Ethics In Tech & Lack Thereof

Sleeping Under The Cell Tower

By Vahid Razavi

Turning the Tables On Amazon

It was one of those “summer” mornings in San Francisco that give credence to the old local saying, often misattributed to that illustrious early resident Mark Twain, that “the coldest winter I ever felt was a summer in San Francisco.” As I made my way from my car to the government building in the gritty Tenderloin, Karl the Fog’s wet, wispy fingers caressed my face as if to soothe my frayed nerves ahead of what was to come. What was to come was my Amazon unemployment benefits hearing and, I presumed, another meting out of what passes for justice in a nation whose highest court has ruled that corporations are people, but that people do not have any right to life-saving health care. In other words, I wasn’t expecting much justice being that the United States has largely once again become a corporatocracy ruled primarily by and for corporate and elite interests. You could say that despite the weather, I wasn’t exactly cool as a cucumber when I entered the court building, although I was certainly as gloomy. My mood did not improve when the judge who would be reviewing my appeal informed me I could not (as guaranteed under law) bring my note taker into the courtroom with me. I asserted my legal right to reasonable accommodation for my disability and the judge let him sit in with us. The judge, a soft-spoken, kindly, but firm woman clearly saw that I was a bit of a nervous mess as I presented my supporting evidence. She told me to “take it down a notch” and reminded me that she might actually find in my favor. Which she did, I was happy — and a bit surprised — to discover. I’d won a battle, but the war continues.

I was awarded a whopping $1,350 for my troubles. I thought that this sum, as nominal as it may be, would do more good for people who work for the well-being of the world than it would do for me. The Internet Archive is a San Francisco-based non-profit digital library whose stated mission is “universal access to all knowledge.” It does an amazing job of archiving the World Wide Web from its earliest days. You can look up just about anything on their Wayback Machine, from the front page of Yahoo’s directory on the day you were born (if you were born in 1995 or later) to deleted articles for research. There are scientific journals, old and out-of-print books, newspaper articles, and much more. What’s more, The Internet Archive is a front-line soldier in the fight for net neutrality and online privacy. It battles against NSA mass surveillance and dangerous bills like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (or PROTECT IP Act, a.k.a. PIPA) which amount to encroaching state tyranny. It hosts topical events like the Aaron Swartz International Hackathon to honor of the creator of Creative Commons, Reddit, RSS, and the technology behind SecureDrop. Facing 13 felony counts, a $1 million fine, and 35 years in federal prison, all for downloading and publishing a massive trove of academic articles from JSTOR, Swartz hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment on January 11, 2013 at the age of 26.

Freedom of the Press Foundation, also based in San Francisco, is a non-profit which supports public interest journalism with the notion that, as Pentagon Papers judge Murray Gurfein wrote, “a cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.” Freedom of the Press Foundation is a safe haven and tireless advocate for whistleblowers, who are often treated as worse criminals than the war and corporate criminals they expose. It helps independent journalists use and amplify their voices. They’ve done an incredible job of fighting for the interests of a free press.

Last, but not least, is my church. I thought I should share something with my immediate community in San Francisco, and as I attend Sunday mass every week at The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, I decided to invest there. When they say “all peoples,” they really mean it. Founded in 1944 by Dr. Howard Thurman and Dr. Alfred Fisk, the church was America’s first interracial interfaith congregation. On any given Sunday you’ll encounter people of various races, creeds, national origins, and religious views. One of the church’s main stated missions is “to find the common ground where each of us may share in the richness of our differences and partake in the fruits of the Spirit.” The congregation recites the following commitment at the close of each Sunday mass:

I affirm my need for a growing understanding of all people as children of God, and I seek after a vital experience of God as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth and other great religious spirits whose fellowship with God was the foundation of their own fellowship with all people.

I desire to share in the spiritual growth and ethical awareness of people of varied national, cultural, racial, and creedal heritage united in a religious fellowship.

I desire the strength of corporate worship through membership in the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples with the imperative of personal dedication to the working out of God’s purpose here and in all places.

The presiding minister, the Rev. Dr. Dorsey O. Blake, is a soft-spoken man with an intense gaze whose sermons speak of an acute awareness of and connection to the struggles for social, economic, and spiritual justice around the world. I first met the good reverend while attending the Unitarian Universalist church, where he was giving a sermon on civil rights issues. I asked for his card and followed him to his church, which is much smaller but very diverse. It’s also got better music, with Dr. Carl Blake directing and playing piano gloriously. When you’re in the hospital, most people might send you a get-well card or some flowers. Not Rev. Blake. He went out of his way to come see me, and I’ll never forget his graciousness in my greatest hour of need. There are times in everyone’s life when they really need spiritual grounding, and that’s exactly what Rev. Blake and the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples delivers.

On a recent Sunday Rev. Blake’s sermon touched upon historical characters as varied as Thoreau and Marx. The common thread between them being that they are a group of enlightened historical — and current — figures who understood what Rev. Martin Luther King Jr (who Thurman mentored) called the obligation of decent human beings to resist systems and acts of inequity. Rev. Blake even had the audacity of spirit to remind us that the Declaration of Independence bestows upon We the People the sacred duty “to throw off” repressive government. Imagine what would happen if we tried that today! Blake cites church co-founder Howard Thurman perhaps more than anyone else, with the most recent sermon I attended being largely read from Thurman’s meditative masterpiece, “How Good To Center Down”:

How good it is to center down! To sit quietly and see one’s self pass by! The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic; Our spirits resound with clashings, with noisy silences, While something deep within hungers and thirsts for the still moment and the resting lull. With full intensity we seek, ere the quiet passes, a fresh sense of order in our living; A direction, a strong sure purpose that will structure our confusion and bring meaning in our chaos. We look at ourselves in this waiting moment — the kinds of people we are. The questions persist: what are we doing with our lives? — what are the motives that order our days? What is the end of our doings? Where are we trying to go? Where do we put the emphasis and where are our values focused? For what end do we make sacrifices? Where is my treasure and what do I love most in life? What do I hate most in life and to what am I true? Over and over the questions beat in upon the waiting moment. As we listen, floating up through all the jangling echoes of our turbulence, there is a sound of another kind — A deeper note which only the stillness of the heart makes clear. It moves directly to the core of our being. Our questions are answered, Our spirits refreshed, and we move back into the traffic of our daily round With the peace of the Eternal in our step. How good it is to center down!

“Don’t ask what the world needs,” Thurman said. “Ask what makes you come alive and go do it, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” For me, coming alive meant considering launching and growing Ethics In Tech as an effective non-profit that speaks truth to corporate power and fights for all of our rights.

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