2017 has been a wakeup call for many people in tech who’ve had to come to terms with some of the effects of the inventions that have made them millions—for example, how Russian agents used Facebook to try to manipulate voters before the 2016 election, and how white nationalists organized over social media for years before showing up with torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August.
But any guilt—over, say, the addictiveness of social media, or its algorithms’ perpetuation of racism, sexism, and online abuse—has not cut into the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley too much, as ex-techies are now moving to open retreat centers that specifically cater to people in the industry who are disturbed by the negative consequences of tech’s most successful products.
Take the Esalen Institute, an old hippie stomping ground in Big Sur, California, known for hosting yoga and meditation workshops, and which also has an incredible hot spring popular for offering free, open night hours. As reported in an illuminating New York Times piece on Monday, the property is now run by Ben Tauber, a former Google product engineer who became Esalen’s executive director in October, ushering in a new business plan tailored for disenchanted workers from Silicon Valley’s wealthy tech class, replete with classes on internet addiction, virtual reality, and the relationship between technology and depression. If all of that sounds almost kind of normal, there’s also a class called “Connect to Your Inner-Net,” taught by a Google brand marketer. Esalen charges Silicon Valley prices, too; a weekend for two can cost nearly $2,900.
“They wonder if they’re doing the right thing for humanity,” Tauber told the Times, referring to the rudderless tech workers he hopes to attract. “These are questions we can only answer behind closed doors.”
Got it: Techno-elites’ impulse after realizing their inventions haven’t necessarily made the world a better place is to partake in a particularly upper-crust form of self-care via a regimen designed specifically for people like them. This, of course, isn’t the only way people concerned with the pernicious effects of their own work can engage in some self-reflection and atonement. You can donate more of your considerable wealth—and even your time!—to underfunded nonprofits. Concerned techies are perfectly capable of even changing careers, opting to, say, teach computer science or ensure more equitable access to the industry where they earned their wealth.
Many who visit the revamped Esalen probably already do donate to causes they care about, and some may even be engaged directly with communities in need or advocates working to change broken systems. In the Times article, one of the workshops also had an affordable housing advocate and a nurse in attendance, which shows some level diversity beyond Tauber’s tech-executive target demo. It’s also very true that developing mediation and mindfulness practices can be extremely fulfilling, and provide much needed clarity to people struggling with depression or a lack of motivation.
But if the goal is for the tech elite to do some soul-searching and self-reflection after a year of endless bad press about the downsides of their inventions, gathering in a rather homogenous setting of other techies might not offer the most useful perspective. It seems far more likely that the Silicon Valley retreat-goers will leave ready to launch a new startup that’s supposed to be less bad rather than re-enter the world possessed by a deeper understanding of how the popular technologies they develop frequently hard-code social inequities and undermine democratic processes. Any critique of Silicon Valley that radical probably wouldn’t have kind words for the self-affirming care routine on display at Esalen. It might suggest, instead, that while workshopped self-reflection shouldn’t be discouraged, it’s not really a replacement for a sustained practice of activism or community care.