HEWN, No. 314

Feral pigeons and the mindfulness racket...

This week’s pigeon is a feral rock pigeon. (Image credits)

This week’s recommended reading also includes bird-related content: “The Crane Wife” by CJ Hauser. This felt like a week where the list of what not to read was quite long. You know which ones I mean — the one about the former Senator; the one about the Harvard professor; all the hot takes on Robert Mueller; anything about Boris Johnson. Avoid. Try these instead: David A. Banks and Britney Gil on the bad metaphor “Community.” Amy Martyn on the repo men impounding electric scooters in San Diego. “Engagement Is the Enemy of Serendipity,” says Dan Cohen. Ed Yong writes about how “The Human Brain Project Hasn’t Lived Up to Its Promise.”

I wrote a little bit last week about other brain-related promises, namely the hype around Elon Musk's brain-computer interface company, Neuralink. I’ve been thinking a lot about brains — or “minds” more accurately — as of late, as I try to work through revisions to my manuscript and make sure I have the story straight about education psychology’s move from behaviorism to cognitive science. I maintain that behaviorism never really went away and, despite all the talk otherwise, it remains central to computing — particularly educational computing. And as Shoshana Zuboff argues, of course, behaviorism remains central to surveillance capitalism.

How we talk about “the mind” does seem to have shifted, and many folks — and certainly many of those pithy stars of “edutwitter” — seem increasingly obsessed with promoting proper mindsets and mindfulness. Indeed, there’s a whole mindfulness industry out there — a $4.2 trillion industry, according to an article in New Statesman this week. “...[M]indfulness has become the perfect coping mechanism for neoliberal capitalism: it privatises stress and encourages people to locate the root of mental ailments in their own work ethic. As a psychological strategy it promotes a particular form of revolution, one that takes place within the heads of individuals fixated on self-transformation, rather than as a struggle to overcome collective suffering.” The Wall Street Journal announced that snack makers are now marketing mindfulness: savor that Oreo cookie; chew that Triscuit slowly. And Pinterest launched what it’s calling “compassionate search” to offer “resources that may help improve your mood.” The latter isn’t really about mindfulness per se, and there is a lot of slippage in how the word gets used. But across many of these products, there is a confusion of slow and careful thinking with actual care; the stripping from a Buddhist-inspired presentism of any commitment to justice or social change. Remember how the e-cigarette maker Juul peddled mindfulness curriculum to schools? That’s not even irony; that’s precisely how this industry works — to prop up rather than challenge the things that are making us miserable by training us to breathe deeply and accept it. Or even better, breathe deeply and no longer notice.

Yours in struggle,
~Audrey