Putting California Buddhism to Work in Silicon Valley

By Fred TurnerMarch 8, 2022

Putting California Buddhism to Work in Silicon Valley

Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley by Carolyn Chen

A LITTLE MORE than 30 years ago, in a now-classic study called The Human Motor, historian Anson Rabinbach took readers back to the end of the 19th century, showing how the whirring factories of that industrial boom time gave rise to a new vision of the human being. Marxists, managers, and social engineers agreed that the individual man, woman, or even child, like the factory itself, was designed to be an engine of productivity. Muscles were the belts and gears through which a person could make a living. Physical health gave evidence of moral fortitude. Lassitude suggested ethical decay. What’s more, both body and factory modeled the then-new understanding that the universe itself was a system of energy exchange. In short, the laboring body became a living emblem of the manufacturing processes it served, and the hierarchical order of the factory mirrored the natural order of all things.

Today, we inhabit a very different time. If the smokestacks of Manchester, England, stood for the economy of the 19th century, the open-plan offices and grassy campuses of Silicon Valley technology firms stand for our economy. As sociologist Carolyn Chen amply demonstrates, in the software industries, human beings are still engines of productivity, but it’s not their bodies that count: it’s their minds. A hundred years ago, Frederick Winslow Taylor tried to train the bodies of workers to move ever more precisely, to become ever more machine-like. Today Chen shows us how the leaders of Silicon Valley seek to tune the minds of coders and product managers to the spiritual frequencies of innovation. Religion has become a tool of management and as a result, writes Chen, religion itself has begun to change in Silicon Valley, and perhaps far beyond.

The question is: Why? “The spiritual importance of the workplace today represents a monumental shift in the history of modern capitalism,” writes Chen, and she may be right. But if she is, what’s driving the change?

Work Pray Code never answers the question, and given Chen’s commitment to the ethnographic method, in some ways, it can’t. Chen believes in hanging out, asking questions, listening, and following the individual people she is studying as they go about their lives. Like a good long-form journalist, she wants to know what it feels like to live in a place most folks never see, and her portrait of corporate life in the Valley is as vivid as any yet painted. Yet her portrait is also a composite, a collage built from individual interviews to show the effects of large-scale economic and cultural transformations on individual lives. Moreover, the lives under study belong only to the highest tiers of Silicon Valley workers. As a result, Work Pray Code presents an extraordinarily fine-grained map of the traffic between religion and profit-seeking among Silicon Valley’s elite. It leaves open the question of whether those interactions foreshadow changes across the rest of the American economy.

When Chen began researching the book, she says, “the tech industry was as foreign to me as Mars.” Between 2013 and 2017, she conducted just over 100 interviews with tech industry professionals such as “engineers, designers, entrepreneurs, executives, and venture capitalists,” as well as the yoga and mindfulness instructors and executive coaches who served them. Few if any appear under their real names, presumably due to the concerns of the Institutional Review Board at Berkeley, where she teaches. Likewise, Chen never names the firms whose employees she studied, but notes that she visited 15 firms, from the very small to the very large. Even so, she has clearly immersed herself in elite Valley culture, dining at fabled corporate cafeterias, attending company-sponsored wellness workshops, and interviewing figures well up the management ladder.

What she saw and heard will surely add fuel to the fire of the region’s ongoing techlash. Even as the region’s security guards and schoolteachers struggle to make rent, its coders, designers, and high-end marketing staff can live their entire lives within the pleasant precincts of the corporate campus. As Chen points out, many of the people she interviewed were under 45, sometimes with families, often single. To this demographic tech firms offer meals, childcare, movie tickets, the kinds of parties that were called “mixers” back in the 1950s, and the chance to work alongside people as young and smart as themselves. The lifestyles on offer will be familiar to readers of Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle, and so will the motivation behind them. As one manager told Chen, “We can’t work them 24/7 unless we give them flexibility.”

Along with all the comforts of a college campus, tech firms offer their high-end workers a sense of purpose. In an acutely insightful and too-brief historical backgrounder at the start of the book, Chen recounts a turn across American industry in the 1980s and 1990s toward improving corporate cultures and inspiring workers to fulfill their sense of personal mission at work. Silicon Valley became both test bed and emblem for this process, she argues. On the secular side, tech firms sought to meet their top-tier workers’ material needs; on the spiritual side, they aimed to marry their workers’ desires for community and meaning to the company’s search for return on investment.

