Over the last weekend in February, executives from tech companies like Google, Cisco, Zynga, and Twitter shared a stage in Silicon Valley with spiritual luminaries such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, Marianne Williamson, and Joan Halifax for the fourth annual Wisdom 2.0 conference. In presentations, interviews, panel discussions, and breakout sessions, the role of spirituality in business and society was explored from every angle—almost. One question that hung heavily in the ether above the privileged participants was this: Is Wisdom 2.0 really an upgrade?

Lacking $275 for admission, I watched the conference online. Not the whole thing of course, but enough to hear almost every New Age buzzword rendered nearly meaningless through repetition. Speeches on mindful management, conscious leadership, and wisdom in the workplace were all delivered with a warm glow of self-satisfaction. Yet few speakers seemed conscious of the obscenely affluent elephant in the room.

The notable exception was the best-selling author Marianne Williamson, who pointed at the pachyderm several times during the conference. On the final afternoon, her gentleness gave way to a fierce compassion that inspired her to drop this show-stealing zinger:

“Let me tell you something ladies and gentlemen: no spiritual leader person is going to come here and be a dancing monkey to help a bunch of rich capitalists talk about the fact that they can have a more compassionate workplace and meditation rooms while not dealing with the moral calling and the moral invitation of our species to deal with the fact that we have so much and so many have so little…

Only in modern America could we come up with some ersatz version of spirituality that gives us a pass on addressing the unnecessary human suffering in our midst."

Bravo! Finally, a piece of real wisdom—good, old-fashioned Wisdom 1.0—designed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The basic point of Marianne’s brave and brilliant speech was that mindfulness is all well and good, but that wisdom and compassion mean nothing if not extended beyond the cozy confines of Silicon Valley to the entire Earth community. On an even deeper, unspoken level, she was saying, “Sorry techies, but you cannot use the word ‘wisdom’ unless you really mean it, unless you actually live it.” With a flash of Manjusri’s sword, she drew a line in the sand.

As Marianne demonstrated, real wisdom requires asking the most challenging and probing questions, the ones that disarm the ego and cut to the heart of the matter. As a co-defender of this brand of wisdom, I feel called to pick up the sword and ask the question that has kept occurring to me:

Is wisdom even compatible with capitalism?

Almost all spiritual traditions stress the central importance of generosity. In Buddhism, for example, dana is considered the highest of the ten paramitas or spiritual virtues. By contrast, capitalism is based not on giving but on taking. Starting with the premise that humans are fundamentally selfish, it presupposes that every individual is out to maximize self-interest, which means getting something for nothing if possible. Such is the basis of usury, through which all money is brought into being. It is also the basis of private property, a relatively recent legal creation that grants an individual or corporate “person” the right to own, exploit, and profit from a piece of Nature that rightfully belongs to every living creature.

In general, capitalism operates by stealing from the commons, by appropriating something from the non-monetized realm and dragging it into the marketplace. Such appropriation and commodification happens constantly, often in the most insidious and unconscious ways. It can even happen right in front of hundreds of extremely smart and well-intentioned people in northern California.

Granted, the tech industry represents an emerging form of capitalism based largely upon intellectual property, which is surely less extractive than the manufacturing and shipping of computers and other hardware and the maintenance of servers. Yet even new ideas are based on older ones, begging the question of whether truly original ideas exist, and if so, how much are they worth? Before the advent of capitalism, common wisdom suggested that any idea was valuable to the extent that it benefitted one’s community. Personal gain was not an issue.

These days, our community is the whole world—a world of rising temperatures, declining natural systems, disappearing species, and an ever-widening chasm between rich and poor. The stakes are high, as are the moral standards to which influential people ought be held. Like everyone at Wisdom 2.0, I believe that that the intersection of spirituality and technology holds enormous potential for profound social change. I can only hope that the brightest minds of our day will be inspired by genuine wisdom to create not just a kinder business model but a more just and compassionate world, one that works not only for the privileged few, but for all. Should we succeed at making this monumental transition, we could even call it “Civilization 2.0."

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HikingArtist.com, courtesy of Creative Commons license.