Can the Soul Learn To Tweet ?

Can the Soul Learn To Tweet ? May 11, 2010

Recently, 88-year-old  comedienne Betty White hosted Saturday Night Live. What’s unusual here is not so much her age. Rather, she did so in response to a campaign mounted on Facebook.  In her opening monologue, she ribbed the popular online social network, reminiscing, “”When I was young we didn’t have Facebook, we had phone book — but you wouldn’t waste an afternoon with it.”

As for me, I’ve wondered how you can call it FaceBook when it doesn’t have chapters, much less page numbers. But I’m of a member of a transitional generation, of early adopters. Soon, such New Media will be as ubiquitous as water to a fish. This is a vital, key realm for mindful exploration, from time to time, as the Wheel turns.

This season, grist for the mill has arrived via a high-level, multi-disciplinary pow-wow addressing the interface of intelligent alertness & electronic media … contemplative living and computer use …mindfulness & being wireless … called Wisdom 2.0.  The symposia are over, but will soon available via video.  Meanwhile, we have this report filed by attendee Maia Duerr.  Maia is an anthropologist – writer – editor (and human being) who heads up Five Corners Consulting, providing strategic communications and qualitative research. Here’s her sharp report from the summit at Silicon Valley.

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After two rich days at Wisdom 2.0 in Mountain View, CA, I have piles of notes as well as hundreds of thoughts, experiences, and interactions to digest. I feel like I need some mental Pepto Bismol… I guess that’s kind of what meditation is.

Usually I’m the kind of writer who needs to agonize over a subject for days, weeks even, and keeps revising and revising until the words and flow are just right. This time, I’m going to jettison that instinct and give ya what I got right now… a series of impressions coming out of this conference. After all, a few of my brother/sister W 2.0 attendees have already put out their posts (namely One CityMindDeepSamantha Bell, Beth Kanter), so my ego tells me “Let’s go!” Otherwise it might be months before you see something.

♥ To my knowledge, this is the first major event to ever bring together these two seemingly different strands: technology (in particular social networking) and mindfulness. So right off the bat, this felt like history in the making.

And the kind of people drawn to W 2.0 were the same sorts of folks who would have shown up at that cornfield-turned-into-a-baseball-field in Iowa. You know, if you build it they will come. Many of us looked around the room in awe that there could be so many kindred souls in the same space… people who get a rush out of both tweeting and following our breaths. This doesn’t seem to happen often in our ‘real’ lives.

Huge gratitude goes to Soren Gordhamer who had the vision to see this intersection and create this event to manifest it.

♥ One big theme of the conference: Happiness is good business. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, is the lead singer of this movement, but he’s not the only one. I was impressed to hear how not only Zappos but Twitter, Google, Facebook, Whole Foods, and Samovar (a group of tea houses in San Francisco) place the physical and emotional wellbeing of their employees as a top priority, and are going about it in creative ways. Meng Tan, Google’s Jolly Good Fellow (that’s really his job title!), started up Google’s School of Personal Growth, and also told us about the free, local, organic food served in Google’s cafeteria.

When I was research director at the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society in 2003/2004, we started playing around with the idea of “Contemplative Organizations,” a concept that emerged out of the qualitative data we were analyzing at the time. These were organizations that used values often cultivated by contemplative practice as their guiding principles (e.g. reflection, interconnection), and they created ways to support this in the workplace, like meditation rooms. One of the companies we studied back then was Sounds True, whose founder Tami Simon was part of this conference.

But what’s happening now is that the scope of that idea has amplified greatly. Google, for example, has 10,000 employees. I had a real sense that a new paradigm of work and leadership is finally busting through, one based more in altruism than greed, leaving the old CEO image of Donald Trump in the dust. Some of that may be generational… I wonder if the 20- to 40-ish year-old generations have an easier time with integrating work and spirituality so that these don’t feel like two separate parts of life.

♥ Something I totally didn’t expect – learning how Twitter can actually support mindfulness and awareness. Greg Pass, Twitter’s Chief Technical Officer, gave a fascinating talk about the aesthetics of Twitter, as he experiences them. He related the art of writing and reading 140-character tweets to the points in a painting… individually they may not say or mean much, but if you follow the stream of tweets over time, you begin to see patterns and themes emerge, which evoke something more so than describe something. In essence, it activates and appeals to a different part of our brain than more ‘objective’ or descriptive essays might (my words, not his).

Greg also spoke poetically about Twitter as an invitation to experience a moment in time more deeply, to give “extraordinary attention” to something in our lives that might otherwise pass us by. Wow… never thought of it that way.

Chris Sacca, a smart-as-a-whip strategic advisor to a number of tech companies, talked about how he saw his email box as “a logjam” that interrupts his “flow and yet for him Twitter “just keeps flowing by…it’s ephemeral.” That quality of Twitter allowed him to dip into the stream of tweets when he could, to be more discerning about how he chose to spend his time and attention, and who he chooses to respond to.

♥ A number of people spoke about the usual divide between these two camps… spiritual folks often have an aversive reaction to social networking tools and technology in general. Roshi Joan Halifax broke that stereotype, talking about her appreciation of Facebook and her Blackberry. She also spoke of the “two ends of the stick” – and these are now my words again: Technology is neither inherently good nor bad. It has great capacity to connect us, to give us new modes of expression, to give us access to a wealth of information and resources, to mobilize us to action from compassion. And it can also lead to dissociation, to isolation.

This theme, too, came up repeatedly during the two days of W 2.0. Lots of people emphasized the importance of skillful means, of bringing the same quality of attention and thoughtful consideration to our decisions regarding how and when we use the social networking tools as we do to other parts of our life.

♥ Finally, one of the big takeaways for me:  I felt very grateful and inspired that at least some of the leaders at major companies like Twitter aspire to support awareness and engagement, in both their employees and the users of these technologies. And I had never thought of information and system design as a way to do this… but these guys are really thinking this through. This obviously doesn’t mean it’s always going to be used that way, but the aspiration is there.

There’s more, lots more, but that’s enough for now. History has been made.

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For further reading : Interview with Gopi Kallayil at Wisdom 2.0 and Is There an App for Happiness? at, As the Wheel Turns

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