Work Pray Code: Fulfillment-as-a-service?
Originally published on Substack for Reboot
The summer I worked near the Embarcadero, two coworkers and I would huddle in the back corner conference room, holding weekly time for prayer over our catered salad lunches. Among our prayers, we would send up a benediction that our work at our mission-driven fintech startup would make a meaningful difference in the lives of our underbanked users. Each Friday afternoon, I would duck out of happy hour and dash off to catch the Richmond-bound BART from Montgomery Station so I could make it to Bible study with my friends at Berkeley. It would be close to midnight by the time I got back home to SF. This was church for me, well worth the commute for the few hours of conversation in my week that were not about tech and work.
It's hard to find and commit to a church in the Bay Area. High rents mean the only churches that can afford to stay around for the most part are a handful of long-established institutions or well-funded, flashy megachurches. For years, a colleague-turned-friend used to livestream Sunday services from a church in Brooklyn until they found a congregation across the Bay Bridge that would accept and affirm the wholeness of their identity. Churches are already sparse to come by---try to search for temples in San Francisco, and you get the Temple Nightclub.
There is a steep activation energy to keeping up with religious life in Silicon Valley. At the same time, the intensity of work, easy reach of office amenities, and orientation toward "changing the world" redirects one's zeal toward the ambitions of work. Silicon Valley is one of the most godless places in the world, yet is brimming with a distinctly religious fervor.
This is the paradox of religion in an increasingly secular age that sociologist Carolyn Chen confronts in Work Pray Code, beginning with the narrative of the devout parishioner who upon moving out west to work at a startup, eventually "traded his Christianity for an even more zealous faith in the eventual IPO of his start-up."
Work Pray Code's diagnosis is straightforward: As the institutions that have undergirded religious and civic life fall into precipitous decline, work has swooped in to fill the void for alienated white-collar workers who are grasping for meaning in their lives. Taking on the role of a corporate mother, pastor, and personal coach, the workplace absorbs the motions of religious devotion, redirecting the ardor of a spiritual quest toward the aims of self-improvement and productivity.
In Chen's first book, Getting Saved in America: Taiwanese Immigration and Religious Experience, the author followed the religious formation of Taiwanese American immigrants who adopt Christianity or Buddhism upon arriving in America, congregating in religious centers that doubled as migrant community hubs. I can't help but see a similar socialization happen with interns and new grad transplants who arrive in the Bay Area.
Like the entrepreneurs and career changers that Chen interviews after moving to Silicon Valley, these transplants find religion in their identity as techies. Nurtured by sprawling, well-endowed corporate motherships and startup offices, they come to identify with their employers, internalizing the aesthetics and values of their company and industry. Far from home, a workplace that beckons their full, authentic self becomes a family to them. Soon enough, it becomes their church as well, commanding their piety while pastoring them into being the most productive employee they can be. In Chen's words: "People are not 'selling their souls' at work. Rather, work is where they find their souls."
Writing with an eye for history, Chen traces the roots of bring your whole self to work "expressive individualism" back to 18th century Romanticism and the Transcendentalist thought of Thoreau. She hints at the past of the Whole Earth Catalog-toting New Communalists and Mystics of late 1960s counterculture who later became a part of the establishment, today's highly sought after executive coaches and gurus. She juxtaposes the rich landscape of civic participation of the 1950s, where white-collar workers fled corporate drudgery in lodges and churches, with today's dearth of civic or religious life and an attitude toward white-collar work that has evolved into adulation. She locates the origins of the workplaces touting themselves as family in American companies seeking to compete with Japanese conglomerates in the 1980s by emulating their workplace ethos that prioritizes unrelenting, family-like loyalty to the firm. I have to wonder, though, how the rise of remote and hybrid work will change this workplace-as-family dynamic.
