What happens to society when its members worship work? Silicon Valley offers us an answer. The tech industry has created what I call Techtopia, one of its most disruptive innovations yet. Techtopia is Silicon Valley’s upgraded social “operating system”—an engineered society where people find their highest fulfillment in the utopian workplace. It promises high-skilled Americans a new kind of “wholeness.” Professionally managed, data-driven, meritocratic, and designed to scale, Techtopia gives tech workers what their families, religions, neighborhoods, unions, and civic organizations have failed to deliver in the last forty years: meaning, purpose, recognition, spirituality, and community. It is the twenty-first century American Dream.
Techtopia’s promise of fulfillment may feel distant, or even comical to most Americans. But in fact, it addresses a silent and growing absence in the American soul: an absence of belonging. Social institutions that once nurtured belonging and fulfillment no longer serve Americans well. In the last forty years, Americans have withdrawn not only from religion, but from marriage and civic associations that at once offered “wholeness.” Rates of marriage and civic participation are at an all-time low. Few Americans are members of unions any longer. Many people don’t even have a sense of attachment to the companies they work for because they are subcontracted labor, including many of the people who make the tech companies thrive. Even a sense of national belonging is in crisis. In 2018, a record low number of Americans reported being “extremely proud to be American.” What institutions do we turn to now for belonging and purpose in life? Where do we go for “wholeness?”
The media pathologizes people who worship work, calling them “workaholics.” But what is the alternative? In American society today, there is no single institution that so faithfully aspires to meet the material, social, and spiritual needs of its members as work does for its highly skilled workers. Tech workers are worshipping work because work has become worthy of worship.
Techtopia is a cautionary tale for the rest of America. It may be making an elite group of tech workers “whole,” but it is leaving the rest of society broken. What kind of society do we become when human fulfillment is centered in the workplace? What happens to our families, religions, communities, and civil society when work satisfies too many of our needs? Silicon Valley is a bellwether of what happens when we worship work—when we surrender our time, our identities, our resources, and even our cherished traditions in service to work. It is what will happen if we don’t invest in building and sustaining social institutions and traditions that nurture community, identity, and purpose outside of work.
Techtopia and the Monopolization of Human Energy
Techtopia seeks to monopolize the collective energies of communities, channeling them away from religions, families, neighborhoods, and civic associations, and into the tech workplace. To illustrate tech’s relationship to the community, imagine social institutions represented as a variety of magnets spaced out on a tabletop. And let’s say we have a bucket of metal filings that symbolize the energy (time, effort, attention) of people in the community. If we scattered the bucket of metal filings onto the table, the filings would cluster around the most powerful magnets. And even if we tried to distribute the filings evenly across the table, they would naturally migrate toward the most powerful magnets. The piles of filings show us where the energy of the community gravitates.
The metaphor of magnets and metal filings illustrates the relationship between work and human energy in Silicon Valley. Workplaces are like big and powerful magnets that attract the energy of individuals away from weaker magnets such as families, religious congregations, neighborhoods, and civic associations—institutions that we typically associate with “life” in the “work-life” binary. The magnets don’t “rob” or “extract”—words that we use to describe labor exploitation. Instead they attract the filings, monopolizing human energy by exerting an attractive rather than extractive force. By creating workplaces that meet all of life’s needs, tech companies attract the energy and devotion people would otherwise devote to other social institutions, ones that, traditionally and historically, have been sources of life fulfillment.
Consider how the “life” provisions of the workplace attracted the devotion of Sheba Nair, a tech worker and single mother. She chose to take a more senior position at a new firm even though it would mean longer hours, leaving her less time to spend with her seven-year-old daughter. Despite the longer hours, the new job had perks that made her life easier as a single mother. The company had an after-school child-care facility and a big playground that stayed open late. In the past, Sheba had struggled to pick up her daughter by six from her school’s aftercare program. Now, Sheba can work late knowing that her daughter is safe and well cared for. On top of that, the new company’s cafeteria serves dinner. Now, instead of hastily heating up a microwaved frozen dinner, Sheba and her daughter have stress-free healthy dinners at work, where she enjoys “quality time” with her daughter.
If Sheba lived in a different time or place, she would have called on other institutions and individuals to care for her daughter: the watchful eyes of neighborhood adults, a neighborhood youth center, or extended kin. But all the other families in her neighborhood are like hers. They, too, work long hours in tech and send their kids to after-school programs away from the neighborhood. Moreover, as a “tech migrant” who moved to Silicon Valley from India, Sheba has no extended kin nearby to rely on.
In Techtopia, companies replace all other potential providers of social support—families, local businesses, neighborhoods, and public services. Indeed, the company’s professional, managed care is so efficient that the services of other social institutions pale in comparison. One woman marveled at the perks of her daughter’s tech job—the meals, laundry service, wellness benefits. “I could never give her all that,” she admitted.
