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Winslow Strong couldn’t resist the pull. He felt driven to use his knowledge of technology to help people improve their mental and emotional well-being. Laser-focused on that goal, he abandoned his life as an academic finance expert in Zurich and headed to Silicon Valley in search of a like-minded community. It didn’t take him long to find his startup partner, Forrest Bennett. A 25-year Bay Area veteran, Bennett had most recently been an artificial intelligence manager at Twitter. He was already hard at work on a cutting edge system that analyzed brainwaves to help people shift their way of thinking. His not-too-modest goal was nothing short of technology for enlightenment.
This general pattern of introspect, search for meaning, collaborate, and scale is the blueprint of any changemaker’s journey. Technology designers are getting it and are beginning to ask what can happen if technologies focus on positive impact instead of generating more advertising. Can technologies focus attention, build emotional intelligence, calm the nervous system, and increase our well-being? A new tech movement is gaining momentum that aims to fundamentally shift our relationships to the gadgets and software in our lives.
The rapidly growing field of Transformative Technology is taking hold within the very heart of the tech community that previously sought to profit from the way it dehumanizes, distracts, and divides us. At its heart, TransTech catalyzes the best parts of the human experience, and it is positioned to change the thoughts and behaviors of millions globally. More compassionate and empowering technologies are on the way.
In recent years, an escalating number of technologists within Silicon Valley and elsewhere—coders and engineers that develop the devices that are now indispensable in daily life—have experienced epiphanies. The relentlessly competitive culture that they thrived in discouraged them from having families, or even outside lives of any kind, that would distract from around-the-clock productivity. Norms were all night code-a-thons to stay ahead of the competition, refrigerators stocked with free food, and ready-to-nap cots in the office. Like professional athletes, Silicon Valley’s software developers often hit their prime early and were out of the game by the time grey hair appeared. They raced to leave their mark and strike gold.
The vast majority of these tireless efforts led to worthless stock options and repeating the cycle at a new company until you were simply too old to continue, or finding yourself embedded in a tech giant whose revenues came almost entirely from keeping people addicted to their screens and serving them ads. For some, the inevitable destination was a crisis of meaning. Why were they choosing work over life? How did their skills make a better world? What difference were they making?
When these questions surface, things start to change. Everywhere from leading tech venture capital firms to the smallest threadbare startup, small numbers of individuals began to use their time to support and tinker with a new generation of tech ideas. Instead of adspace, user count, and the other staples of the Valley, they began to focus on improving human well-being.
The density and notoriety of Silicon Valley can make it feel like the originator of Transformative Technology, but the movement is global. These same factors existed in other tech hubs, the schools that fed them, and the lone wolves who hoped to break through the noise and reach them. The movement is bubbling up everywhere. This year’s Consumer Electronics Show showcased dozens of TransTech companies from the Americas, Europe, Asia/Pacific, and Africa, all of whom are toiling away on highly innovative products and services.
Those working in isolation away from one of the tech hubs are often resource- and community-starved as they passionately pursue their individual TransTech projects. That’s changing though, and migrations like Winslow Strong’s are becoming increasingly common. New centers of gravity are forming that go beyond interested confederates—a transformative global community is starting to form out of smaller regional tech networks.
Early ecosystems are emerging that support the development, financing, marketing, distribution, and support of TransTech products and services. The strength of tech hubs like Silicon Valley is their ability to scale things to affect billions of people. As they increasingly turn their focus from advertising to well-being, the amount of lives they reach has the possibility to transform the world in ways we can now just dream about.
Technologies aimed at increasing well-being are nothing new, however. They’ve existed on the fringes of the self-help marketplace for over four decades. Traditionally, they were the domain of individual inventors and entrepreneurs, and many were of dubious value. The most visible were probably the widely advertised glasses with flashing lights or the audio programs with special tones known as ‘binaural beats.’ Both claimed to alter your brainwaves and even help you meditate like a Zen monk in no time at all. Other popular early examples included biofeedback equipment that provided information on how relaxed you were based on skin moisture or temperature.
In the early 1990’s, these devices got an upgrade as technology continued to miniaturize and computerize, but many of the functions remained largely unchanged. Over time, more esoteric devices came on the scene with claims of subtle energy, ‘scalar,’ or quantum effects. Others took advantage of the miniaturization of lasers to create healing wand-type devices. Tesla-inspired technologies produced images of living objects surrounded by stunningly beautiful fields of light. These, too, were incorporated into real-time machines that claimed healing and well-being enhancement.