Key to reshaping the workplace was a heightened emphasis on spirituality-tinged self-improvement and culture building. Workplaces started investing in the "whole self" of their employees, engineering a corporate "faith community" that draws highly-skilled, highly-paid workers to find their fulfillment in work. Chen follows a cadre of "mindfulness entrepreneurs" that sell services such as meditation, yoga, and coaching as not just perks, but indispensable to the performance of valuable knowledge workers. However, you have to wonder if something is lost when the means for religious formation are repurposed for the mere aim of increased productivity.
The corporate spiritual menu of vaguely Buddhist practices is stripped of authenticity and rigor, presented only in generic, palatable form in service of productivity. It glosses over a rich local history of psychedelics and spirituality, gentrifying out any trace of woo woo weirdness. Chen's most convicting chapter, "Killing the Buddha," argues that this whitewashing amounts to cultural appropriation and ethical abdication, leaving "a Buddhism that's had the religion steam cleaned out of it."
The "turn on, tune in, drop out" hippie counterculture embraced a naive, utopian escapism from societal responsibility. Similarly, Corporate Buddhism has stripped traditional Buddhism of its ethical core, precluding critical thinking about the nature of the work that tech employees are supposed to perform with greater efficiency after a meditation session.
Today, the corporate tech worker downloads productivity-enhancing mindfulness exercises delivered via the politically correct, sanitized therapy speak and Corporate Memphis of apps like Headspace. She will never have to study the sutras, take the vow of refuge, or see yellow-robed monks chanting nianfo, unless as ornamentation at an extravagantly produced mindfulness conference. Such a culture, inextricably linked to the white supremacist appropriation and erasure of Asian Buddhism, neuters the radical, ethical potential of religion.
Chen's fieldwork took her to the well-stocked company cafeterias and yoga rooms of corporate motherships, the auditoriums of mindfulness conferences, and the hot springs of retreat centers like Esalen. Work Pray Code focuses on tech companies, their highly-skilled, highly-pampered knowledge worker employees, and the support staff that "make them whole." While Chen remains disciplined in the scope of her work, it's worth noting that the religiosity of the tech industry extends far beyond the reality distortion field built by tech companies.
Beyond the walls of startup offices, tech workers are microdosing LSD and freebasing toad in some nondescript living room of a Victorian in the Mission, entertaining life extension and immortality while heating up dumplings over trapstep at Burning Man, or constructing a pseudo-religion in the form of crypto degen culture, one Discord shitpost at a time. Though sharing roots in the wide-ranging trove of countercultural thought and alternative culture that made Silicon Valley weird in the first place, these expressions of spirituality, free and ungoverned, are not constrained by top-down corporate mandate. It is one thing to optimize worker performance to achieve a blowout quarter; quite another to truly blow your mind.
Techtopia's ambitions are far greater than commanding zealous employee loyalty. Tech wants to commandeer the godhead itself. The Black Mirror episode "San Junipero" asks: What if heaven were a place on earth---one that humanity must create through achieving technological Singularity? Ever since the construction of the Ark and the Tower of Babel, humanity has grasped toward divinity, leveraging technologies physical and spiritual to transcend mortality.
Today, it is onsite yoga and meditation classes, expensed for little more than optimizing working potential. But the yearning for the divine will not be so constrained to earthly purpose. As we invent on, clamoring to transcend our mortal condition, we will inevitably encounter tough questions---ones that our religions, the compounded amalgamation of many millennia of human wisdom, can uniquely begin to answer.
This all being said, Work Pray Code is a sociology of labor, not a theological treatise. Chen's focus on tech workplaces serves as a worthwhile preview of the direction white collar work is heading. After all, she warns, "Rather than ridicule Silicon Valley tech workers for worshiping work, perhaps we should wonder whether they are harbingers of things to come---whether their orientation toward work may already be ours, too."
What do we lose if the workplace becomes the only remaining institution where people can find meaning, are expected to make it their golden calf, and even then only if they are a certain kind of knowledge worker? If our daily bread is stripped of ethical consideration, leveraged for "self-hacking" instead of religious formation, how does that affect what kind of technology gets built? A chosen elect of tech workers are enjoying a more integrated and comfortable life than ever before---but, Work Pray Code asks, at what cost---for those workers, and for everyone else?