Silicon Valley’s Crisis of Conscience


The New Yorker | August 19, 2019

Silicon Valley is reckoning with the effects of its technology. Is this evidence of deep introspection, or of canny P.R.?
Illustration by Nick Little

There are two kinds of people: those who know nothing about Esalen and those who purport to know everything about it. To find out which kind of person you’re talking to, simply utter the three syllables (stress on the first, slant-rhyme with “mescaline”) and wait. In response, you’ll get either an uncomprehending stare or an effusion of tall tales. Have you heard the one about the poet and the astrophysicist who met in the Esalen hot springs and eloped the next week? How about the accountant who visited for the weekend, cured his depression with a single dose of ketamine, and became a Zen monk? The secret full-moon dance parties? The billionaire-C.E.O. sightings? “This isn’t a place,” a staffer told me while rolling a joint on a piece of rough-hewn garden furniture. “It’s a diaspora, a guiding light out of our collective darkness, an arrow pointing us toward the best way to be fully human.”

To be clear, it is also a place: twenty-seven acres of Big Sur coastline, laid out lengthwise between California Route 1 and the Pacific, a dazzling three-hour drive south of San Francisco. Its full name is the Esalen Institute—a tax-exempt nonprofit, founded in 1962. All visitors must announce themselves at the gatehouse, where a staffer wearing performance fleece is likely to dispense a Northern Californian bundle of mixed messages: Namaste, the light within me bows to the light within you, let me confirm that we’ve received your credit-card deposit and then I’ll point you to your cabin and/or Tesla Supercharger. There’s a redwood dining hall, appointed in the ascetic-chic style; there are pine groves and an organic vegetable farm; there are yoga studios and massage tables and a wrought-iron fire pit; there’s a warren of hot tubs fed by sulfurous underground springs, so when the wind shifts in a northerly direction, the ambient aroma of lavender and patchouli sometimes takes on a middle note of rotten eggs.

The iconic image of Esalen is of its central lawn, as brilliant as an emerald, ringed by oceanside cliffs. This is where, in the sixties, Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary facilitated sessions of “drug-induced mysticism”; where the psychotherapist Fritz Perls led “Gestalt workshops,” often involving crying and primal screams; where Joni Mitchell sang “Get Together” and Ravi Shankargave George Harrison a sitar lesson. Esalen’s co-founders, Dick Price and Michael Murphy, were Stanford grads turned spiritual seekers. (Both came from families of means; Esalen was built on land that was owned by Murphy’s grandmother.) They described their venture as “a laboratory for new thought”—an independent think tank for the counterculture. Even later, as much of the country acquiesced to the greed-is-good eighties and the end-of-history nineties, Esalen clung to its exceptionalist vibe. The world was awry, and Esalen wanted to help bring it into alignment. “Our whole intention was, and still is, to allow people to get out of their inherited orthodoxies and into the business of discovering truth,” Murphy, who is eighty-eight, told me recently. “That could be an individual’s psychological truth, or a timeless spiritual truth, or the ethical truth of how we ought to behave in society.”

Still, some orthodoxies went largely unquestioned. Esalenites, for all their comfort with sex and drugs and ecstatic encounters with the divine, were less comfortable talking about politics or money, or the politics of money—that is, about their fraught relationship with capitalism. In practice, the institute largely functioned as a retreat center for the wealthy. A weekend of room and board now costs four hundred and twenty dollars, and that’s if you’ve brought your own sleeping bag; the higher-end accommodations cost around three thousand dollars. (There are also scholarships, and a work-study program.) Another iconic image of Esalen is a fictional one: the final scene of “Mad Men.” Don Draper sits, cross-legged and ill at ease, on the Esalen lawn. He closes his eyes, relaxes, and smiles. Has he achieved satori? Not even close. He has used his mental clarity to think up a new way to sell sugar water.

