Sleeping Under The Cell Tower
By Vahid Razavi
Vahid Razavi is a member of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, the nation’s first avowedly interracial, interfaith congregation. I serve as its Presiding Minister. It is in this capacity that I first heard of the abusive and scandalous behavior toward Vahid from tech giants Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) and Amazon Web Services (AWS). Co-founding ministers of our church, Drs. Howard Thurman and Alfred Fist, believed that if people from various backgrounds — national, racial, gender, class — would come together and experience profound spiritual engagement though worship, there would emerge among them a unity that would undercut the barriers that often block that unity.
This founding principle is in total alignment with Vahid’s head and heart. There was and still is on his part a commitment to somehow create a world that enhances the life of its people, one that works far more indelibly for the common good, one that includes and uplifts more definitively the marginalized and excluded. He has had faith that tech companies have creative possibilities for translating such a vision into reality.
Vahid writes: “While it should be obvious to you by now that the founder of a company called BizCloud is no anti-capitalist agitator, I couldn’t deny what I was seeing before my very eyes; that is, the devastating effects of unregulated corporate capitalism… These forces had bought off the political and regulatory systems meant to keep them in check and I felt that I had to do something to at least tell the world that hey, I see what’s going on and I’m not just going to stand by and watch it happen. Free enterprise is all well and good, but what our system has morphed into is heavy on the enterprise part but has forgotten the ‘free.’ Equilibrium needed to be restored to capitalism in order to save it from the worst aspects of itself.“
This is what led Vahid to write the extraordinary book, Ethics in Tech and Lack Thereof. Vahid had shared with me much of the story of his combat with tech giants Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) and Amazon Web Services (AWS). Still, I was stunned by the depth of CSC’s ruthlessness and the unbridled commitment to crush anything considered a rival or a call to be just. Nor, was I aware of the atmosphere of intimidation that saturated the work environment at AWS. What happened to ethics in the ecology of work?
In most if not all religious or faith traditions there is something similar to what is called the golden rule. Look into Islam, Judaism Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, and indigenous world views, it is there — the idea that one has a sacred responsibility to treat others as they would want to be treated. Such an ideal is inherent in and essential to creating a democracy that works. In a democracy one has the right to be heard, to defend oneself. Not only is this inscribed in the laws and mores of the United States, it is international law. I have anguished over this nation’s sordid pattern and commitment to torture, to the practice known as rendition. Our government’s contract with a private tech company to implement such a treacherous, illegal practice shakes the foundations of our moral order. Vahid makes crystal clear, however, that CSC is no ordinary tech company. He declares: “It is an old tech company with billions of dollars in support contracts for the military industrial complex and the surveillance state… In June 2013, British MP Margaret Hodge, chair of the parliamentary public accounts committee, called CSC a ‘rotten company providing a hopeless system’ after its utter failure to deliver as promised with a contract.”
With so much financial capital why would it need to destroy Vahid’s startup company, BizCloud. The idea that gave birth to BizCloud was that of providing “an online directory of businesses to keep documentation and applications in the cloud and share those documents freely with vendors or suppliers. We would provide data and “Software as a Service” and “Infrastructure as a Service” products to the business community.” This was to be an important benefit to the tech world. “A year and a half after we launched BizCloud, Computer Sciences Corporation, perhaps in a bid to rehabilitate its reputation, did what so many other companies do when they want people to forget their dirty deeds — it underwent a name change. Its products would now be sold under BizCloud.” Vahid protested against this co-optation of the name of the company he had founded with creative protests and legal actions. In response CSC’s unleashed its systemic power including its wellfunded and connected legal network and forced Vahid to settle for much less than the worth of his company. As happens so often, the abuser is affirmed.
All of this pressure and defeat led to Vahid’s landing in a mental hospital in Serbia. He writes with scintillating humor and sparkling spirit about his experiences there. For example, he shares that cigarettes were a bargaining commodity in terms of developing relationships with staff and other patients. He shares that his eldest brother flew from the United States to visit him, bringing with him cigarettes. The brother himself has never smoked and keeps before Vahid the dangers and ill effects of smoking. The writing is priceless.
As an employee of AWS, Vahid experienced its disreputable, untrustworthy, pernicious nature personally and exposes the systemic nature of its deleterious malignancy. The experiences there necessitated and gave birth to Ethic in Tech and Lack Thereof. He quotes an article in Times written by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfield that corroborated his experience of abuse. Kantor and Streitfield described a pressure cooker environment. Emails were sent at midnight followed by text messages the next morning asking why the email had not been answered. The article talked about fear permeating the work-place, blistering criticisms, workers brought to tears, workers having miscarriages and developing cancers, all related to the stress of the work environment. It depicted workers crying at their desks, workers passing out, and workers being brought out on stretchers and in wheelchairs, needing the assistance of paramedics. Vahid was morally driven to write. He writes not only as a critic of tech abuses, but also as one who posits ways that could embrace the great possibilities of tech as a positive force in the nation and in our personal lives. He elucidates five areas of Ethics In Tech that need to be addressed:
1. Equality in tech
2. Employee-employer relations in the tech sector
3. The Environmental Impact of Technology Development
5. Artificial intelligence
With all that Vahid has personally endured he has developed a centered presence which comes through in his writing. It is a deep well from which to draw to address the issues facing him and our larger society. He has pivoted and moves forward with confidence and strength. There is a peace that comes through when he suggests possibilities. Even a sense of joy accompanies his writing as he talks about ways to transform what is commonplace into something that enriches relationships.
He attributes much of that to his being exposed to the writings of Dr. Howard Thurman and his membership in The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. There is a dynamic that needs to be understood. While Vahid is enriched by the church, the church is enriched by Vahid — by his integrity, love, generosity, knowledge, insights, courage, skills and commitment to the search for the common ground of all people forming a bond, a oneness, a relatedness. It draws strength from some reality greater than we are. It is a vision that impels and compels. Vahid’s valor and audacity stand
firmly in the tradition of which Dr. Thurman wrote about the founding of Fellowship Church:
The movement of the Spirit of God in the hearts of men [people] often calls them to act against the spirit of their times or causes them to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making. In a moment of dedication, they are given wisdom and courage to dare a deed that challenges and to kindle a hope that inspires. Is it possible that such could happen in the tech world? Let’s inquire from Vahid for a response.