Bad Metaphors Startup “Cults”

Calling tech companies “cults” distracts from the social and economic conditions that empower them

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When people think of a “cult,” they are likely to think of some images derived from highly sensationalized tragedies: They might envision the idea of people in Jonestown “drinking the Kool-Aid” or Heaven’s Gate adherents dying in their Nikes. They might picture a Manson-like egomaniacal leader “brainwashing” hippie followers, controlling them with sex and drugs. Or perhaps a Waco-style standoff that concludes with a bloody, televised raid. Other strands within this history may showcase the might of the state through the courts, as wielded recently against the now-jailed inner sanctum of NXIVM. Different depictions acknowledge some members’ sincere intentions and longing for communion, as in Netflix’s Wild Wild Country, but emphasize how these genuine desires transmute into nefarious, if not lethal, ends. Whatever the variations in these vignettes, our conditioning tells us that we know a “cult” when we see it, and that it’s irrational and invariably dangerous.

When critics liken aspects of the tech industry to a “cult,” they tend to draw from this same grab bag of stereotypes. Dan Lyons explicitly frames startup culture in “cult”-like terms in Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Startup Bubble, which details his time at the marketing software company HubSpot. “HubSpot is like a corporate version of Up With People, the inspirational singing group from the 1970s, but with a touch of Scientology,” he writes. “It’s a cult based around marketing. The Happy!! Awesome!! Start-up Cult, I began to call it.” Deriding the tech company’s former chief marketing officer for his delusions of grandeur, Lyons charges, “He’s brainwashed. Better yet, he has brainwashed himself. He has mixed his own Kool-Aid and drunk too much of it.” He notes how some employees repurpose shower rooms into “sex cabins,” and how newcomers undergo training sessions akin to brainwashing rituals. He describes a cult of personality surrounding company leadership. The book’s epilogue describes alleged attempts by a HubSpot C-suite cabal to hack into Lyons’s computer and personal accounts to access his book manuscript, a parallel of the common trope of “cults” trying to discredit and undermine apostates.

When critics liken aspects of the tech industry to a “cult,” they draw from the same grab bag of stereotypes

Lyons is far from the first to paint the tech world as a “cult,” nor the last, though he draws from a cultist lexicon to rail against his erstwhile employer more obstreperously than most. Other tech memoirs, such as Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley, feature “cult”-related references that are more interstitial. She describes her “warm and loquacious, animated, handsome” co-worker as the kind of easygoing and compelling figure that could “persuade me to do anything: bike across America; join a cult.” Wiener, in a twist, later recalls how that same co-worker psychoanalyzes their damaged-goods CEO with cultist terminology: “‘Look up sick systems,’ he said. ‘Look up trauma bonding. It’s the culty thing: keep people busy until they forget about the parts of their life they left behind.’” The semantics of this passage gesture to the “group think” of tech, in which a leader’s charisma inspires total devotion to a company’s “mission” and adds a deeper meaning to employees’ work ethic; a lack thereof attracts scrutiny, if not disillusionment and dissent. The aesthetics of tech products take on spiritual, enrapturing meaning too: “Good interface design was like magic, or religion: it cultivated the mass suspension of disbelief,” Wiener posits. (Wiener has clarified that such cultist and spiritual language was not intended to give Uncanny Valley theological resonance; though she recognizes that religious organizations and tech corporations share “a similar tone … it’s not a one-to-one” correlation.)

News outlets, too, readily deploy cult as metaphor. Wired has declared not once but twice the end of the “cult of the founder.” Others explicitly use the term as an accusation. In May, Mehdi Hassan, the former host of The Intercept’s Deconstructed podcast, painted Elon Musk as the leader of a “cult”: “Because there are a certain type of people — often young, male, anti-establishment, a bit libertarian — who hang on his every word. Especially online, where they defend their guru, their prophet, their hero — on social media, on YouTube — with all the intensity, and even viciousness, that you’d expect from cult members.”