There are many upscale New Age retreat centers (Kripalu, in Massachusetts; Feathered Pipe Ranch, in Montana) where stressed-out executives can spend restorative weekends before returning to work with looser hip flexors and a clearer conscience. But Esalen is just outside Silicon Valley, so the executives who visit it have come from the likes of Intel and Xerox parc—and, more recently, from Apple and Google and Twitter. Esalen’s board of trustees has included an early Facebook employee, a Google alumnus, and a former Airbnb executive. Presumably, had there been such conspicuous overlap between a countercultural think tank and captains of any other industry—fast food, say, or clean coal—there would have been an outcry, or at least some pointed questions. But Big Tech was supposed to be different. It was supposed to make the world a better place.

Then came Brexit, the 2016 election, and the Great Tech Backlash. “Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook,” a headline in New York declared. A law professor at Stanford published a paper that asked, “Can Democracy Survive the Internet?” Suddenly, a board with several Silicon Valley executives didn’t seem entirely unlike a board with several Atlantic City casino bosses. Even after it became apparent that Facebook posts were fuelling the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, the company dithered for months before taking decisive action. Clearly, all was not in alignment.

Esalen seemed perfectly positioned to help. In 2017, the institute’s C.E.O. was Ben Tauber, a thirty-four-year-old former project manager at Google. “There’s a dawning consciousness emerging in Silicon Valley as people recognize that their conventional success isn’t necessarily making the world a better place,” he told the Times. “The C.E.O.s, inside they’re hurting. They can’t sleep at night.” If the tech tycoons were already going to Esalen for ethical and spiritual guidance, then perhaps Esalen could guide them toward a less rapacious business model. “How do we scale our impact as an organization?” Tauber continued. “We do it through impacting the influencers.”

There was skepticism, to put it mildly. (“They should teach that yoga pose where Facebook and Google execs can yank their heads out of you-know-where,” a comment on the Times piece read.) And yet few denied that “impacting the influencers” might be a step in the right direction. For a long time, the prevailing posture of the Silicon Valley élite was smugness bordering on hubris. Now the emotional repertoire is expanding to include shame—or, at least, the appearance of shame. “They can’t decide whether they ought to feel like pariahs or victims, and they’re looking for places where they can work this stuff out,” a well-connected Silicon Valley organizer told me. “Not their boardrooms, where everyone tells them what they want to hear, and not in public, where everyone yells at them. A third place.”

Esalen is one such place. Another is 1440 Multiversity, a sleek campus in Santa Cruz County—the boutique hotel to Esalen’s summer camp. Spirit Rock, a meditation center in Marin County, recently held a gathering to discuss “technology as an existential threat to mindfulness.” There are invitation-only dinners, private cuddle parties, conferences called Responsible Tech and Wisdom 2.0. “There’s a lot of debate about what to call it,” Paula Goldman, who runs a new department at the software company Salesforce called the Office of Ethical and Humane Use, said. “Ethical tech? Responsible tech?” If the name is one source of confusion, the substance is another. Is it a movement, or the stirrings of what might become a movement? Is it evidence of canny P.R., or of deep introspection?

“A few people around the Bay are starting to wake up,” Tauber, who now works as an executive coach, told me recently. “They’re acknowledging where things have gone wrong, and their role in that, and they’re trying to get their peers to do the same.” Many of the conversations, Tauber acknowledged, would not play well in Peoria. “It can get kind of out there,” he said. “There are folks exploring mindfulness, bodywork, psychedelics. Personal growth can take many forms. But ultimately if a handful of people have this much power—if they can, simply by making more ethical decisions, cause billions of users to be less addicted and isolated and confused and miserable—then, isn’t that worth a shot?”

Near the end of a placid April morning in San Francisco, a nonprofit called the Center for Humane Technology convened more than three hundred people in a midsized amphitheatre named SFJAZZ—co-founders of Pinterest and Craigslist and Apple, vice-presidents at Google and Facebook, several prominent venture capitalists, and many people whose job titles were “storyteller” or “human-experience engineer.” One attendee was Aden Van Noppen, who carried a notebook with a decal that read, “Move Purposefully and Fix Things.” She worked on tech policy in Barack Obama’s White House, then did a fellowship at Harvard Divinity School, and now runs Mobius, a Bay Area organization dedicated to “putting our well-being at the center of technology.” “The Valley right now is like a patient who’s just received a grave diagnosis,” she said. “There’s a type of person who reacts to that by staying in deflect-and-deny mode—‘How do we prevent anyone from knowing we’re sick?’ Then, there’s the type who wants to treat the symptoms, quickly and superficially, in the hope that the illness just goes away on its own. And there’s a third group, that wants to find a cure.” The audience at SFJAZZ comprised the third group—the concerned citizens of Silicon Valley.

