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Carolyn Chen: ‘The tech company offers the most efficient solution to providing a meaningful life’ | Work-life balance

Carolyn Chen is a sociologist and UC Berkeley professor who researches religion, race and ethnicity. Her new book, Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley, features in-depth interviews with employees and employers to explore how spirituality begets productivity in the world’s tech hub.

As a professor of religion, what sparked your interest in Silicon Valley?
I’ve studied Taiwanese immigrant evangelicals, evangelical Christians, Buddhists in their communities, but I think anyone who lives in a western industrialised country, in a metropolitan area, knows that religion is on the decline in terms of religious affiliation and religious participation. To me, it felt as if there was something missing if I was only capturing people who self-identify as religious. How do we see religion working in the world? What is the contemporary manifestation of religion? I was really interested in looking at the presence of religion in secular spaces.

Which took you to yoga studios and what did you learn when you spoke to secular people using this spiritual practice?
I noticed that work was really prominent in people’s narratives and in their biographies. When I would ask people: “So why do you practise yoga, when do you practise yoga?” it often centred on work. People would say: “Well, I practise yoga because, after a long day, I feel like I need stress relief.” But there was also another line: “Yoga really helps to restore me so that I can become a better X” – and here you could fill in the blank – a better nurse, a better engineer, a better accountant or lawyer. It became clear to me that work was really religion in their lives – that work was what they were willing to submit and surrender and sacrifice for. And, if anything, yoga was merely a therapeutic ancillary – it was to support this other thing that they were, you could say, worshipping.

So it became clear to me in those interviews that I was looking in the wrong place. Because I was looking at something that had religious origins, which is yoga, but what was it that they were actually worshipping, what was actually sacred in their lives? It wasn’t yoga. Yoga was helping them worship their work.

And your book chronicles how Silicon Valley CEOs use this to their advantage – first, offering yoga classes at tech headquarters, and now encouraging Buddhist practices such as mindfulness and meditation. Why have the latter taken over?
Yoga got replaced by meditation and mindfulness, because there are thousands of studies on [the benefits of] meditation and mindfulness – there’s a whole cottage industry. But, as I write about in the book, a lot of the studies have been done in controlled labs, so they might not necessarily be applicable in a workplace setting. And it’s not even clear what mindfulness is when it’s used in these secular spaces. I just felt like these companies were always looking for the new next big thing, an easy thing. It needed to be convenient and fast to optimise their workers’ productivity.

Which is essentially the crux of your book – tech giants are using spiritual practices to optimise productivity and spiritual concepts (“missions”, “origin stories”, “leaders”) to make people devote their lives to work. But why now? Why optimise employees in this way, of all ways?
It’s part of a longer trend and larger shifts in the economy – the rise of the knowledge economy and a shift from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. In an industrial economy, the way that you might improve your bottom line is usually through the exploitation of natural resources. In a knowledge economy, the most important asset is the knowledge and skills of your labour force. How do you grow that? You can increase a person’s value by educating them, but you could also improve their production, grow their value, by growing their spirit. How do you capture that spiritual side of them, that emotional side of them, so that they can invest fully into the workforce? A lot of the terms that we use now to describe work, such as “passion” or bringing your “whole self” to work, get at this concept of how you manage labour today in a knowledge economy; it’s not just necessarily the skills of the human worker, it’s also that spiritual aspect, too.

In practice, this means companies provide employees with free healthy meals, life coaches, wellness centres… When reading, I kind of thought, “That sounds great.” How do you convince people to challenge that? What are the drawbacks of what you call corporate maternalism?
First, let me just say that I felt the same way. Because what the tech company offers is the most efficient solution – and efficient is the most important word here – to providing a meaningful and fulfilling life. When I was spending time there, I thought, “I would be a much better scholar, teacher, mother, even, if I were here, because the company would take care of all these things.” So I struggled with that very same question that you’re asking.

But there are drawbacks to it that I saw as a sociologist. I talked about in the book how the workplace acts as this giant magnet that attracts the time, energy and devotion of a community. But what happens to other institutions? What happens to the family, to faith communities, to schools, even small businesses, arts organisations, neighbourhood associations? In the American model, we see these civic institutions as fundamentally important to preserving our democracy. All these other institutions start to grow smaller and smaller, because you have this alpha institution that’s attracting everything.

Right – and you noted how janitors and caterers don’t get the same perks as engineers, and how the ethical dynamics of spirituality are completely lost. Some of the perks on offer are eyebrow-raising: I was shocked to read about Vijay, an engineer who was essentially given a dating coach by his employer. What was the most shocking moment for you in your reporting?
This one HR person said: “Well, we can’t get our workers to work 24/7 unless we give them flexibility.” And when she said that, a lightbulb went on in my head. We really need to think about this as we’re moving towards a more hybrid model. Workers are pushing towards flexibility, but what can be a consequence of that? It can be that you work 24/7.

