Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

God and latte at the Menlo Park Starbucks*

Thoughts on the underexamined role of religion in the culture of Silicon Valley.

I’m working at the Menlo Park Starbucks, as the power on Sand Hill Road is out (again). SLAC seems to be the only place that has energy… but then again, you’d hope that a bunch of physicists would be able to keep their own lights on no matter what happens to the rest of us.

This has happened several times this summer, and it’s a bit of a pain. However, it affords a lesson in just how mobile knowledge work is becoming. This morning, until I was called up into the courtroom, I was probably doing about as much work I would have if I’d been in my office. Then the network in the courthouse went down, and– in bits terms, at least– I was blind and deaf.

The Menlo Park Starbucks is an interesting place, inasmuch as any Starbucks is interesting. The place seems to be Bible study central: every time I’m here there seem to be at least one or two groups meeting. Menlo Park does have an unusually large number of religious institutions– up to and including a Catholic seminary, complete with its own television station– and getting around downtown on Sunday mornings is a slow affair, so it’s not a surprise that you’d see religious life as part of public culture here. But I don’t see similar groups at Cafe Barrone, where I spend a LOT more time; they seem to flock to Starbucks.

Actually, I’ve sometimes thought that a study of religion in Silicon Valley would be an interesting thing. Those of us who are interested in how the Valley works talk all the time about the importance of social networks and informal connections, but so far as I know no one has paid any attention to religious affiliation as something that serves to connect people together in ways that have ramifications for business and social life (which are so close as to be indistinguishable here). I can think of a number of CEOs and venture capitalists who are notably, publicly religious people, and it’s impossible to imagine that the networks that build up around churches, Sunday school, and volunteer work don’t end up affecting businesses.

Part of the problem is that many people with a scholarly bent tend to assume that smart, worldly, technically-minded people– and communities of people– aren’t particularly religious; but I suspect that around here, that generalization is quite wrong. Just what role religious institutions play in the life of the Valley, and how religious ideas or values contribute to the moral economy of the Valley, I can’t say; but sitting here, watching people at alternate tables do e-mail, read the Wall Street Journal, and talk about the Book of Matthew, I can’t help but think that someone should find out.

*And I was trying to work out some kind of “God and Man at Yale” kind of title, but it just didn’t work. Oh well.

3 Comments

  1. I actually never do this (if you can believe it), but I was searching for the cafe barrone’s web site, and I read your article. Pretty refreshing perspective, I might add. Coming from religious(?) background, it’s interesting to know what my next table Starbucks client thinks, when I review over Purpose Driven Life with one of my student.

    You should look into again about “God in Yale” or “God in silicon valley”

  2. I don’t think Barrone has a Web site. They seem to be resisting certain elements of the digital age, which may be just as well. If they had Wi-Fi, they’d have a tent city build up around the fountain, and I’m afraid I’d be in one of them!

  3. Oh, Danielle, I also caught a typo in the post, in the course of coming to read your comment. So thanks.

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