Before the presentation, Van Noppen hosted a breakfast for a few members of the audience, including Justin Rosenstein, a former Facebook employee and a co-inventor of the Like button, and Chris Messina, a former Google employee and the inventor of the hashtag. Messina wore a polo shirt, revealing a tattoo on each arm: a hashtag on the right, a Burning Man logo on the left. “It’s not nearly widespread enough yet,” he said, of the industry’s capacity for self-critique. “But even to get a group of people together like this and publicly acknowledge the depth of the problem? That would have been impossible a few years ago.”

“A few months ago,” Rosenstein said.

“He worked his way up from kicking the vending machine.”Cartoon by P.C. Vey

They put on laminated nametags and made their way to their seats. A string trio took the stage, playing a selection of pop hits that traced an emotional arc from grunge-era ennui (“Bitter Sweet Symphony”) to hopeful ambivalence (“Wonderwall”) to soaring idealism (“Imagine”). Behind the musicians was an enormous screen displaying a series of alarming statistics (“1.6 billion swipes per day on Tinder alone”) and inspiring, possibly apocryphal, quotations (Albert Einstein: “The human spirit must prevail over technology”).

A meditation teacher walked onstage, closed her eyes, and began a gerund-based incantation. “Taking a deep breath in and out,” she said. “Appreciating this chance to be alive.” Next came Tristan Harris, C.H.T.’s executive director, wearing a chambray button-down, gray jeans, and a cordless microphone. “This is a civilizational moment in a way that I’m not sure we’re all reckoning with,” he said. Harris believes that, just as the environmental crisis was wrought by extractive energy companies, so has an attentional crisis been wrought by extractive technology companies. If Al Gore, in “An Inconvenient Truth,” was the harbinger of the former crisis, then Harris seems poised to become the harbinger of the latter one, and in more or less the same way: by pacing across a stage dispensing easily digestible phrases about the urgency of the moment.

In 2013, Harris was a project manager at Google, working on Gmail. “Here is this product that a billion people use,” he said. “My hope was that there would be an overriding conversation about intent: ‘How should we make sure we’re ethical about exercising this control over people’s brains?’ Instead, it was ‘How can we make this more engaging?’ ” The previous summer, Harris had gone to Burning Man, where he practiced vulnerable communication, eye-gazing, and Russian martial arts. Returning to his normal life, he experienced a crisis of conscience. “I’d been living with a narrower view of reality than I had previously understood,” he said. He considered leaving Google. Instead, he channelled his doubts into a slide deck that went viral. “I’m concerned about how we’re making the world more distracted,” it read. “We should feel an enormous responsibility to get this right.” The latter sentence was spread across three slides and superimposed on a stock photo of a man holding the world in his hands.

If a person, a company, or an idea threatens Google’s business model, Google often tries to acquire it. Within a few months, Harris had been appointed Google’s first “design ethicist,” tasked with “researching what the problem was and suggesting ways Google could fix it.” Few of his ideas were implemented. “Not that people were twirling their mustaches and saying, ‘We’d never do that, because we’re greedy,’ ” he said. “It was more a sense of, This is hard, it’s confusing, it’s often at odds with our bottom line.” Two years later, he left. “I thought I’d be more effective on the outside,” he said.

He founded a nonprofit whose name, Time Well Spent, was also a mission statement and a meme. He gave a tedx talk in Brussels called “How Better Tech Could Protect Us from Distraction.” He gave a ted talk in Vancouver called “How a Handful of Tech Companies Control Billions of Minds Every Day.” He gave interviews to “60 Minutes” and NBC News. (Harris is aware of the central irony of his career: in order to critique the attention economy, he is constantly in pursuit of more attention.) In January, 2018, the journalist Casey Newton wrote, on the Verge, “ ‘Time well spent’ is shaping up to be tech’s next big debate.”