Associating “cult” with “startup” mistakes symptom for ailment

Startup blogs within the industry have also picked up this critique: Recruitment software startup Workable, for one, has outlined how to avoid spawning a “cult” within a burgeoning corporation in a blog post titled “Separating Cult From Culture”:

You know what to expect from a headline like this. You’ll be introduced to some brainwashed characters displaying cultish behavior. After a breathless description of groupthink, sleepless vigils and bizarre rituals, the writer will lift the veil to reveal that this is not the Branch Davidians or the Moonies, it’s a Silicon Valley unicorn.

In my first post-college job, an 18-month tenure at a fintech startup, I had my own startups-are-“cults” suspicions. The company’s obsession with a founding myth (benevolence, structural progressivism) divorced from fact (profit, novel forms of precarity) as well as a dogged commitment to growth at any cost (proselytizing, conversion) compelled me to view the corporation as a “cult.” I even began to publicly outline my hypotheses in cult terms: “every bit of cult scholarship that I’ve read … has deepened this conviction” that startups are literal “cults,” I wrote. I thought then that a perceptive shift that approached the tech industry with a cultist lens would “reveal patterns of abuse and deceit in the name of a vision.” But that conviction soon collapsed. Rather, associating “cult” with “startup” mistakes symptom for ailment. Cultist language deployed in critiques of tech translates tech “culture” into a monolithic and synchronic site of concern, ignoring how “culture” manifests as a diverse set of outcomes, and consists of diverse and competing beliefs and practices emerging from longstanding structural policies and histories. It belies the relationships between the tech industry and larger economic and political traditions. State power disappears, as do tech’s less eccentric but more impactful harms that derive from its supply chains and role as contractor in projects of empire. In emphasizing companies’ rationalizations over their actions, the cult metaphor obscures more than it reveals.

“It is assumed that people ‘know’ what goes on in a ‘cult,’” argues religious studies scholar Catherine Wessinger, but as she points out, the term lacks a consistent definition because of the various, decades-long efforts of Christian countercult and secular anticult movements in shaping its public perception. In “Constructing the New Religious Threat: Anticult and Countercult Movements,” Douglas E. Cowan depicts a consistent white Protestant mission to maintain an American religious landscape in its image. To that end, the term cult gained steam as a pejorative and was used as a cause for alarm in popular books like Jan Karen van Baalen’s 1938 The Chaos of Cults, which underwent four reprints by 1962. (“My father who was a minister used this as a textbook at a Baptist College … Bible based book with great information!!” reads one enthusiastic review on Amazon.) Professional countercult institutions like Personal Freedom Outreach and the Christian Research Institute claim Bible-based authority too, describing any religious group that deviates from their vision of Christian doctrine as a “cult” — a framework with such power that Workable evoked it in the blog mentioned earlier.

A secular cottage industry of anticult groups that is less explicitly theological or Christian-supremacist sprung up too, Cowan notes, encouraged by figures like psychologist Margaret Thaler Singer, who frequently appeared in the media as an expert on “brainwashing” and the hidden ubiquity of “cults.” She emphasized the “cultic relationship” or “cultic milieu” over “cults” explicitly to suggest that nefarious religious groups are everywhere; she seized public imagination (and paranoia) with the idea that they or someone they love might even be in a “cult” without knowing it. “Cults are not all religious,” said Singer in a 1998 interview. “People forget that we have psychology cults, flying saucer cults, martial arts cults, and political cults.” As the title of the interview summed it up: “Cults, The Next Wave: Almost Everyone Is Vulnerable.”

Anticult groups have also historically latched onto the idea of brainwashing, a misrepresentation of psychological research that entered the mainstream through the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate. Brainwashing as a concept has been discredited — the American Psychological Association would by 1987 reject Singer’s brainwashing thesis as lacking “scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach,” prone instead to “sensationalism in the style of certain tabloids” — but it clearly continues to hold significant currency in contemporary parlance and politics.

Cowan contends that the anticult movement’s thrust came about as an attempt by “parents and friends alarmed by the often baffling religious choices made by their loved ones” to comprehend and combat conversions to small religious groups. The controlling metaphor of the “cult” helped provide a social impetus for abduction in the name of “deprogramming.” It could be readily attached to any and all suspect groups regardless of their parent tradition, religious beliefs and practices, or social behavior. And as scholar James T. Richardson argues, “The fact that a number of new religions… were founded and led by foreigners should not be ignored in understanding the propensity to apply simplistic brainwashing theories to explain participation and justify efforts at social control.”