As we entered the 2000s, the claims only grew bolder yet the science behind them continued to be scant, or absent all together—and a mix of past and present emerged. Recently, though, things have started to change. Scientifically-validated devices are beginning to emerge, like the breath-tracking device, Spire, that came out of a lab at Stanford, or the sophisticated-yet-beautiful brainwave sensing headset Muse, a game changer in the biofeedback world that was funded by major venture capitalists.
Differences between old and new are stark and that’s where TransTech enters the picture. This new era is about software, gadgets, and other technologies that are proven to work, ready to go viral across diverse populations, and designed to scale globally. The engineers, makers, scientists, and innovators who comprise the movement know how to scale commercialization. Their output differs from the fringy wellbeing tech of previous generations by being grounded in rigorous research, often created through partnerships with accomplished designers, industry veterans, and rigorous scientists. Investors are being magnetized to this convergence of talent and capability.
Engineers are not enough to form a tech movement of this scale and they aren’t alone. People from every level of the tech pipeline are joining them. From students to scientists, inventors to industry, makers to government, the key pieces are lining up to tip the scales and take human well-being to the next level.
By the time he attended his first meditation retreat, Luke Nosek was a well-known visionary in Silicon Valley. A member of the ‘PayPal Mafia,’ the influential co-founders of that ubiquitous financial services company who have also been behind everything from LinkedIn to SpaceX, he’d gone on to become one of the most successful investors in tech. The investment firm he co-founded, Founders Fund, has backed a string of major winners from Facebook to Uber.
For all his success, however, Nosek knew that something was missing and was wise enough to realize that more of the same was not likely to find it. His search eventually led him to mental and emotional training techniques like meditation. From there, it was a natural transition to become enthusiastic about transformative technologies.
One of the authors of this article, Nichol Bradford, was a senior executive in entertainment. She oversaw operations for World of Warcraft China, one of the largest single topic online games in the world. She had every intention of working in video games for her entire career. After a profoundly beneficial experience on a meditation retreat, she went in search of understanding what had happened to her mentally, emotionally, and physiologically. Eventually, she joined the TransTech migration and moved from China to San Francisco.
Today, Bradford sits at the center of the movement as one of its leading business advisors via her firm Willow Group, Inc. She cofounded the first university lab in the space, as well as the first industry conference (ttconf.org). The Transformative Technology Conference in Palo Alto, CA in October 2015 was a groundbreaking event that quickly sold out—the first major gathering of the community, the heart of Silicon Valley, under one roof. A major evangelist and community builder, Bradford frequently speaks at a wide range of events globally to spread the word and help others find their home in TransTech.
The other co-author here, Dr. Stephanie Shorter, felt the same call to build community at the intersection of tech, wellness, consciousness, and service. Career 1.0 had been as a neuroscience researcher and professor, eventually landing at Vanderbilt University for several years; she joyfully believed at the time that she was on a lifelong path of academic research. But the path became entangled and lost when she felt a broken disconnect between the work she did in her lab and the possibility of directly improving quality of life for others. Across the field, publications were usually nothing more than lines padding curriculum vitae and egos. The pragmatic translation from published results to the products, programs, and policies that they could improve upon in ‘the real world’ was unforgivably sluggish; this translation time averages 17 years across all fields of science.
Dr. Shorter wanted her contributions to effect change beyond the small handful of niche experts that would read her research papers. When she couldn’t see the path that she was on serving the greater good, she changed paths, which brought her to contemplative neuroscience research, Kosmos Journal, and now also TransTech. Dedicated to science supporting how we can elevate consciousness, alleviate suffering, and resolve collective-scale problems, she migrated from the east coast to Silicon Valley in the summer of 2015.
There are hundreds of stories like those of Strong, Bennet, Nosek, Bradford, and Shorter arising from thought leaders all around the world. They are mavericks of the mind, engineers of optimization, scientists of self-mastery, entrepreneurs of human potential, and venture capitalists of cognitive-emotional capital, and they all seek to be connectors. Seeing pain and unable to turn a blind eye, they feel called together to collaboratively build the technologies that humans need for healing and growth, moving the tech space beyond distraction and separation. They are creating prototypes that will impact millions of people. In the years ahead, millions will become billions as this movement grows.