Five months later, Newton published a follow-up piece called “The Time Well Spent Debate Is Over. (Time Well Spent Won.)” The tech behemoths had heard the public outcry and had “reacted with shocking speed.” Both Apple and Google were starting to add attentional controls to their phones’ software, making it easier for users to tie themselves to various masts: muting push notifications; limiting how much time they could spend on certain apps; setting the phone to fade to gray scale, rendering its candy-colored icons less seductive. Mark Zuckerberg had written a long Facebook post that began, “One of our big focus areas for 2018 is making sure the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent.” Among critics of the attention economy, Zuckerberg is regarded as the Dark Lord of the Sith. Once he had co-opted Harris’s mantra, many of Harris’s friends assumed that his work was done.

But Harris considered this only a small step toward victory. “It’s great that Zuck was made aware of ‘time well spent’ and felt it was important enough to repeat it,” he said. “It’s great that phones are slightly less addictive than they were. It is progress. But it’s not nearly enough.” Perhaps he had framed the problem too narrowly.

Time Well Spent morphed into the Center for Humane Technology, and Harris started grasping for a new meme that was equal to the scope of the crisis. “In the seventies, you had people talking about pollution, other people talking about acid rain,” Harris said. “It didn’t become a climate movement until there was holistic language to show how it all fit together.” Today, he continued, “there’s this cacophony of grievances about tech—polarization, outrageification, fomo, narcissism—but we have to show how it’s all actually one big thing.” According to Nick Thompson, writing in Wired, Harris and a co-founder of C.H.T., Aza Raskin, “went down to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, and covered the walls of their room with paper.” Harris told me, “It’s not like this brainstorming work can only happen in these privileged, New Agey places. But being in a big natural space, detached from your normal life, is a quick way to escape that messy fun-house mirror that social media creates.”

In April, on the stage at SFJAZZ, Harris unveiled his new meme: “human downgrading.” After the presentation, everyone filed into the lobby, and C.H.T. staffers passed out slips of white paper bearing the definition (“Human Downgrading: A societal reduction of human capacity caused by technologies that dominate our human sensitivities”). Audience members nitpicked. Was “downgrading” specific enough? And, beyond articulating the problem, wasn’t it time to start talking about solutions? On Twitter, the critiques were far more barbed. “The sheer cluelessness of this event is mind boggling,” Rumman Chowdhury, a data scientist and an A.I. developer, tweeted. “And I was just told that he workshopped this talk at Esalen. If you know what that is, that explains everything.”

In the lobby, I chatted with Tom Coates, a co-founder of an A.I. startup. These days, he said, before he tells a stranger that he works in tech, “I generally try to say some version of ‘I wasn’t one of the bad guys!’ ” He added, “That should be printed on our nametags: name, job title, which side of history you’re on.”

For all the talk of Esalen becoming a beacon of moral guidance for the tech élite, the institute’s public schedule looks much as it did in the seventies. There are workshops on a variety of esoteric subjects (“Know Thy Selves: Past Lives,” “Wild Eros in a Fragmented World,” “SoulCollage”). After the piece about Esalen ran in the Times, a new C.E.O. was installed in Tauber’s place, and Esalen’s leadership tried to reassure its Aquarian customer base that their beloved sanctuary would not be overrun by tech bros. The institute’s promotional photos feature a lot of gray ponytails and very few Silicon Valley luminaries. “With the most pathbreaking stuff, you’re never gonna see it on the Web site,” one Esalen insider told me. “A lot of what they’re doing you’ll only hear about years later, in history books.”