Both anticultists and countercultists have partnered with the carceral state as expert witnesses and vocal constituents, helping construe and punish alternative religions as a crime, pushing incarceration, “deprogramming,” and coercive abduction as moral and social goods. Unsurprisingly, this partnership can contribute to violent outcomes. In How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate, Wessinger writes, “It is important that people become aware of the bigotry conveyed by cult. The word cult dehumanizes the religion’s members and their children. It strongly implies that these people are deviants; they are seen as crazy, brainwashed, duped by the leader. When we label people as subhuman, we create a context in which it is considered virtuous to kill them.”

Like the self-coronated counterterrorism experts that have emerged since 9/11, prominent anticultists like deprogrammer Rick Alan Ross, featured most recently in HBO’s The Vow, occupy a powerful niche as non-credentialed voices of authority in fields that are largely of their own design. Religious studies scholar Steven P. Weitzman describes Ross’s crucial role in shaping the FBI’s perceptions of David Koresh, particularly through “brainwashing” rhetoric, in the deadly 1993 raid of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco (six years after the APA’s rebuke against Singer). Reports commissioned by the Justice Department in the wake of the massacre concluded that the FBI valued Ross’s advice over that of its own behavioral scientists and agents; the latter faction had encouraged the bureau to take Branch Davidian religious convictions seriously. Failed negotiations with the besieged group — an inevitability given that the FBI pathologized the community’s beliefs as “brainwashing” — were eventually cited by the bureau as the grounds for its violent assault. Ross’s role suggests that Wessinger’s warning holds weight.

Cult is also part of a longstanding American effort to police race through religion. Megan Goodwin, who studies American minority religions, argues that groups that get called “cults” are often spaces with significant representation among women, Black people, queer people, and other minoritized groups. “The word cult gets used to shut down those groups … [and] get seen by folks who are really invested in maintaining current structures of hierarchy and oppression as too free,” she remarks. “These new religious movements get told that they’re using religion to do things that are dangerous and are going to upset society.” Goodwin points to a corpus of scholarship, including work by Kathryn Gin Lum and Lerone A. Martin that highlights the role of ecclesiastical bodies as core institutions that have mediated the relationship between the state and Black communities since the Reconstruction era. She also cites Judith Weisenfeld’s New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity During the Great Migration, which demonstrates the explicitly racist and pejorative use of cult preceding mid-century institutional forms of countercultism and anticultism.

Prominent anticultists occupy a powerful niche as non-credentialed voices of authority in fields that are largely of their own design

This is not to excuse abuse that can occur within alternative religious groups. Rather it questions what harms are allowed to proliferate when attention is disproportionately directed toward a particular subset of religious and institutional forms. Goodwin, in her recent Abusing Religion: Literary Persecution, Sex Scandals, and American Minority Religions, contends that episodes that amplified cult rhetoric, such as the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, shifted focus away from prevalent and documented sites of harm like family units, caricaturized what a predator looks like and believes, and limited religion’s permissible theological and demographic heterogeneity in line with conservative Christian cosmologies:

Why were Americans so willing to “believe the children” when they spoke about devils and blood sacrifice, but not when they narrated domestic trauma like incest and other sexual violence? … The American public expects sexual misconduct from minorities. And when we as a nation, out of fear for our children and our future, imagine our ultimate enemy, it manifests as both anti-Christian and sexually predatory … In this way, the presumably secular field of American criminal prosecution reinforced Americans’ sexual suspicion of religious outsiders, foreclosing conditions of possibility for benign religious difference.

Goodwin, like others, endorses new religious movements as an alternative (albeit imperfect) phrasing to cult, less ensnared in decades, if not centuries, of derogatory construction.