How far can this TransTech envelope be pushed? Is the ‘enlightenment engineering’ of Strong and Bennett really feasible? Can it ever be something that is considered a rigorous, science-backed technology? Dr. Jeffery Martin, widely considered the founder of the Transformative Technology space, has spent the past decade trying to answer these questions. As early as 2006, he was seeing indications that suggested extraordinarily high and stable states of well-being might be possible to engineer with existing and emerging technologies.
An unusual combination of serial entrepreneur, corporate manager, investor, media expert, academic researcher, technologist, and hacker, Martin has spent the last 10 years simultaneously working to bring the community together and confirm his theory. It’s remarkable how many roads lead back to him. Strong and Bennett work out of his lab. Bradford is his key partner in the global TransTech movement. He encountered Nosek at the TED conference shortly after he’d had his first powerful experience with meditation. Today at Sofia University’s TransTechLab and elsewhere, he mentors many of the brightest miinds in the space, as well as the next generation of TransTech experts.
Is it possible that so-called ‘higher stages’ of human experience can be engineered with technology? Ultimately, the jury is still out, but progress is definitely being made. Martin’s research began with in-depth studies of over a thousand people who claimed to experience various forms of PNSE, pulling their experiences into the light of modern psychology and neuroscience. From there, it has progressed to hypothesizing and testing how these changes can be produced for others.
By 2013, Dr. Martin had arrived at a protocol that led to what he called persistent non-symbolic experience (PNSE), an academic bucket-term he coined for ongoing states of consciousness more commonly known as enlightenment, non-duality, unity consciousness, or the ‘peace that passeth understanding.’ The hitch? It was a four-month program devoid of tech that drew upon positive psychology, meditation, and other exercises to help people successfully make the transition. Nonetheless, it was a key step. For the first time, it allowed an empirical snapshot of who someone was both before and after PNSE.
According to Martin, that work is now completed and the protocol has a high success rate that justifies the expense of moving the research into the domain of TransTech. He’s now honing in on the brainwaves of the transition to PNSE at his Sofia University-based lab in Silicon Valley. His next public experiment will move this work squarely into the TransTech realm by incorporating easy-to-use consumer brainwave, heart rate, and other devices to monitor people as they go through the program from the comfort of their own home.
In many ways this decade-long effort is an exemplar of TransTech itself. It began as a basic science project that evolved to embrace technology as potentially effective in getting to a specific outcome. It involved a global cadre of scientists, technologists, investors, and others to push it forward. Claims have trickled out only as they were backed by scientific research. The later stages of that research were often crowdsourced, allowing the public to both contribute and potentially gain early benefits. Results were presented at peer-reviewed conferences and simultaneously communicated to the public. As effective processes were found, they were licensed and commercialized to begin benefitting as many people as possible. Yet, as with many similar efforts, there’s still no way to know if Martin will ultimately succeed in his goal of this technology-assisted transition to PNSE.
While it may not be your Buddha’s flavor of enlightenment, at least in the near future, a major positive change will take place within the heart of the tech world—a change with potential benefits for all of us. An increasing number of technologists and those in the tech business ecosystem that supports them are breaking free of their former belief systems and seeking to transform the quality of their own lives and others—scaling up technologies to erase human suffering.
This is the same community that gave us computers, tablets, and smartphones. They took us from dependence on libraries to global information ubiquity via the Internet. They brought the world closer together with new and inexpensive forms of voice, video, and text-based communications. And now they are coming together with a new pulse and a new paradigm. TransTech visionaries are currently the outliers, the leading edge, in the tech space, but this transformative community grows daily.
For the first time in human history, there is now a remarkable confluence of science, technology, skill, resources and, most importantly, motivation for the greater good that may allow all of us to level up our inner life and well-being in ways previously unimaginable—all with a catalyst of a digital revolution kindled from the human heart.
Note of Gratitude
The authors warmly thank Dr. Jeffery Martin for his inspiration and indispensably helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.
Nichol Bradford, MBA is the CEO of the Willow Group and Executive Director of the Transformative Technology Lab at Sofia University (transtechlab.org). She has served as a senior executive in video games with responsibility for strategy, operations, and marketing for major brands including Activision Blizzard, Disney, and Vivendi Games. She is a fellow of the […]
Stephanie Shorter PhD was trained as a sensory neuroscientist and cortical electrophysiologist, and has long been interested in perception, cognition and consciousness. She is a seeker who embraces yoga as her tool of individual transformation on her path towards being an agent of social transformation.
Fall | Winter 2016