There’s some precedent for this. In 1980, Mike Murphy and his wife, Dulce, established the Esalen Soviet-American Exchange Program. They facilitated meetings between American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts, and between agents of the C.I.A. and the K.G.B. Most of these meetings were conducted in secret; many involved nature walks and cross-cultural soaks in the hot springs. (A Newsweek headline, in 1983, referred to “Esalen’s Hot-Tub Diplomacy.”) In 1989, Boris Yeltsin, who had recently resigned from the Politburo, visited the United States on a nine-day trip sponsored by Esalen. He met with President George H. W. Bush, toured the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and stopped at a run-of-the-mill supermarket on the outskirts of Houston, where the abundant display of pudding pops affected him so strongly—“Even the Politburo doesn’t have this choice! Not even Mr. Gorbachev!”—that he vowed to dismantle Bolshevism once and for all. “Esalen played its own part in the collapse of Soviet Communism,” Jeffrey Kripal, a professor at Rice University, wrote in his 2007 book, “Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion.” If hot-tub diplomacy could help thaw the Cold War, surely it can help diminish human downgrading.

Earlier this year, I scanned Esalen’s course offerings. My past lives and my wild eros seemed like things that I could explore on my own time. Instead, I enrolled in a weekend-long workshop called “Digital Detox: Unplug and Reimagine Your Life.” The facilitators were Allie Stark, Brooke Dean, and Adam (Smiley) Poswolsky—all public speakers or life coaches or some combination thereof, all in their thirties. They were happy to let me tag along but asked me to stay undercover “just to maintain the container of that space.” They would e-mail the fifty participants ahead of time to explain that there would be a journalist in their midst, and then, at the end of the weekend, they’d invite me to reveal my identity. I made a halfhearted attempt at subterfuge, packing a few items of clothing that were not black or gray and taking care not to bring along any New Yorker-branded tote bags. When I walked into the Friday-night opening session, I looked down and noticed that I was carrying a WNYC tote bag instead. “So I guess you’re the journalist,” a woman next to me said, with a beneficent smile.

We sat in a circle in a large dome-shaped tent. Outside was the ocean, invisible but shockingly loud. Dean led a five-minute meditation. “Feeling your body in this space,” she said. When it was over, she asked, “O.K., how many of you spent half that time wondering whether that’s the sound of the ocean or some kind of digital white-noise machine?” I raised my hand.

Poswolsky proposed a few ground rules for the weekend. “But let’s call them ‘agreements,’ ” he said. “ ‘Rules’ sounds so boring.” He uncapped a marker and stood next to an easel pad. “When we talk about building a healthier relationship with our phones, we often talk about it in negatives—no screens after 10 p.m., that sort of thing,” he said. “When we say no to digital technology, what are we saying yes to?”



“Being courageous.”

“Being vulnerageous.”

“Vulnerageous!” Poswolsky said. “I love that!”

The main rule (sorry, agreement) was, of course, a phone ban. This was relatively easy to adhere to, because Esalen is so remote that it’s impossible to get cell reception. The facilitators also imposed some conversational content moderation: we were asked to avoid “W-talk,” “W” being short for “work.” “When you meet someone, let’s not start with ‘What do you do?’ ” Dean said. “Maybe start with ‘What makes you feel most alive?’ ” Real names were discouraged. People adopted nicknames for the weekend: Down, Penultimate, Emo Biscotti. (In 2016, Tristan Harris attended a Digital Detox event, as reported in The Atlantic. During a conversation about digital sabbaticals, Harris protested, “For me, this is W-talk.”)

We returned to the lodge for dinner—college-co-op-style pad Thai, an artisanal peanut-butter-and-jelly station, and a condiment table featuring several varieties of nutritional yeast. After dinner, most of the group proceeded toward the hot tubs. I did, too, navigating by following the sulfur smell. The tubs had been billed as “clothing optional,” but I was the only person who’d even bothered to bring a bathing suit, much less put one on.

The next morning, back in the dome tent, the facilitators debriefed us on our first few hours of phonelessness: “Anyone having any withdrawal symptoms?” They’d brought along a few co-facilitators to lead workshops—“except we call them playshops,” Stark said. Zev would organize a face-painting playshop. Ian would lead a hike to a waterfall. Ramesh Srinivasan, a U.C.L.A. professor, introduced himself: “My research is focussed on how technology impacts the world.”

“No W-talk!”

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