The raw power of cult — made materially impactful through the courts, FBI raids, and media sensationalism — has rendered the term irredeemable. It grounds any conversation that draws on it as automatically and invariably conservative. It invites and moralizes oppressive punitive measures against its members lacking agency because they’re “brainwashed,” which leaves forceful removals under the guise of “deprogramming” an excusable, if not noble, strategy — and, if that doesn’t work, through overwhelming force. It has an extensive history being wielded against groups not white and respectable enough or sufficiently Christian in their worldview. It renders public judgment a judge, jury, and executioner to be reckoned with.

As an admitted transgressor in this field, I recognize the temptation to flip the conservative terminology of cult on its head and use it against the Trump Administration, QAnon, or other harmful systems. And, of course, against the tech industry and its demigods. But as Weisenfeld argues in New World A-Coming, “The label ‘cult’ … tells us less about a group’s theology or members’ self-understandings than about the commitments of those who use the label.” Regardless of the ascribed political affiliation or desired outcome of those who use it, the term offers a fleeting, holier-than-thou catharsis that only separates the groups being critiqued from larger historical and political forces.

When cultist terminology is directed against the tech industry, it diverts attention from the actually necessary, holistic, and structural critiques of the tech industry, re-creating instead the tempting smoke and mirrors that cult effectuates in other social spaces. When called a “cult,” startups and tech companies assume a kooky veneer defined by leader worship and aesthetic alterity rather than their central role in bolstering exploitative supply chains (such as for lithium and coltan), exacerbating unstable forms of employment (enshrined in California’s Proposition 22, the chief architect of which is now a member of Biden’s transition team), and working on behalf of violent, if not eugenic, state projects (like Palantir and Amazon’s partnerships with ICE). And by describing tech companies specifically as “cultish,” other corporations and groups appear virtuous by comparison. Even the more oblique and fig-leaf-y references to “cultish” tendencies rather than a “cult” per se, as in Uncanny Valley, play into Singer’s idea of a “cultic milieu,” wherein brainwashing and other threats loom, as though the broader capitalist milieu itself were basically innocent.

The raw power of cult has rendered the term irredeemable. It grounds any conversation that draws on it as invariably conservative

Lyons’s cultist critique of HubSpot, for instance, does little to analyze or address the company’s lack of diversity despite the company’s, in his words, “Mormon-white” demographics, which form a core concern in his memoir. His dependence on brainwashing rhetoric forecloses substantive inspection of the company’s policies and decisions beyond the automaton trope, beholden to the allure of “culture fit.” With cult-happy finger-wagging, Lyons can present himself as “a leading advocate for greater diversity in the technology industry” on his website without addressing the larger context of his former employer’s practices.

Wired’s “Cult of the Founder” approach, meanwhile, focuses solely on the shortcomings of figurehead worship rather than tech’s runaway social and political power. Given the “incredibly complex problems” the tech industry faces, one of its op-eds opines, “We could replace the cult of the founder with the cult of the cross-disciplinary team,” abandoning one idolatry for another. Mehdi Hassan’s charge about Elon Musk engages a different strand of myopia, transforming him into a crackpot false prophet and leaving unquestioned his popularity with state actors, which hinges not on his charisma or brainwashing powers but on profitability, his partnership with military institutions, and his enthusiastic affiliation with extralegal foreign interventions in the name of natural resources, namely in Bolivia.

Even Workable’s crusade, in which cult serves an impetus for corporate introspection (if not paranoia), still generates outsize focus on a singular corporate culture without questioning the material and social effects of a firm’s products on society as a whole. In an effort to offer balanced advice, the blog post’s author instructs the reader “not to lose sight of whatever the business problem was that you were trying to solve,” the implications of that business problem be damned.

“Startups,” as with “cults,” are institutional forms shaped by slippery definitions. We think we know them when we see them. But the lack of a consistent set of characteristics in these terms has a tactical purpose. The vague language of the tech industry — with its esoteric ecosystem of “startups,” “angel investors,” and “seed funding” — masks what sort of there is there. Behind the tech world lurks a history of conditioning for the sake of profit, state partnership, and constrained social outcomes, but it doesn’t take a cultist lens to see it. As we abandon cult for less entangled language, we may need a return to more observational terminology like small business and profiteer as well. A linguistic rapture could do us some good.

Adam Willems is a Seattle-based freelance writer and reporter. They write Divine Innovation, a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology.