This provocative new book on religion and work in the technology sector will make you see life in a different light.
According to 4 U.S.C. §4 the United States is one Nation under God. H.R. 619 (84th) passed and approved by President Dwight D. Eisenhower mandates the official motto of the United States “In God We Trust” to appear on all currency issued by the Federal Government of these United States. Without a doubt, religion and spirituality are deeply rooted in this country. Hence it comes as no surprise when Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley Carolyn Chen posits “Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley” in her new book Work Pray Code.
“Today, companies are not just economic institutions. They’ve become meaning-making institutions that offer a gospel of fulfillment and divine purpose in a capitalist cosmos.”
The colorful, borderline-sacred language of this statement illustrates Chen’s ambitions to base the premise of this book on the workplace is replacing religious needs. At her core argument, Chen reasons companies create a meaningful work experience by emulating religious themes, omitting the spiritual or discriminating aspects of faith, which is becoming a substitute for exercising religion outside of work and with the community.
“Religions and companies are collective enterprises. They are ‘faith communities’, communities that support the act of faith. On one level, faith communities do this by articulating the articles of faith– the doctrines, creeds, and sacred texts and teachings. For most companies, and many other organizations, these articles of faith are their mission statement and statement of core values.”
Taken at face value, Chen makes it appear that companies’ mission statements emulate or are synonymous with religious beliefs. However, a closer look reveals that the mission statements of neither Google, Meta (née Facebook) nor Microsoft purport articles of faith. Taking it a step further, if Chen defines religions as collective enterprises, I’d argue companies may as well be independent organizations each governed by unique financial and economic goals, limited by available budget and human resources. A number of technology companies operating out of Silicon Valley engage in eco-friendly sustainability to power data centers and other parts of the organization, but is the water supply division of Meta truly vested in the intricacies of reviewing python code to reign in inauthentic behavior and other automated malicious behavior on Instagram? Could each division link the other’s efforts back to the mission statement? Whose division will shut down first to protect the integrity of the mission statement? I have doubts.
“In the Silicon Valley workplace, work and life are no longer separate and opposing spheres because life happens at work. In fighting the notion that work and life occupy distinct spaces and times, tech companies are reviving a much older way of organizing society. In agrarian societies, work and life were integrated for both women and men. The farm was both home– where people ate, slept, and played– and workplace– where people labored and participated in the economic system. Industrialization began to impose stark boundaries between work and life, particularly for men. Work became confined to a particular space, time, and logic– the factory, with its rhythm governed by the values of efficiency and productivity. Life– defined as activities that don’t contribute to production– happened outside of the factory in the home, church, neighborhood, bowling alley, baseball diamond, saloon, hair salon, and so on. […] Today’s tech company is returning to the undifferentiated spheres of its preindustrial predecessor, however, by making life a part of work.”
This paragraph resonated with me for its accuracy and insight. Coming from a farmer’s family, I experienced some variation of an undifferentiated sphere where work and life all took place at the same time. Somewhere along the road, it all separated into standalone parts of our day. As a technology company, an unrelenting global market of competition for highly-skilled talent as well as pushing products directly to the consumer in real-time is an incentive to maximize productivity and workforce utilization by ensuring a highly-skilled employee is 100% focused on its division’s roadmap and driving execution of it.
I cannot make up my mind about this book. On one hand, Chen makes a valid point by stating technology companies emulate religious characteristics in order to alleviate their employee’s spiritual needs. Moreover, I subscribe to the general argument of mindfulness in conjunction with corporate materialism appears to create an industrial-technology complex that emanates virtues and exercises characteristics of religions. On the other hand, however, I fail to identify a link between a technology company using methods and characteristics developed to further religious beliefs resulting in a replacement theory that Chen appears to offer in her introduction. I view these efforts as motivated by raw capitalism: to benefit its workforce and increase productivity, utilization, and retention as a side effect. Furthermore, her focus is exclusively on technology companies located in Silicon Valley. In reality, however, technology companies are located all over the United States with varying numbers of full-time employees. Limiting her research on the technology sector alone appears to be a flimsy base for a solid argument too. For example, 3M, General Motors, Kraft Heinz, and even Exxon Mobile have a history of wide-ranging benefits similar to Silicon Valley. Setting aside economic motives, Chen missed out on exploring these other sectors including academia, which is known for its fraternal, cult-esque exclusivity, and the almighty military, which is known for strict indoctrination and behavioral codes.
Altogether I learned a lot about the perception and correlation of both religion and Silicon Valley. Whether it applies to the modern workplaces as Carolyn Chen weaves it together remains to be discovered by the reader. Perhaps concluding with more critique than praise for Work Pray Code is a good thing for it forced me to reflect on some preconceived notions about religion. Chen devoted an entire chapter to the art of reflection and I found Lin Chi’s quote to question more perfect to end: “if you meet the Buddha, kill him.” But before you do, read this book.