the stage to discuss mindfulness and tech at the annual Wisdom 2.0 conference, they found themselves interrupted by a handful of protesters unfurling a large banner.
EVICTION FREE SAN FRANCISCO, the canvas said.
Shouting into a bullhorn, one protester (conspicuously less mellow than the others) began to chant:
“Wisdom means stop displacement!”
“Wisdom means stop surveillance!”
“San Francisco’s not for sale!”
After the protesters were yanked off stage by security, the Google presenters tried to recenter. “Check in with your body and see what’s happening. What it’s like to be around conflict with people with heartfelt ideas, that may be different than what we’re thinking.”
Sound advice, yes — very wise. And yet, something is missing.
What’s Not Present?
Something similar was missing, too, back in 2010 when I attended the first Wisdom 2.0 conference. All the talk about kindness, happiness, and well being (with twin values of creativity, productivity, and profitability) focused on the users and innovators of technology. There was never any mention of the people who manufacture the gadgets that techies then outfit with meditation bell apps. What about the mindfulness, happiness, and well being of the people mining coltan in the DRC, or the people assembling iPhones at the infamous Foxconn sweatshops?
I mean, if we exclude them from the picture, then yes, we can calmly check in with our bodies. Things look very mindful and peaceful. Very reasonable, polite, and progressive.
But such deep exclusion invites deep delusion. Something important is missing. Entire groups of relevant people are cut out of the conversation altogether.
The fact is that waves of gentrification have pushed thousands of low-income, disproportionately Black & Brown residents out of San Francisco, and now the city is courting wealthy tech companies (like the ones at Wisdom 2.0) to move in.
Are we just going to ignore the people who are being displaced? Act like we don’t know about this history?
Are we going to pretend that there’s nothing we can do about it?
Hopefully, our friends with the banners won’t let us.
The Tech Bubble
On one hand, of course you can be mindful on a Google bus. You can be mindful anywhere — that’s the point. It’s uber-portable spiritual technology.
And you might be mindful of your sensations, your stress levels, your breath. But are you mindful of the ways in which your presence is changing a neighborhood, a region?
I agree with critics who maintain that the tech buses and their riders are not the cause of gentrification, but more of a symptom. Ultimate accountability lies elsewhere. As Al Jazeera America writer Alexandra Goldman notes, the larger issue is that “many of San Francisco’s policy makers are more invested in pandering to the tech industry than in protecting low-income San Franciscans.”
Still, the buses as vehicles also reinforce the insulation and isolation of their passengers. As Allison Arieff pointed out in the New York Times, the overall Google-dome approach to urban planning tends to reinforce the shielding mechanism that allows a blank-slate mentality to flourish among techie newcomers. As though nothing significant were here before you arrived. As though all that matters is what you are creating afresh. (Or discovering on Yelp.)
This is not true mindfulness. It’s selective awareness, optimized for pleasure.
In other words, ignorance.
And the problem is not just ignorance itself (though of course the irony of Oblivious Geniuses is part of what’s making this story go global). The problem is the consequences of this ignorance on the lives of working-class people. Because, like a transit version of the observer effect, these buses transform the city even as they traverse it. Research indicates that “rents within the walkable zones [of Google shuttle stops] rose up to 20 percent more rapidly than rents outside the walkable zones.” (And the median rent rose 12.3% in the past year.)
The Google buses may be sparing the air, but they’re also raising the rent — to prices that many long-time residents simply can’t afford. Hence the banner, the chants, the insistent disturbance. San Francisco is not for sale.
At least, we do not have to conceive of it that way. We have some choices here.
And that’s why I’m grateful to these protesters for disrupting the status quo, offering us the opportunity to rethink, reframe, and re-center. Especially re-centering the people excluded and minimized from the picture.
What if SF tech workers actually took up
the challenge of the Wisdom 2.0 protesters,
and redefined wisdom to include social justice?
What if wisdom did mean stopping evictions: from joining eviction protests & blockades to strengthening rent control policies? (For beautiful data renderings of an ugly history of displacement, check out this map and timeline of the Ellis Act.)
What if wisdom meant donating all income after $80,000 to a strike fund for victims of wage theft — a problem rampant in the service economy? (Seattle’s new Socialist city councilmember provides a ready example, giving away HALF her income to strengthen local struggles and live more like the average worker.)
What if wisdom meant organizing your co-workers to demand that your company pay in to SF’s public services, refusing tax breaks and instead investing in the well-being of all city residents — especially queer youth, folks on the street, and other oppressed and marginalized groups?
What if wisdom meant using some of your $100,000-a-year, intellectual-worker salary to keep Marcus Books, the nation’s oldest Black bookstore, from being priced out of its own space in the historic Fillmore District?
What if wisdom meant stopping deportations of the undocumented and increasingly unafraid immigrant community (some members of which are almost certainly cooking your food and cleaning your buildings)?
What if wisdom meant countering capitalist-driven gentrification with a demand for the collective Right to the City, and democratic forms of community development?
What if tech wisdom had less to do with sparkle…
…and more to do with redistributing wealth & power in one of the nation’s most expensive cities?
What if mindfulness enhanced not only our personal well being…
…but also our attunement to the collective well-being?
I see from the Wisdom 2.0 web site that they also had some sessions on corporate responsibility, social change, etc. So who knows — maybe someone at the conference proposed the above ideas, or similar ones. (Let me know!)
Where I am certain is that you BPFers have other, brilliant ideas for re-centering wisdom to include social justice: in San Francisco, or in your own town. And some may have disagreements or corrections on what I got wrong.
Regardless, let’s hear ’em! And let’s keep up the compassionate confrontation.