Before I opened the book, I assumed it would largely be about the cult worship of people such as Steve Jobs. It’s more complicated than that. Who is the God in your equation? What is the figure of worship?
Steve Jobs is like a saint – there’s this hagiography, there is a cult of Steve Jobs and people started practising meditation because of him. But it’s essentially worshipping a system. It’s this belief that work is going to save you, it’s the thing that’s going to give you meaning and purpose and, in a sense, immortality.

Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley by Carolyn Chen is published by Princeton University Press (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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European Startup Ecosystems Awash With Gulf Investment – Here Are Some Of The Top Investors

European Startup Ecosystem Getting Flooded With Gulf Investments

The Voice Of EU | In recent years, European entrepreneurs seeking capital infusion have widened their horizons beyond the traditional American investors, increasingly turning their gaze towards the lucrative investment landscape of the Gulf region. With substantial capital reservoirs nestled within sovereign wealth funds and corporate venture capital entities, Gulf nations have emerged as compelling investors for European startups and scaleups.

According to comprehensive data from Dealroom, the influx of investment from Gulf countries into European startups soared to a staggering $3 billion in 2023, marking a remarkable 5x surge from the $627 million recorded in 2018.

This substantial injection of capital, accounting for approximately 5% of the total funding raised in the region, underscores the growing prominence of Gulf investors in European markets.

Particularly noteworthy is the significant support extended to growth-stage companies, with over two-thirds of Gulf investments in 2023 being directed towards funding rounds exceeding $100 million. This influx of capital provides a welcome boost to European companies grappling with the challenge of securing well-capitalized investors locally.

Delving deeper into the landscape, Sifted has identified the most active Gulf investors in European startups over the past two years.

Leading the pack is Aramco Ventures, headquartered in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Bolstered by a substantial commitment, Aramco Ventures boasts a $1.5 billion sustainability fund, alongside an additional $4 billion allocated to its venture capital arm, positioning it as a formidable player with a total investment capacity of $7 billion by 2027. With a notable presence in 17 funding rounds, Aramco Ventures has strategically invested in ventures such as Carbon Clean Solutions and ANYbotics, aligning with its focus on businesses that offer strategic value.

Following closely is Mubadala Capital, headquartered in Abu Dhabi, UAE, with an impressive tally of 13 investments in European startups over the past two years. Backed by the sovereign wealth fund Mubadala Investment Company, Mubadala Capital’s diverse investment portfolio spans private equity, venture capital, and alternative solutions. Notable investments include Klarna, TIER, and Juni, reflecting its global investment strategy across various sectors.

Ventura Capital, based in Dubai, UAE, secured its position as a key player with nine investments in European startups. With a presence in Dubai, London, and Tokyo, Ventura Capital boasts an international network of limited partners and a sector-agnostic investment approach, contributing to its noteworthy investments in companies such as Coursera and Spotify.

Qatar Investment Authority, headquartered in Doha, Qatar, has made significant inroads into the European startup ecosystem with six notable investments. As the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, QIA’s diversified portfolio spans private and public equity, infrastructure, and real estate, with strategic investments in tech startups across healthcare, consumer, and industrial sectors.

MetaVision Dubai, a newcomer to the scene, has swiftly garnered attention with six investments in European startups. Focusing on seed to Series A startups in the metaverse and Web3 space, MetaVision raised an undisclosed fund in 2022, affirming its commitment to emerging technologies and innovative ventures.

Investcorp, headquartered in Manama, Bahrain, has solidified its presence with six investments in European startups. With a focus on mid-sized B2B businesses, Investcorp’s diverse investment strategies encompass private equity, real estate, infrastructure, and credit management, contributing to its notable investments in companies such as Terra Quantum and TruKKer.

Chimera Capital, based in Abu Dhabi, UAE, rounds off the list with four strategic investments in European startups. As part of a prominent business conglomerate, Chimera Capital leverages its global reach and sector-agnostic approach to drive investments in ventures such as CMR Surgical and Neat Burger.

In conclusion, the burgeoning influx of capital from Gulf investors into European startups underscores the region’s growing appeal as a vibrant hub for innovation and entrepreneurship. With key players such as Aramco Ventures, Mubadala Capital, and Ventura Capital leading the charge, European startups are poised to benefit from the strategic investments and partnerships forged with Gulf investors, propelling them towards sustained growth and success in the global market landscape.

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China Reveals Lunar Mission: Sending ‘Taikonauts’ To The Moon From 2030 Onwards

China Reveals Lunar Mission

The Voice Of EU | In a bold stride towards lunar exploration, the Chinese Space Agency has unveiled its ambitious plans for a moon landing set to unfold in the 2030s. While exact timelines remain uncertain, this endeavor signals a potential resurgence of the historic space race reminiscent of the 1960s rivalry between the United States and the USSR.

