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As a former journalist who went to work at a startup, solicitations for tech industry events show up in my inbox with some frequency. But this was a new one:
“We are bringing together the sacred plant medicine ayahuasca with leaders at the world’s most innovative startups,” the email said. “Together we will go on a journey to deeply explore our individual and collective purpose.”
Over the subsequent weeks, follow-up pitches about the Costa Rica retreat offered testimonials about the benefits of ayahuasca from the likes of the best-selling author and entrepreneurial figurehead Tim Ferriss and pro surfer Kelly Slater. “Every participant will be positively transformed. The lives they live, companies they build and examples they set will transform the world.”
My first thought is that I would love to be a fly on the wall at such an event. But there’s a point that gets lost in the sensationalist glee surrounding the idea of a bunch of tech bros tripping in the jungle: “Counterculture,” whether that means partying, looking down on mainstream religion, or embracing a hodgepodge of Eastern religious values, is the norm in “Silicon Valley” — a catchall term I’m using here to broadly describe the technology workers not just in the Bay Area but also in New York and Los Angeles.
If you don’t embrace that — whether because you’re older, belong to a traditional religion that comes into conflict with countercultural values, or just aren’t that into partying — it can be hard to fit in. And that matters in an economically dominant field that’s hard enough to penetrate even without cultural obstacles.
Working in the industry, especially as a former Googler, when I hear allegations that tech companies have a baked-in bias against conservatism or claims that conservative employees didn’t feel comfortable being open, my immediate reaction has been: Well, of course they don’t. And such allegations have become a chorus on the right. But I think the kind of conservatism that Silicon Valley is hostile to has less to do with politics and far more to do with lifestyle.
The cultural uniformity of Silicon Valley
Julie Fredrickson, a longtime tech entrepreneur and conservative Christian, tells me she frequently feels her religious beliefs are out of place in the tech world. “I’m confident that discovering I’m a Calvinist would lead to some awkward conversations I don’t necessarily want to have with Silicon Valley folks,” says Fredrickson, CEO of the cosmetics company Stowaway. “People who have actually, very carefully considered belief systems, whether religious or otherwise, don’t always feel safe expressing it.”
“What, really?” is a typical reaction among the entrepreneurial class when she mentions her religiosity, which she avoids bringing up unless asked, she says. She added that she feels the need to explain her faith to reassure previously skeptical parties that she’s “rational.”
Fredrickson also was not raised Christian and frequently mentions how she came to it on her own terms and in tandem with her love of math (“a long story,” she says). It’s a stark contrast to the industry stereotype that anyone who adheres to organized religion must have had that belief imposed on them by their family.
At Google, few co-workers would blink an eye if you told them that you spent the previous weekend attending an electronic music festival in an otter costume, but you might get some funny looks if you admitted you went to church every weekend. I used to prowl around on a listserv of Googlers who considered themselves agnostics, atheists, and skeptics; the responses on a thread about the revelation that a small group of Christian employees had booked a conference room for a weekly prayer group ranged from, “We employ people who pray?” to, “Is that really appropriate to do at work?” (Note: This is a company that hosted Justin Bieber concerts and pie-eating contests at the office.)
Religious conservatives aren’t the only people who find themselves shut out of Silicon Valley’s hegemonic culture. Thanks to its well-documented worship of youth — which ties back to the same ’60s-inspired counterculturalism — ageism is just as pervasive as one might expect.
It is, I think, the industry’s most insidious “-ism,” in part because of how little attention it gets. There was no hashtag activism movement launched when nearly 300 people joined an age discrimination lawsuit against Google, or when a report found that job opportunities in Silicon Valley started to dry up when employees hit their late 40s. It was even revealed that cosmetic surgery treatments were soaring in the Bay Area on behalf of employees who were afraid of looking their age.
Silicon Valley’s biases reveal a deep distaste for anything that could be considered “square.” The euphemistic HR term “culture fit” is meant to ensure employees are comfortable with a company’s ethos and attitudes. In reality, it’s a concept that’s more often used to exclude employees, regardless of age, who would prefer a quiet dinner at home to joining their co-workers for Thirsty Thursday.
An obsessive attention to culture fit becomes an even bigger problem as the tech industry expands and continues to be a major driver of job growth, and companies like Amazon and Apple announce enormous new headquarters that may wind up in parts of the country that — the horror! — may have voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
That’s why, upon reading about James Damore’s decision to bring a class-action lawsuit against Google for discriminating against white male conservatives, my mind jumped not to aggrieved Trump supporters but rather to culturally conservative people, particularly those who follow traditional Western religions.
In Silicon Valley, to be perceived as inadequately open-minded — as defined by the norms of this peculiar culture — induces awkwardness at best and, sometimes, outright hostility. It’s a place where that false binary of “rationality” versus “faith” is often accepted as truth.