Enter religion — or at least, those parts of it that can be secularized and turned into tools for the enhancement of productivity. Chen opens the book with the story of John — actual name unknown — a Christ-loving graduate of Georgia Tech who moved from Atlanta to Silicon Valley in 2011 to join a start-up. In Georgia, his church and Christian fraternity had provided a social life, philosophy of purpose, and sense of identity. When he arrived in California, he found a much more secular region. John’s company took the place of his fraternity and church, giving him friends and a sense of meaning. Where once he might have wanted to win the world for Christ, he now found himself committed to changing the world through technology. And like the proselytizing he felt obliged to do in Georgia, his new mission weighed on him: “We feel very burdened,” he said. “[W]e have to come up with this thing that’s going to change the world.”

As Chen points out, John had left a region permeated with churched religion for one permeated with a kind of ambient spirituality. In another era, his might have been the story of a young man seeking his fortune in the gold mines, or of an emerging California beatnik. California has always played home to people seeking refuge from more constricted worlds, and for 100 years at least, the San Francisco Bay region has hosted as many Eastern as Western faith traditions. By the 1960s, the area’s obsession with self-discovery had famously helped spark San Francisco’s Summer of Love, the Acid Tests, and the largest wave of commune building in American history.

For John and his fellow coders though, the Bay Area’s spiritual traditions and, more specifically, the techniques of New Age self-improvement, group psychotherapy, Hindu mysticism, and Zen Buddhism have all become part of the manager’s tool kit. As Chen points out, many Silicon Valley executives believe that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned religion from the office (it didn’t). In part for that reason, they strenuously avoid bringing explicitly religious practitioners and their theologies into the firm. Instead, companies bring in coaches to encourage their employees to find their “best selves” using practices once promoted by monks and sadhus and now presented as scientifically approved techniques for self-improvement. Yoga instructors drop the mysticism and focus instead on helping workers reduce stress by controlling their breathing. Zen monks leave their robes at home and teach multitasking programmers how to focus their attention on one thing at a time.

As she traces how tech corporations are turning practices born within organized religion into tools for surviving the chaos of the marketplace, Chen makes visible how corporations of all kinds bend other institutions to their drive for profits. Yet, a skeptic might ask, is it really so bad to practice deep breathing? To stretch for an hour? And does it really matter that the techniques have been stripped of their religious origins?

As it turns out, it matters a great deal. In the book’s longest and most compelling chapter, Chen explores the role of Zen Buddhism at tech firms. Unable to earn a living teaching traditional Buddhism, Zen teachers have parceled out their tradition’s meditation techniques for the marketplace. Some practitioners console themselves by arguing that the Valley’s elite are suffering from high-pressure jobs and long hours — which they surely are — and that the mission of all Buddhists has always been to eliminate suffering. If that means dropping certain religious rituals and tucking certain dogmas out of sight, so be it. But as Chen shows, more than the rituals disappear. Corporate Buddhism abandons the egalitarian impulse of its religious origins. The modes of attention once meant to help practitioners see themselves as peaceful citizens of an interconnected web of life must now be harnessed to the search for profit, the control of data, and through it, the domination of other people. In its religious context, Zen meditation is a tool to counter the predations of desire run amok. Stripped of that context, it is free to serve corporate greed.

Chen suggests that the repurposing of religion in this way is historically new, but in fact, America’s corporate titans have harnessed religion to motivate and control their workers since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. What strikes me as genuinely new in the world Chen depicts are the combinations of labor style and religion in play. Silicon Valley’s large working class — unstudied here — may still go to church on Sundays, but for the elite, work really is the source of meaning and mission. In the industrial era, it was brawn that made the hammers swing and energy that kept the furnaces firing. In our time, at the high end of the knowledge industries at least, it is the well-tuned mind, the flow state, the scanning of patterns and systems and the ability to see oneself within them, that helps a company grow. And for that, California Buddhism is ideal.


Fred Turner is the Harry and Norman Chandler Professor of Communication at Stanford University. He is the author or co-author of five books: Seeing Silicon Valley: Life inside a Fraying America (with Mary Beth Meehan); L’Usage de L’Art dans la Silicon Valley; The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties; From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism; and Echoes of Combat: The Vietnam War in American Memory. Before coming to Stanford, he taught Communication at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He also worked for ten years as a journalist. He has written for newspapers and magazines ranging from the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine to Harper’s.

LARB Contributor

Fred Turner is the Harry and Norman Chandler Professor of Communication at Stanford University. He is the author or co-author of five books.


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