Carolyn Chen is a sociologist and UC Berkeley professor who researches religion, race and ethnicity. every new book Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valleyfeatures in-depth interviews with employees and employers to explore how spirituality begets productivity in the world’s tech hub.
As a professor of religion, what sparked your interest in Silicon Valley?
I’ve studied Taiwanese immigrant evangelicals, evangelical Christians, Buddhists in their communities, but I think anyone who lives in a western industrialized country, in a metropolitan area, knows that religion is on the decline in terms of religious affiliation and religious participation. To me, it felt as if there was something missing if I was only capturing people who self-identify as religious. How do we see religion working in the world? What is the contemporary manifestation of religion? I was really interested in looking at the presence of religion in secular spaces.
Which took you to yoga studios and what did you learn when you spoke to secular people using this spiritual practice?
I noticed that work was really prominent in people’s narratives and in their biography. When I would ask people: “So why do you practice yoga, when do you practice yoga?” it often centered on work. People would say: “Well, I practice yoga because, after a long day, I feel like I need stress relief.” But there was also another line: “Yoga really helps to restore me so that I can become a better X” – and here you could fill in the blank – a better nurse, a better engineer, a better accountant or lawyer. It became clear to me that work was really religion in their lives – that work was what they were willing to submit and surrender and sacrifice for. And, if anything, yoga was merely a therapeutic ancillary – it was to support this other thing that they were, you could say, worshiping.
So it became clear to me in those interviews that I was looking in the wrong place. Because I was looking at something that had religious origins, which is yoga, but what was it that they were actually worshiping, what was actually sacred in their lives? It wasn’t yoga. Yoga was helping them worship their work.
And your book chronicles how Silicon Valley CEOs use this to their advantage – first, offering yoga classes at tech headquarters, and now encouraging Buddhist practices such as mindfulness and meditation. Why have the latter taken over?
Yoga got replaced by meditation and mindfulness, because there are thousands of studies on [the benefits of] meditation and mindfulness – there’s a whole cottage industry. But, as I write about in the book, a lot of the studies have been done in controlled labs, so they might not necessarily be applicable in a workplace setting. And it’s not even clear what mindfulness is when it’s used in these secular spaces. I just felt like these companies were always looking for the new next big thing, an easy thing. It needed to be convenient and fast to optimize their workers’ productivity.
Which is essentially the crux of your book – tech giants are using spiritual practices to optimize productivity and spiritual concepts (“missions”, “origin stories”, “leaders”) to make people devote their lives to work. But why now? Why optimise employees in this way, of all ways?
It’s part of a longer trend and larger shifts in the economy – the rise of the knowledge economy and a shift from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. In an industrial economy, the way that you might improve your bottom line is usually through the exploitation of natural resources. In a knowledge economy, the most important asset is the knowledge and skills of your labor force. How do you grow that? You can increase a person’s value by educating them, but you could also improve their production, grow their value, by growing their spirit. How do you capture that spiritual side of them, that emotional side of them, so that they can invest fully into the workforce? A lot of the terms that we use now to describe work, such as “passion” or bringing your “whole self” to work, get at this concept of how you manage labor today in a knowledge economy; it’s not just necessarily the skills of the human worker, it’s also that spiritual aspect, too.
In practice, this means companies provide employees with free healthy meals, life coaches, wellness centers… When reading, I kind of thought, “That sounds great” How do you convince people to challenge that? What are the drawbacks of what you call corporate maternalism?
First, let me just say that I felt the same way. Because what the tech company offers is the most efficient solution – and efficient is the most important word here – to providing a meaningful and fulfilling life. When I was spending time there, I thought, “I would be a much better scholar, teacher, mother, even, if I were here, because the company would take care of all these things.” So I struggled with that very same question that you’re asking.
But there are drawbacks to it that I saw as a sociologist. I talked about in the book how the workplace acts as this giant magnet that attracts the time, energy and devotion of a community. But what happens to other institutions? What happens to the family, to faith communities, to schools, even small businesses, arts organizations, neighborhood associations? In the American model, we see these civic institutions as fundamentally important to preserving our democracy. All these other institutions start to grow smaller and smaller, because you have this alpha institution that’s attracting everything.
Right – and you noted how janitors and caterers don’t get the same perks as engineers, and how the ethical dynamics of spirituality are completely lost. Some of the perks on offer are eyebrow-raising: I was shocked to read about Vijay, an engineer who was essentially given a dating coach by his employer. What was the most shocking moment for you in your reporting?
This one HR person said: “Well, we can’t get our workers to work 24/7 unless we give them flexibility.” And when she said that, a lightbulb went on in my head. We really need to think about this as we’re moving towards a more hybrid model. Workers are pushing towards flexibility, but what can be a consequence of that? It can be that you work 24/7.
Before I opened the book, I assumed it would largely be about the cult worship of people such as Steve Jobs. It’s more complicated than that. Who is the God in your equation? What is the figure of worship?
Steve Jobs is like a saint – there’s this hagiography, there is a cult of Steve Jobs and people started practicing meditation because of him. But it’s essentially worshiping a system. It’s this belief that work is going to save you, it’s the thing that’s going to give you meaning and purpose and, in a sense, immortality.