China’s recent strides in lunar exploration include the deployment of three devices on the moon’s surface, coupled with the successful launch of the Queqiao-2 satellite. This satellite serves as a crucial communication link, bolstering connectivity between Earth and forthcoming missions to the moon’s far side and south pole.

Unlike the secretive approach of the Soviet Union in the past, China’s strategy leans towards transparency, albeit with a hint of mystery surrounding the finer details. Recent revelations showcase the naming and models of lunar spacecraft, steeped in cultural significance. The Mengzhou, translating to “dream ship,” will ferry three astronauts to and from the moon, while the Lanyue, meaning “embrace the moon,” will descend to the lunar surface.

Drawing inspiration from both Russian and American precedents, China’s lunar endeavor presents a novel approach. Unlike its predecessors, China will employ separate launches for the manned module and lunar lander due to the absence of colossal space shuttles. This modular approach bears semblance to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, reflecting a contemporary adaptation of past achievements.

Upon reaching lunar orbit, astronauts, known as “taikonauts” in Chinese, will rendezvous with the lunar lander, reminiscent of the Apollo program’s maneuvers. However, distinct engineering choices mark China’s departure from traditional lunar landing methods.

The Chinese lunar lander, while reminiscent of the Apollo Lunar Module, introduces novel features such as a single set of engines and potential reusability and advance technology. Unlike past missions where lunar modules were discarded, China’s design hints at the possibility of refueling and reuse, opening avenues for sustained lunar exploration.

China Reveals Lunar Mission: Sending 'Taikonauts' To The Moon From 2030 Onwards
A re-creation of the two Chinese spacecraft that will put ‘taikonauts’ on the moon.CSM

Despite these advancements, experts have flagged potential weaknesses, particularly regarding engine protection during landing. Nevertheless, China’s lunar aspirations remain steadfast, with plans for extensive testing and site selection underway.

Beyond planting flags and collecting rocks, China envisions establishing a permanent lunar base, the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), ushering in a new era of international collaboration in space exploration.

While the Artemis agreements spearheaded by NASA have garnered global support, China’s lunar ambitions stand as a formidable contender in shaping the future of space exploration. In conclusion, China’s unveiling of its lunar ambitions not only marks a significant milestone in space exploration but also sets the stage for a new chapter in the ongoing saga of humanity’s quest for the cosmos. As nations vie for supremacy in space, collaboration and innovation emerge as the cornerstones of future lunar endeavors.

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Aviation and Telecom Industries Reach Compromise on 5G Deployment

The Voice Of EU | In a significant development, AT&T and Verizon, the two largest mobile network operators in the United States, have agreed to delay the deployment of 5G services following requests from the aviation industry and the Biden administration. This decision marks a crucial compromise in the long-standing dispute between the two industries, which had raised concerns over the potential interference of 5G with flight signals.
The aviation industry, led by United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, had been vocal about the risks of 5G deployment, citing concerns over the safety of flight operations. Kirby had urged AT&T and Verizon to delay their plans, warning that proceeding with the deployment would be a “catastrophic failure of government.” The US Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the issue further highlighted the need for a solution.
In response, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) head Steve Dickson sent a letter to the mobile networks, requesting a two-week delay to reassess the potential risks. Initially, AT&T and Verizon were hesitant, citing the aviation industry’s two-year preparation window. However, they eventually agreed to the short delay, pushing the deployment to January 19.
The crux of the issue lies in the potential interference between 5G signals and flight equipment, particularly radar altimeters. The C-Band spectrum used by 5G networks is close to the frequencies employed by these critical safety devices. The FAA requires accurate and reliable radar altimeters to ensure safe flight operations.

Airlines in the US have been at loggerheads with mobile networks over the deployment of 5G and its potential impact on flight safety.

Despite the concerns, both the FAA and the telecoms industry agree that 5G mobile networks and airline travel can coexist safely. In fact, they already do in nearly 40 countries where US airlines operate regularly. The key lies in reducing power levels around airports and fostering cross-industry collaboration prior to deployment.
The FAA has been working to find a solution in the United States, and the additional two-week delay will allow for further assessment and preparation. AT&T and Verizon have also agreed to not operate 5G base stations along runways for six months, similar to restrictions imposed in France.
President Joe Biden hailed the decision to delay as “a significant step in the right direction.” The European Union Aviation Safety Agency and South Korea have also reported no unsafe interference with radio waves since the deployment of 5G in their regions.
As the aviation and telecom industries continue to work together, it is clear that safe coexistence is possible. The delay in 5G deployment is a crucial step towards finding a solution that prioritizes both safety and innovation. With ongoing collaboration and technical assessments, the United States can join the growing list of countries where 5G and airlines coexist without issue.

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