Ethics In Tech recently held the last in a series of three summer community and comedy nights. The July 24 event, called “We Are All Ears,” was hosted by EIT founder Vahid Razavi at the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco. In addition to releasing the mission statement for our recently-formed 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization as we work toward increasing awareness around the ethical use of technology and creating positive impact through public engagement and activism, Razavi also hosted a panel of experts from the tech, spiritual and activism spaces who discussed how to make EIT a more effective force for good. Keeping in the EIT tradition of community and comedy, the audience was then treated to a stand-up comedy show.

Rev. Dr. Dorsey O. Blake, Presiding Minister of The Church for The Fellowship of All Peoples, introduced Razavi and EIT, stressing the importance of ethics not only in tech but in all aspects of our lives.

“If we work to really employ ethics in everything we do in all of our encounters, we won’t have the problems that we have today of oppression and misuse of people,” he said.

Razavi presented a discussion panel comprised of:

  • Fiona J. McEvoy, a San Francisco-based artificial intelligence writer, researcher and thought leader. She was named one of the 30 Women Influencing AI in San Francisco by RE•WORK and one of the 100 Brilliant Women in AI Ethics You Should Follow in 2019 and beyond by Lighthouse3. McEvoy also founded, and has had numerous articles published in media outlets including Slate,VentureBeatAll Turtles,Chatbots Life, and BecomingHuman.
  • Kimberly Rae Connor, who holds a Ph.D. in religion and literature from the University of Virginia. Connor is the author of Conversions and Visions in the Writings of African American Women and Imagining Grace: Liberating Theologies in the Slave Narrative Tradition, as well as edited volumes and articles related to African American religious life, cultural production and multicultural and Ignatian pedagogy. Connor is the Secretary of the Board for the American Academy of Religion. She is a professor of ethics at the University of San Francisco where she directs a program for MBA students based on the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius.
  • Brett Wilkins, an EIT board member, San Francisco-based independent journalist, author and activist whose work, which focuses on issues of war and peace, human rights and social and economic justice, has been published at Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Business Insider, Yahoo News and elsewhere.

The panel covered a wide range of issues. McEvoy said she was concerned about the “extent which the technologies I use hijack my agency and my autonomy as a human being.”

“There are a lot of technology companies that have a very strong… commercial interest in shepherding you toward the choices they approve of, and they aren’t necessarily the choices you would wish to make for yourself in any other context” she said. “I’m concerned how that rather than predict our behaviors, [tech companies] are actually starting to define our behaviors and who we are in the world.”

EIT noted that it is seeking advice on how it can have the most beneficial impact. Yet when it comes to “impact,” Dr. Connor said that the word “makes me shudder a little bit.”

“Because once you move into ‘impact,’ then you’re moving into measurement, into data,” she explained. “We all have a particular role to play and the real talent is finding what you do best about what you care most about, and I learned early that being an educator is what I wanted to do and where I can have the most impact.”

Wilkins discussed the tech industry’s complicity in human rights violations past and present, from “IBM working with the Nazis to help run death camps to HP selling Israel the technology it uses to perpetuate its apartheid in Palestine to the multitude of corporations profiting as we speak from US migrant concentration camps,” while stressing that EIT is “not anti-tech.”

“We realize that we need technology and that there are many benefits” of tech, he said. “We seek a more ethical industry,” he clarified.

The panel discussion was followed by audience Q&A and stand-up comedy. When asked why EIT includes a comedy component in many of its events, Razavi responded that “some of the topics we talk about are too serious” and may stand in the way of attracting a larger audience. “We thought we should lighten things by mixing in comedy so that people will actually attend,” he added.

“The comedy is here to acknowledge the fact that we can’t necessarily save the world through our meetings, but we can be light-hearted about it and still have a political discussion and a conversation around ethics and be friends,” said Razavi.

Performing at the event were Alicia Dattner and Arthur Gaus. Dattner has been voted best comedian by readers of both the San Francisco Bay Guardian and SF Weekly. Dattner has won many other comedy awards and has performed with Maria Bamford, Ali Wong, Moshe Kasher, Arj Barker, Kate Willett, Ann Randolph, and many more luminaries. Gaus is a San Francisco-based attorney and stand-up comedian who’s a regular at legendary local comedy clubs Cobb’s and The Punchline. Over the past two decades Gaus has opened for comics including John Oliver, John Mulaney and Brian Regan, standing out for his distinctive delivery and witty content. Gaus is also the creator and co-host of the Maniac Bowl alt-comedy show in San Francisco.

Among the attendees were Will Durst, who the New York Times called “possibly the best political comedian working in the country,” and who has performed stand-up routines dating back to Razavi’s NSA Comedy Tour series.

“I know what you’re thinking, ethics in tech sounds like an oxymoron, like a vegetarian butcher, kosher pork tartare… or a Donald Trump guide to etiquette and manners,” Durst quipped in a post-event interview. “But [Ethics In Tech] is here to help, and they do it with a smile — every event you go to will have a comedy component, along with expert speakers and panel discussions… and community participation.”

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