By Anna Gibson
A thorough sociologist, Carolyn Chen shows, step-by-step, how companies self-consciously appropriate religious language and rituals, creating a ‘theology’ in which work and purpose are perfectly aligned in the lives of their highest-value employees.
Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley by Carolyn Chen. Princeton University Press, 272 pages, $27.95.
When Carolyn Chen first came to Silicon Valley to study religion, she began by hunting down religious paraphernalia — statuary, incense, symbols — in places like yoga studios. She quickly discovered that these objects might represent religious traditions, but they were not regarded as genuinely sacred. Instead, Chen found that in the valley (as she calls it) there was only one truly holy institution whose rituals give structure and meaning to peoples’ lives, that they were ready to sacrifice all for: work.
In this deeply researched ethnography, Chen follows in the footsteps of authors like Alice Marwick and Fred Turner to explore the evolving relationship of highly paid Silicon Valley professionals to their work, and what that means for the rest of us. While this idiosyncratic culture may seem zany to outsiders, scholars of work and technology have long recognized Silicon Valley as a place where the primordial ooze of American industry crystalizes into new forms and deploys its products and attendant cultural baggage throughout the world.
Chen’s core argument is that “work is replacing religion” in every way that matters in the valley. At first glance, this may seem like yet another permutation of neoliberalism: when the only thing that society values is work, it becomes the all-consuming focal point of peoples’ lives. It makes sense that, given the dominance of economic precarity, religious practices would fall by the wayside. However, a thorough sociologist, Chen shows, step-by-step, how companies self-consciously appropriate religious language and rituals, creating a ‘theology’ in which work and purpose are perfectly aligned in the lives of their highest-value employees. Rather than work being an expression of one’s religion, religious practices are now marshaled in the service of work.
Over the course of five chapters, Chen explores different facets of work and religion in Silicon Valley, drawing on both in-depth interviews and ethnographic participant-observation. She begins in the first chapter by exploring how Silicon Valley converts newcomers from former religious identities like Christianity in favor of new identities centered around their faith in their work. The second chapter switches to the perspective of companies’ Human Resources workers, exploring how the inclusion of spiritual practices in the workplace — meant to create feelings of purpose and belonging — changes the relationship between employee and employer to what Chen calls “corporate maternalism.” In the third chapter, Chen dissects the kind of spirituality that tech companies offer: the chance for employees to develop an “authentic selfhood” that lets them invest their entire selves in their work. The fourth chapter takes a step back to look at the changing meaning of spirituality for Bay Area residents, especially in the context of places like the Esalen hot springs. Finally, the fifth chapter explores how wellness practitioners sell their services to Silicon Valley firms. (Hint: you can sell meditation and mindfulness as long as you have data for an ROI and don’t mention a religious figure whose name starts with B!)
In Chen’s conclusion, she emphasizes how the practices of this “Techtopia” only reinforce the deepening social and material chasm between elite tech workers, whose every whim is cared for, and the service workers who make that work possible. Her fieldwork was completed between 2013 and 2019, so she finished data collection before the pandemic shut down the United States. Writing her conclusion a year later, though, Chen uses observations from the pandemic to illustrate how the two populations of Techtopia are experiencing vastly different kind of crises. At this point, I wished she had incorporated the second group in her sample more substantively rather than focusing almost exclusively on corporate elites. The voices of the service workers would have more impact if analyzed separately instead of as dramatic foils. After all, if Techtopia is a sign of things to come, most of us will not find ourselves in that elite group.
Indeed, her analysis is at its most powerful in the sections where she lets us hear from the people who manage and deploy spirituality in the workplace. For example, in the second chapter, she articulates the concept of “Corporate Maternalism” to describe how companies nurture both the physical and spiritual needs of their employees. Chen’s interviews with human resource managers, who see corporate maternalism as a technique to avoid employee burn out, manages to be both deeply sympathetic and circumspect as we hear these functionaries describe burnout as the “literal depreciation of company assets.” In her fifth chapter, Chen speaks to people with a range of relationships to tech companies, such as people who left the workplace to find religion only to come back to sell ‘spirituality’ to tech workers so that they can pay their soaring rents. By focusing on how religious practices are carefully packaged and communicated in the workplace in these two cases, Chen has room to explore the role that gender, class, and race play in these spaces as well.
There have been several dramatic changes to the tech world since Chen completed her fieldwork was conducted before two major developments in the field: the so-called techlash and the endbeginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic sent all the high-paid tech workers to their home offices, sparking a mass exodus from San Francisco, but I believe the former may prove to be more important in its lasting effects than the latter. Chen tells us that faith — in a company, in its workers, and its mission — “is a critical dimension of tech work.” We are now in the age of Francis Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, when it seems that, for many, unquestioning faith is being broken. There are indications that public sentiment has turned roundly against the Silicon Valley behemoths. And yet, if Chen is right, and work is the last institution in American life to provide spiritual value, what else do we as individuals have to cling to?
Anna Gibson is a PhD Candidate in the Communication Department of Stanford University and studies online communities and digital culture. She lives in Somerville, MA and currently works as an adjunct professor of Communication at Simmons University.