Artwork by Sophia Chang.
Artwork by Sophia Chang.

Outside a conference on mindfulness for the Silicon Valley crowd stood a corkboard and a pad of yellow Post-it Notes. There, in keeping with the conference’s “Wisdom 2.0” name and theme, attendees were invited to write down their thoughts on creating a “global wisdom culture.” There were 50 or 60 suggestions on the board, mostly for things like online platforms to encourage “lateral communication.” But something was missing, I thought. I grabbed a pen, tore off a Post-it, and added a word that was conspicuously absent from the board: Wisdom.

I know: It might seem like a cheap shot. It’s just that, well, even the very name of the conference seemed off somehow. In the tech world, “2.0” is used to note a newer, better version of the original product. Upgrading the world’s wisdom teachings is a pretty heady ambition. Maybe an inflated sense of self-importance is simply to be expected when an executive from one of the organization’s corporate sponsors, himself a speaker at the event, says things like “Wisdom 2.0 is, quite possibly, the most important gathering of our times.”

Really? The most important gathering of our times? Not the Yalta Conference, or Nixon in China, or the UN Special Session on Nuclear Disarmament? Can’t we at least give the Kyoto talks on the environment an honorable mention?

There’s a revolutionary, fast-paced, and transformative wave sweeping through the elite cultures of the 21st century—but it’s not what its boosters think it is. It’s a wave not of technology but of narcissism, and it’s cresting at the intersection of wealth, corporate power, and guilt, as the rich and wannabe rich nourish their acquisitive drives with expressions of self-love. The third annual Wisdom 2.0 conference was suffused with the same self-satisfied glow that’s found at corporate feel-good events like the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting, events where powerful and wealthy elites come to network, schmooze, and congratulate themselves on their own generosity and understanding. Every other presentation at the Clinton gathering seemed to feature images of impoverished African children dancing in water from their village’s new well, while almost entirely missing was any discussion of the role some of the corporations represented there played in creating that poverty.

The Wisdom 2.0 conference provided the same kind of balm for the corporate conscience, but in a different way. While there were some excellent speakers, too many presentations merely offered purveyors of frequently mindless online pastimes the chance to convince themselves that they’re really promoting mindfulness.

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