Audiobook review: Work Pray Code by Carolyn Chen

3 reasons you should read Work Pray Code

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From Buddhism to techtopia: How Silicon Valley worships work

Silicon Valley is one of the least religious places in the country. Why? Because employees’ spiritual needs are being met at work.

In her book Work Pray Code, sociologist Carolyn Chen explores how tech firms in Silicon Valley have transformed the relationship between work and religion.

Tech firms have recognized that tending to employees’ spiritual needs makes them better workers. They have done this through what Chen calls corporate maternalism. In contrast to paternalism, maternalism looks after the material and spiritual needs of a company’s workers. HR professionals become the firm’s “moms.” They make sure the workers have snacks, arrange events, and even arrange services like dry cleaning and day care.

Like any mother, HR understands that their “children” need to go to worship services. But given the long hours and demanding schedules, workers simply do not have time away from work to feed their souls. So, HR realized that the company needs to nourish that spiritual hunger.

But this spirituality is not religiosity. Chen shows that tech firms have begun offering meditation and mindfulness practices based on Zen Buddhism. And yet they have removed the religious elements and context from those practices. Thus, meditation is in, but chanting is out. Talking about mindfulness is in, but discussions about dharma are out.

Unless we are talking about this Dharma:

Dharma and her mom being spiritual Silicon Valley style

In her chapter called Killing the Buddha, Chen shows how this spirituality is whitened to appeal to the largely white workforce and backed by science to appeal to the scientifically minded engineers who dominate it.

Life coaches who offer meditation practices talk about scientific research that proves the value of mindfulness. She points to apps like Headspace as examples of how Buddhist practices have been repackaged for consumers, especially tech workers.

She argues that Asian Buddhists would hardly recognize the “Buddhism without Buddhism” that dominates tech culture. This whitened Buddhism seeks to assimilate only certain aspects of the religion that appeal to a white audience. The uncomfortable conversations about dharma and reincarnation or other beliefs are cast aside and replaced with only the comfortable, feel-good ideas that reinforce white power structures.

The emotional connection to belief is gone. Rather, the purpose of these meditative practices is to help employees detach from their emotions so that they can better focus on business results. She demonstrates the ableist tendencies of the culture when she discusses how autism is weaponized as a slur to mock those who struggle with regulating their emotions.

Chen argues that tech firms create a techtopia where employees find a sense of belonging that used to come from other community organizations. Work now meets all an employee’s needs. Community organizations like religious institutions or other civic organizations no longer serve a purpose for these employees. That has led many tech workers to disengage from their communities, often to the detriment of those communities. For example, instead of investing in better transit in the Bay area, Google has its own bus service that is pulling resources away from the larger community. Tech workers do not feel a need to engage in conversations about public transit because the company meets that need. Just as it meets their employees’ spiritual needs.

These techtopias represent a Silicon Valley “upgraded social operating system.” They are professionally managed, data driven, meritocratic, and scalable. So exactly as Thomas More would have imagined, no doubt.

By Bibliothèque Nationale de France – Utopia Thomas More (1516), CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87428991

Chen notes, however, that “these techtopias are eroding our collective capacity to build and sustain a common good.” And, frankly, like the operating system analogy that she uses, these techtopias are buggy as hell. As critical as Chen is of these systems, it feels like she elides over the tendency for these techtopias to replace unions. This is, as we say in tech, a feature not a bug.

Chen finished the book during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a recent Atlantic article, she assesses the potential impact of remote work on these techtopias. She argues:

The only way to reorient is by revitalizing and building shared “houses of worship” outside of work, changing the structures that organize our fulfillment. These houses of worship would have to claim our time, energy, and devotion like work does. We would have to sacrifice and submit to their demands, as we do for work. We would have to build communities of belonging, together seeking meaning and purpose outside of our productive labor. These houses of worship needn’t be only religious ones; they could also be our co-ops, neighborhoods, unions, reading groups, or political clubs—anything in the panoply of civic organizations that can help us visualize human flourishing that rises above a company’s bottom line.

The Atlantic, What the Anti-work Discourse Gets Wrong, March 2022

Questions to consider

Overall, I enjoyed Work Pray Code. Lim’s narration was well paced and thoughtful.

I would have liked to see Chen engage more with other religious traditions beyond Buddhism. In particular, what role does Hinduism and the Bhagavad Gita play in the construction of these techtopias? Her discussion of the 1960s counter-culture seems to pointedly not be mentioning a specific brand of Hinduism that’s popular in the Valley.

While she is critical of these techtopias, she does seem to cast a largely positive framework for them. Yet, recent articles in Wired, Bloomberg, and the Washington Post have shed light on the ways in which the caste system is replicated within tech culture. This has tremendous implications not only on the material nature of workers’ experience, but also on how these theocratic techtopias are constructed.

I enjoyed the techtopia discussion so much that I would like to see Chen expand it into its own monograph. How would she trace the theological thought of the utopia of Thomas More, a sixteenth-century Catholic through to this contemporary vision that integrates (and frankly steals from) other religious traditions? What are the larger implications in a world in which the Metaverse is seen as a utopia by its creators but clearly represents a dystopian hellscape for many users?

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