Companies are also stepping in where religions have failed. “I was talking to a guy at work the other day about mindfulness,” Jim Ward, the mindfulness director at one firm, recalls. “And he said, ‘I want to do more of this. Are there groups where you can get together and do this?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it’s called church.’ [laughing] And he says, ‘Oh yeah, but I don’t want church.’” Jim delivers the all-too-serious punch line with a grin: the company’s mindfulness program is “having church at work without having church.”
People are hungry for spirituality, Jim says, but they “are turned off by religion.” Although he is an active member of a faith community outside of his company, Jim doesn’t see religious institutions meeting people’s spiritual needs in Silicon Valley. The workplace, in his view, is the answer: “I think we can create that place at work, where they can be spiritual without even knowing they are being spiritual. … They can feed that part of themselves that wants to be fed in a way that’s completely secular.”
Carrie Hawthorne, a former human resources director at a large tech firm, also sees the depth of people’s unmet needs and the company willingness to take the place of religion: “People don’t really go to church the way they used to. They’re not really rooted in their communities the way they used to be. There is this deep need for being a part of something larger than themselves, so feeling connected to the other people in the company, to the mission of the organization … it’s taking the place of some of these other institutions that we used to have.”
Most of us can agree that eating well, being physically fit, experiencing spiritual growth, and having a purpose in life are all good things. Why should we care if people fulfill these needs through their workplaces, especially if work provides them more efficiently than families, neighborhoods, and faith communities?
The problem is that tech companies increasingly operate like the most extreme of religious organizations—cults. They channel the energy of their employees inward and cut them off from things outside. As I’ve discussed, tech companies do this by hoarding so much of their employees’ time, energy, and passions that they have nothing left for anything else. And they provide for so many of their employees’ needs that tech workers can do without the public. As a result, Techtopia is corroding the collective capacity to build and sustain a common good.
Peter Kim, a tech entrepreneur in his late forties, has witnessed the breakdown of community and civic participation as tech workers took over his Silicon Valley suburb. Fifteen years ago, Peter had neighbors with diverse occupations—one neighbor was in real estate, one in finance, another a plumber, and another a small business owner. Peter would see them walking their dogs and mowing their lawns, and their children playing in the yards. The neighborhood felt to him like a community, he says. There was a sense of mutual concern for each other and the neighborhood as a whole. They belonged to the neighborhood. The previous owner of Peter’s house used to run a day-care center from the home, drawing in many of the children and families from the neighborhood. When issues arose, they’d organize community meetings and post flyers around the neighborhood. Peter, who is now running for elected office in his city, credits his start in city politics to the activism of this earlier neighborhood. If it weren’t for those neighbors, he believes, he wouldn’t be running for political office today.
Today, he says, “a lot of those people are gone.” Many moved because of the rising cost of living. Others sold their homes at unthinkable profits and retired early somewhere else. What do his neighbors do for a living now? Peter goes down the list: “software engineer, software engineer, software engineer.” None of them, in his view, care about the neighborhood. They live there, but there’s no sense of belonging. The town was closing small neighborhood parks to cut costs, he complained. That was something his old neighbors would have fought. But now, his neighbors don’t do anything. I asked him why engineers are different. “They’re busy,” he answered. Peter rarely sees his neighbors anymore. They’re not around enough to see the town notices about the impending shut-down of their neighborhood park. And even if they see the notices, they don’t seem to care. “They don’t go to the park, so it just disappears,” Peter explained.
Peter’s story made me think of Sheba. What if Sheba had lived in Peter’s old neighborhood when it was rich with social relations? Sheba and her daughter’s life might have been different. Her daughter might have attended a child-care center run out of a neighbor’s house, instead of the company program. The child would have been able to walk to the neighborhood park instead of relying on her mother to drive her to the company playground. Between the neighbors, whose work schedules were different from Sheba’s, there would usually have been some adult to keep an eye on the kids at the park. Her daughter’s playmates would have been neighborhood children with parents from different walks of life—as realtors, small business owners, and plumbers—and not just the children of other tech workers. The swing set and the monkey bars in the neighborhood park wouldn’t be as new and flashy as the ones at Sheba’s company, but one could imagine such a community fighting the city tooth and nail if it tried to take the park away from them.
Richard Grant, a longtime Protestant minister in Silicon Valley, notices that church participation has declined as tech has grown. People, he says, now live at “a breathless pace.” Thirty years ago, the typical member of his church attended both Sunday service and Sunday school most weeks. Today, the average member of his church attends only Sunday service once a month. This has caused a “volunteer challenge” in his church. Time and energy that people used to devote to church is now going to work.
In Techtopia, people don’t belong to neighborhoods, churches, or cities. They belong to work. Instead of building friendships, trust, and goodwill within their communities, they develop the social capital of their companies.
Silicon Valley shows what happens when we worship work—when we surrender our time, our identities, our resources, and even our cherished traditions in service to work. How, then, can we not worship work? How do we break the theocracy of work?