Half of tech workers identify as atheist or agnostic
Half of tech workers identified as atheist or agnostic, according to a survey by the Lincoln Network, an organization dedicated to advancing principles of economic conservatism in the tech industry. That’s compared to just 7 percent of the US population who identify as atheist or agnostic (although an additional 16 percent identify as religiously unaffiliated but without either of those two labels), and the respondents in this particular survey skewed slightly conservative.
At Google, I spent every day in a work environment with a specific cultural uniformity — one with its own rituals and deities that have come to feel decidedly contradictory for a population that so fervently rejects “faith.”
One quick scan through the email from the ayahuasca invitation and a pattern of vocabulary emerges: “Sacred,” “purpose,” “transformation” — with this kind of language, you may as well be in church. Companies profess to be driven not by mere secular profit but by a belief in changing the world; until his death, a speech by Steve Jobs was treated like a sermon.
Yet tech’s avowed rationalism and skepticism has some very obvious contradictions. There are prominent factions in Silicon Valley who would scoff at anyone’s belief that Jesus Christ could really perform miracles but who would have no problem believing a tweet that read, “Just turned water into wine!” if it came from Elon Musk.
And as proved by tech’s reaction when Musk claimed he was pivoting from electric cars and batteries to selling flamethrowers and space cars, there are plenty of people who don’t question him when he’s joking. This, in turn, willed Musk to take himself seriously: He was joking at first, but enough people took him at face value that he ultimately sent one of his cars into space and sold 20,000 flamethrowers in around 100 hours.
It’s because Musk sounds like he’s grounded in the language of science and invention, even when he’s being ridiculous. In recent years, Silicon Valley, or at least a sufficient number of prominent people in it, have shown themselves to be highly susceptible to some pretty irrational behavior if an idea somehow sounds scientifically valid.
In his forthcoming book Super Natural, which was previewed in an opinion piece for the New York Times called “Don’t Believe in God? Maybe You’ll Try UFOs,” psychology professor Clay Routledge argues that faith is a fundamental part of human behavior. Routledge explained to me over the phone that rationality and irrationality don’t exist in a binary. “Every person experiences both sides of these neural systems.”
For Routledge, people who are religious understand that they can switch between both sides of their brain — the rational and the more intuitive. He believes that people who flat-out deny that they have a more intuitive side have a tougher time distinguishing between the two. “The irony is that a lot of times it’s people who actually are religious explicitly, and know that, that are better at switching between the two modes,” he explained.
The public perception of Silicon Valley’s culture matters
Everything I’m calling out about Silicon Valley comes with a caveat: I’m guilty of participating in much of this. I have gone to my fair share of counterculture-inspired events at the invitation of tech industry colleagues and thought little of it. I’ve also generally felt welcome and comfortable amid tech companies’ relaxed corporate cultures that encourage employees to bring their personalities and identities to work, blurring the line between the personal and professional. My thinking had always been, well, who wouldn’t like this?
But perhaps there are few more important mantras in Silicon Valley than the simple reminder that not everyone is like me.
Last month, I ended up going to a tech retreat in the hipster beach mecca Tulum, Mexico — the kind of event where the agenda included both sunrise meditations and parties until 4 am and was likely to draw the kind of crowd that felt it had the stamina for both. Much to my relief, it wasn’t like that: Many attendees were visibly older than the millennial demographic, and though there was an open bar every night, there were also alcohol-free meetups for those who were sober or in recovery.
Some people had even brought their small children along for the weekend. Yes, there were those late-night poolside parties with DJs, sweat lodge ceremonies, and talks about astrology too. But there were plenty of people there whom I couldn’t imagine signing up for a Tim Ferriss-endorsed ayahuasca retreat anytime soon.
The people who don’t fit today’s stereotypically freewheeling Silicon Valley mold, whether due to religious faith, family status, or simply a distaste for partying with their co-workers, are likely in the majority. As my former Google colleague Adam Singer tweeted in the wake of a notorious (and likely sensationalized) Vanity Fair piece about alleged “sex parties” in Silicon Valley, “99.999% of folk in Bay Area don’t go to sex parties, microdose LSD at work or drink water from the toilet.” (That last item referred to a New York Times article about an outlandish trend of drinking untreated “raw water.”) Singer concluded: “But they make for good media stories to talk about the fringes.”
He’s right. But when the fringes have enormous influence over the culture and its perception, there’s a problem. Silicon Valley holds vast economic influence, and it needs to be open to hiring and retaining employees who don’t fit its image. Without it, paradoxically, an industry and culture that professes progressivism, open-mindedness, and a devotion to science and empiricism ends up becoming the most exclusionary and prone to magical thinking.
Caroline McCarthy recently finished the residency program at TED, in which she researched the advertising industry’s role in political partisanship. A former journalist and Google marketer, she now works in digital advertising.
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