Review: Work Pray Code

Work Pray Code, Carolyn Chen. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022.

Summary: A sociologist studies how Silicon Valley tech firms bring religion into the workplace, replacing traditional religious institutions, blurring the line of work and religion.

I’ll just say it up front. Anyone who cares about the future of work needs to read this book. Carolyn Chen, a sociologist at UC Berkeley, spent 2013 to 2017 immersing herself in the tech world of Silicon Valley as a participant observer of the trend of incorporating religious practices into the work life of Silicon Valley companies. She did over 100 in-depth interviews and attended retreats, mindfulness sessions, and various “wellness” programs offered by companies.

What she observed was the expansion of work in these companies to fill the whole of workers lives. Many ate two to three meals a day at work, often catered by the companies, along with healthy snacks. They worked out in company gyms and walked on pathways, placed children in company daycare facilities, and learned meditation practices at company-sponsored retreats and used company-provided meditation spaces. For many of these workers, their place of work has become the source of personal, social, and spiritual fulfillment. At the same time, the involvement of many of these workers in traditional religious institutions and other community and civic institutions has waned.

What Chen chronicles at one level is corporate concern for the whole person. Yet underneath this, Chen discerns that so much of this concern for the “whole person” is driven by productivity concerns, to get the “whole person’s” devotion to the corporate mission. Workers spoke of “drinking the kool aid” in terms eerily reminiscent of cult-like groups, leading Chen to conclude that in many of these workers’ lives, their work is their religion.

The “religious” element draws from the meditative practices of Buddhism, shorn of the metaphysical and ethical content. A number of scientific and pseudo-scientific rationalizations are offered by the coaches and teachers who make up a “mindfulness” industry that offers services to these companies. Many are Zen teachers in temples who find this a way to support themselves, particularly as interest in the traditional religious institution wanes. The focus is on focus, helping people become fully attentive, self-aware, and present to their work. But Chen chillingly observes that an amoral “focus” can be turned both to life-enhancing work and to murder. For the teachers, it is a Faustian bargain, profitable contracts that vitiate the real religious content of their Buddhism–“replacing it with a universalized, Whitened, scientized, profitable, and efficient Buddhism.” Furthermore it is a thin religion that fails to challenge the unjust caste system in tech firms that offers these benefits to the elite tech workers, but not to the support staff.

Her concluding chapter addresses the dangers of what she calls “techtopia.” She describes the monopolization of human energy pulling people away from the communities where they live, from civic and religious involvements. She expresses her concern for what happen to communities when religious and civic institutions suffer. She also expresses concern for workers, who give themselves to this religion until they are used up, and really can’t leave this world, reinventing themselves as coaches when they can no longer bear the totalizing pull of the corporations. Individual “resistance” to this pull is not enough, in her view. She believes the answer is to invest in non-work communities–faith communities, neighborhoods, families, and civic associations.

Reading this work makes me think about whether what she describes in Silicon Valley is a picture of the future of work on a wider basis or whether this is a local phenomenon. I cannot help but think this is going to grow, although I also wonder how the trend to remote work resulting from the pandemic will affect this. Chen briefly touches on this, observing that remote work can actually contribute to work demanding even more of one’s life, as commute times are eliminated and one never “clocks out.” I also wonder if other industries that demand heavy investments of their workers might pursue similar strategies–for example, the health care industry.

The fusion of religion and work Chen describes occurs at a time when trust in religious institutions is at a low point and there is a “great resignation” going on among pastors and other religious leaders. Chen describes a spiritual hunger that suggests a great opportunity for religious institutions able to pivot. They can’t simply promote “butts in seats.” They have to address the big questions of meaningful life, humble and authentic communal life extending welcome and inclusion, and spiritual practices connecting the transcendent and every day life.

This work also implies an important discussion to be had about the renewal of our communities in an age of anomie, of the weakening of critical local institutions. The answer isn’t to be found in workplace or political cults. Many of our local communities are becoming combat zones that neither workplace or political cults can truly address. Only strong local institutions can do so–and this only if work is limited to its appropriate place in our lives, allowing the time to invest in the places where we live.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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