“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life,” the late writer David Foster Wallace observed, “there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” We stop worshipping work, Wallace suggests, by choosing to worship something else. But we cannot do it alone, in the private sanctuary of our personal prayers and devotions. Since worshipping work is a social enterprise, choosing not to worship work must also be a collective endeavor. We can do this by intentionally building shared places of worship, fulfillment, and belonging that attract our time, energy, and devotion. These are our families, neighborhoods, clubs, and civic associations, as well as our faith communities. We need to recharge these “magnets” that have grown weak. Contrary to what time management pundits tell us, we do this by letting these magnets attract more and not less of our time, energy, and passion. This is not a call to end work; it’s a call to energize non-workplaces. It’s an invitation to reflect on how we as a society expend our collective energy. It’s an appeal to redistribute our devotion into the institutions that we want to shape our desires and fulfill us. And it’s a proposition to invest in institutions that share resources equitably across society.
Among our civic institutions, religions are especially well positioned to respond to the challenges of our time. Religion is one of the last spheres of social life to offer cohesive and communal traditions that resist marketized forms of logic and exchange. Unfortunately, most organized religions in the United States today seem to regard the worship of work not as a problem to change, but rather as something to accommodate. In places like Silicon Valley, religion has become a therapeutic salve to heal the inner self in a work-obsessed world. Religions as varied as Buddhism and evangelical Christianity offer “personal freedom” and “personal salvation” but leave the worship of work intact.
Religions can do much more, of course. Their liturgies, practices, and teachings reorient the human heart, mind, and body away from the world of work and markets. Religious traditions can offer a powerful and distinct set of ethics, communities, and rituals to counter the morally bereft religion of work. They can teach virtues such as justice, stewardship, kinship, and compassion, qualities that help us determine how, why, and when to work; how and what to produce; and what to do with the profits of our work. Religion can show us that values such as efficiency, productivity, and growth are means and not ends in themselves. Now more than ever, we need the prophetic voices of our religious traditions and communities to help us restore a collective wholeness.
As we enter the third year of the pandemic, the future of work is uncertain for Silicon Valley and the rest of the world. Most tech workers in Silicon Valley work from home. They no longer live their lives at work. Instead, work now lives with them at home. It’s become the newest family member and has settled in, like a newborn, requiring constant attention and devotion.
There’s no telling how work will change for Silicon Valley tech workers and other high-skilled professionals after the pandemic. Some companies, such as Twitter, claim that they are going completely remote for good. Others are so invested in their infrastructures and cultures that they’ll want to return to the way things were. But once we reopen our workplaces, neighborhoods, churches, temples, and gyms, we will have to learn to be with one another again. We will have to re-create our communities. What will we do? The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre writes that our actions and ethics emerge from our sense of belonging: “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” To whom and to what will we choose to belong? What will we choose to worship?
*All photographs by Matt Gush, mattgush.com.
 Although voter participation in the 2020 presidential election was at an all-time high, general rates of civic participation have trended downward for the past fifty years. See Theda Skocpol, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003); Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000); Robert D. Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2020). For marriage rates, see Sally C. Curtin and Paul D. Sutton, “Marriage Rates in the United States, 1900–2018,” National Center for Health Statistics E-Stat, April 29, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/marriage_rate_2018/marriage_rate_2018.htm.
 Putnam, Upswing, 51.
 Jeffrey Jones, “In U.S., Record-Low 47% Extremely Proud to Be Americans,” Gallup News, July 2, 2018, https://news.gallup.com/poll/236420/record-low-extremely-proud-americans.aspx.
 To be sure, Silicon Valley was never as community oriented as its longtime residents remember it. It promoted land-intensive, spread-out tract housing long before Google showed up, and it relentlessly segregated Black and Latinx residents away from the park-rich neighborhoods people like Peter rightly cherished. But the tech companies’ appetite for human energy has played a crucial role in the unravelling of civil society, whose consequences are only just beginning to be felt. For the history of suburbanization and racial segregation in Northern California, see Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).
 Economist Paul Collier makes a similar argument to explain the rise of nationalism and the polarization between the working class and the highly skilled in Western democracies. In the last fifty years, the highly skilled have switched their identity from nation to work because work best “maximizes their esteem,” he claims. The working class that got left behind in the new economy, on the other hand, turned to nationalism. Paul Collier, The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties (Great Britain: Penguin Random House UK, 2018), 52.
 David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (New York: Little, Brown, 2009), 7.
 Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1984), 250.
Carolyn Chen (www.carolynchen.org) is a sociologist and associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Getting Saved in America (Princeton), coeditor with Russell Jeung of Sustaining Faith Traditions and the author of the new book, Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley (Princeton), from which the above article is excerpted.
Matt Gush (www.mattgush.com) is a photographic journalist based in Southern California, whose work has been collected by National Geographic, featured by The New York Times, and is represented by Getty Images.