The aim of the vipassana meditation practice, according to Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey, is to “know thyself.” There’s no telling whether he succeeded during his 10 days of silence in Myanmar — but even if Dorsey knows himself, he appears to know far less about what’s going on around him.
Dorsey this weekend told his followers about his birthday retreat in the “absolutely beautiful country,” where he spent every day meditating from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. with “breaks for breakfast, lunch and walking.”
He mentioned variations in his heart rate, which he monitored throughout on his Apple watch. He mentioned turning to the music of his “favorite poet,” Kendrick Lamar, right after his silence ended. He even mentioned exactly how many times he was bitten by mosquitoes during a 10-minute period (117, apparently).
He did not mention the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have fled from Myanmar in the past year amid a state-sponsored ethnic cleansing campaign.
Dorsey’s omission hasn’t gone over well with more internationally aware observers. But it shouldn’t take any expertise in global affairs to be aware of a modern-day genocide — especially if you’re traveling to the country where that genocide occurred, and especially if you run one of the world’s largest social media sites.
That last point is important: Facebook’s failure properly to police its platform as members of the Myanmar military systemically spread hatred from page to page, mobilizing the country’s citizenry against the Rohingya minority, is a lesson in what can happen when companies with immense power fail to take responsibility.
A person familiar with the trip says Dorsey was in Myanmar for a personal holiday, not for business. And Twitter is no Facebook — in Myanmar, or anywhere else where Mark Zuckerberg’s platform essentially functions as the entire Internet. But Dorsey faces the same challenges as his Menlo Park counterpart when it comes to thinking through the ways the online world spills over into offline life.
That task is tough from a distance. When Recode’s Kara Swisher asked Zuckerberg — in an interview that became infamous for the CEO’s insistence that Holocaust deniers weren’t intentionally getting the facts wrong — whether he felt responsible for the deaths in Myanmar, he didn’t answer the question directly. When she pushed, saying she wanted to “know how you felt,” Zuckerberg deflected again.
Zuckerberg was able to discuss scaling up investment in Burmese speakers, and building AI tools, and making “sure that the good is amplified” while doing “everything we can to mitigate the bad.” He was not, at least as far as any reasonable listener could tell, able really to feel for those whose towns were burned and whose loved ones were killed. At least he might plead that he was 7,000 miles away.
Dorsey, on the other hand, was literally on the ground in Myanmar — and still he missed what, at this point in history, is the single most pressing reality about the country. He and Zuckerberg are two very different people with two very different approaches. But, one way or another, they both managed to maintain a distance from real people. For Zuckerberg, Myanmar was a systems engineering problem. For Dorsey, it was a vehicle for self-exploration.
Of course, stepping back from a multibillion-dollar company to take a wider view isn’t easy. Zuckerberg’s great American “listening tour” of 2017, which involved questionably candid photos of him sitting in diners or on big red tractors, was roundly criticized as a self-serving stunt from a presidential hopeful determined to look a little less robotic. And while Zuckerberg was petting livestock, his company was slow-walking a response to Russian election interference and hiring PR firms to smear George Soros.
It’s probably almost impossible for one man, or woman, to understand what’s going on inside a firm of Facebook’s scale — while also fully understanding what’s going on outside. Perhaps that’s an indictment of the founder-driven model most Silicon Valley success stories have followed. But the Zuckerbergs and Dorseys of the world still seem to believe they can do it all.
“How do I stop suffering?” Dorsey says it is this question that, “through rigorous scientific self-experimentation,” Gautama Buddha sought to answer 2,500 years ago. You can parse this two ways. One: I am suffering. How do I stop? And two: There is suffering. How do I stop it? Dorsey has every right to examine the first of these quandaries, but given his role in society, there is no excuse for him to be so obtuse about the second.