I'll confess that I walked into the "Wisdom 2.0" convention with the mind of a skeptic. This, I thought, was where the San Francisco digerati -- the new Masters of the Universe -- gather to convince themselves that their high tech revolution has actually raised human consciousness and cultivated genuine compassion.
Even the name put me off. If this is Wisdom 2.0, I wondered, what was Wisdom 1.0? It seemed to me that the whole problem with the Age of the Internet and Social Media was "too much information, not enough wisdom."
At first, my preconceived ideas were confirmed. This was wisdom for the Twitter generation. Soundbite wisdom. LIttle white signs posted on pillars throughout the Concourse Exhibition Center offered insight from the sages of our times. The first one I came across was Oprah Winfrey suggesting that we "turn our wounds into wisdom."
On the main stage, Gopi Kallayil, the "Chief Evangelist" at Google+, explained how the omnipresent search engine had "humanized our brand with love." Evan Williams, the man who brought us Twitter, said it's not about the fortune or the fame. It's about putting out "products that let other people create and change the world."
But my feeling for the event began to shift when the real prophet of the weekend appeared. She came in the form of MIT professor Sherry Turkle, author of the bestselling book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. She was interviewed on stage by Soren Gordhamer, the founder and host of "Wisdom 2.0," which bought 1,500 people -- many of them successful techies in their thirties -- together for weekend of Feb. 21-24.
"It's wonderful to be connected to technology, everywhere and all the time, but it can also remove us from being present at this moment," said Turkle. "Mothers are breastfeeding their children while looking at their cell phones. We all know that is not quite right. I think the energy here at this conference is about trying to make a course correction. We've created something and gotten in over our heads."
“Technology doesn’t just change what we do,” she said. “It changes who we are.”
Many young people tell Turkle they would "rather text than talk." She asks them why. "They say they can't control where a real conversation goes. They can't edit who they want to be. There's no re-touching or tweaking. Many young people have a phobia about conversation because they have learned to tidy up any messiness in their communication."
"What are we really losing?" Gordhamer asked. "I talk to people who say, "I'm not into this human-to-human thing. It's not my mode.' "
"In conversation," Turkle replied, "we learn to negotiate, to bend to each other, to read faces and expressions, to understand the subtle play of voice and body and language and eye movement. We learn to be human beings."
Constant connectivity and an endless barrage of entertainment and marketing messages have made it increasingly difficult for people to enjoy the solitude and the interludes of natural life.
"People text at funerals," Turkle said. "I ask them why and they say, 'It's boring.' What did we do before texts? We were part of a community when we sat through the boring bits.”
Turkle said we need to learn to discover the value of the boring bits. "It's in the boring bits that we discover each other and discover nature and discover that the boring bits are not so boring after all."
What wound up impressing me about "Wisdom 2.0" was how the organizers went out of their way to encourage real conversation at this gathering of the digital tribe. At the center of the convention floor, two inviting geodesic domes with wooden benches beckoned participates to sit down in a circle and talk. On the other side of the cavernous space, a dozen large tables were set up. Each had a suggested topic of conversation, such as "finding right work mindfully" and "surrendering your need to do everything yourself."
Gordhamer suggested that they might try a trick he employs when going out to dinner with his friends from the digital world. Everyone piles their cell phones in the middle of the table, like gunslingers surrendering their weapons in the Wild West. The first one to reach for their phone buys dinner.
I didn’t see piles of cell phones on the tables at Wisdom 2.0, but people were actually sitting in circles, looking into each others eyes, smiling, nodding, and having real conversations.
Turkle got the loudest applause when she said, “I’m so glad you didn’t just Skype me in from Boston. I would have missed out on the best part of being here. I have had extraordinary conversations. People are here for a reason. They are experiencing other people in a community. They want to be present in this community.”
At the end of her talk, Turkle got a standing ovation.
I walked out to my car in the city’s South of Market neighborhood. My Bluetooth connected iPhone automatically started playing the rest of the audio edition of the New York Times. For a moment, I began to decide whether I wanted to listen to that, or to The Art of Fielding, an audio book I have on my phone via Audible.com, or to let my smart phone randomly select tunes from the 6,783 songs I have put on The Cloud via iTunes Match.
The prophetic words of Sherry Turkle echoed in my mind. So I turned off my radio and listened to the sounds of seagulls winging their way toward the San Francisco Bay.