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Tablet - February 2012
We joked half-seriously that the GPS seemed fixated on Mountain View as every trip we made in the area led us back through that heart, if that is the right word, of Silicon Valley.
People live where they are suited and where the ambience reflects their personality. Appropriately, an institutional church lives amid the glorious ruins of a collapsed imperial centre which it once served then succeeded. A post-modern company like Google, for whom hierarchy seems quaintly redundant, which delivers information and services to virtual individuals in the ever more radiant Cloud of Knowing which is the internet, which wants to take over, or at least cover the world as a service to humanity, what more suitable place than California? The western land of aspiration become the realm of dreams, the place of gold become the land of plenty. The end of the great march to freedom and prosperity, settling down at last in a society of phenomenal instability intoxicated by the infinities of pleasure.
Having said that, they are nonetheless very nice people. When we arrived, the receptionist was not there but a note asked us to check ourselves in on the computer, help ourselves to drinks and snacks and wait. We looked at the relic of the first great Google computer that generated so much heat that its internal fans took up most of its space and the amazonian trails of wires made one wonder how it could ever have been fixed. Probably they didn’t fix it, just invented a better one. It was only twenty years old, reminding us of the phenomenal speed of the growth of the global knowledge industry and this company’s brilliant attunement to the raging hunger of our time for quick answers and virtual community.
One in five Americans are supposed to aspire to working at Google. Perhaps this is why those who do work there look as if they have won the lottery but can’t quite believe it (and with share options many of the early employees did just that). They have ideal working conditions. As we were shown round it felt more like a spa or recreation centre, free food (no one works more than 100 feet from a (healthy) snack counter, six different cuisines for the predominantly Asian work force, massage rooms, quick nap pods, exercise rooms, pool and just places to chill out. Executive perks for everyone. Not like the Vatican I think.
People seem reluctant to admit that they actually work here and they laugh off the idea that there must be something controlling all this success and happiness. Americans have always made the old world feel resentful or suspicious of their innocent pursuit of pleasure. Why, we feel, can’t we make work more like fun or a substitute for the great metaphysical questions that have so tormented our culture until very recently? Why does the high-minded pursuit of meaning and truth have to be so painful and create such a trail of loss and failure?
You see it sometimes in the way an adult listens to a child or adolescent who is quite evidently talking idealistic nonsense. The older person looks on in admiration, knowing full well it is not ever going to work, but aware that the only way it could work is if you believe in it that intensely. California is the symbol of this realizable dream. It has its ugly landfill areas of failures and dark eruptions of the human shadow but they are zoned away out of sight and out of mind. We need ideals more than facts. Utopias underpin our most disastrous social experiments.
Google HQ is not the Vatican or even the White House and certainly not like Lambeth Palace. But it thinks global and has idealism. Like anything focused on success it has had to compromise on its ideals but it doesn’t dwell on this aspect. California doesn’t do guilt. It is confidently secular, not anti-religious at all, but free and subjectively flexible about what spiritualities work and what don’t. It’s true this may lead to arrested spiritual development; but it feels better than the other kind of arrested development found in a religious institution that seeks to dominate in different ways.
Then there’s meditation. A modern, successful corporation like Google sees meditation as a life-skill, an invaluable tool. It makes the stuffier corridors of power, religious or commercial, look very one-dimensional. Of course, California thinks it discovered meditation and is now in the process of improving it. Ancient traditions might feel miffed at this. Or they might feel they have something to learn just from the excitement and freshness of new-order people who might think they have all the answers, but at least haven’t yet made the big mistakes that the old systems feel they have so strenuously to deny.
Laurence Freeman OSB
The World Community for Christian Meditation, of which Laurence Freeman OSB is director, has recently opened a new outreach program – “Meditatio” (www.wccmmeditatio.org)