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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Irwin

SF’s next big unicorns aren’t startups. They’re people

Meet the faces behind The City’s growing ‘responsible tech’ movement


SF Examiner

Technology’s titans have taken an absolute beating in the court of public opinion in recent years.

From Trump election hacking on Facebook to boycotts of YouTube to massive data breaches at Apple and Uber, it’s no wonder the industry sports a collective public relations shiner.

But these moments of public humiliation and failure, where consumer trust eroded badly, also created a suprising environment for reform.

These were the moments that opened the door for an army of new tech workers who aren’t really technologists at all. They’re lawyers, social scientists, ex-government workers. And many of them live right here in San Francisco, participating in the growing “responsible technology” movement.

“Trump’s election was a turning point…like a Frankenstein’s monster moment,” explains Karina Alexanyan, a San Francisco researcher and consultant focused on the responsible tech trend. After that, she says, “Social media recognized that responsible tech was an imperative.”

Alexanyan’s academic background doesn’t make it obvious she works in tech: She holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics; her master’s was in Culture and Communication, and her doctorate resulted from researching communications at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. What her resume doesn’t show is that between her master’s and Ph.D., the attacks of Sept. 11 changed her viewpoint. A Russian immigrant, Alexanyan has always had an international perspective, and says she immediately started to make sense of the attacks by looking at how international media was covering them. That then led her to investigate how people overseas were talking about them online.

In the 20 years since 9/11, she has watched the tech industry catch up. After the attacks, “There was a group of people in academia that were thinking about the social implications of technology, while people and industry were not thinking about those things,” she says. “Now, (the industry) is kind of waking up.”

Karina Alexanyan, a researcher and consultant who focuses on technology and its social implications. (Courtesy Karina Alexanyan)

The membership of a group Alexanyan is part of, called All Tech is Human, helps to confirm the trend. The organization regularly convenes tech workers who are passionate about ethics for online summits, panels, and discussions. It has a broad membership spanning from libertarian lawyers to socialist philosophers. Diversity, not only of ethnicity and gender, but also professional experience and worldview, is proving critically important to building more ethical tech.

The organization recently released a report that lists dozens of organizations that companies can look to for expertise. It also lists dozens of experts — mostly with titles like “Director of Trust and Safety” and “Digital Ethics Lead” at firms as prominent as Salesforce and Facebook — who almost unanimously have professional backgrounds in multiple sectors. Dozens of these organizations are based in San Francisco.

The founder and director of All Tech is Human, David Ryan Polgar, says it’s obvious why: “Diversity is what breeds responsible innovation,” he says. He also says “New York and San Francisco are the biggest bases” for the responsible tech-minded discussions and conferences he leads.

The importance of diversity in the responsible tech conversation seems obvious to Pinal Shah, too. She served as counselor for science and technology at the Department of Homeland Security during Barack Obama’s Administration before moving back to San Francisco and working for the ride-sharing giant Lyft. Now she’s the senior behavioral engineer on trust, safety and abuse at the investment firm Robinhood. From her perspective, it is crucial for major tech companies to involve people who have worked in the public sector, not only because these companies are often at odds with federal regulations, but also because people in government are trained to focus on the “public interest.”

She says her coworkers have always recognized that she’s an asset, despite the fact that it was a rocky adjustment transitioning from the public to private sector. “I was never treated like an outsider, even though when I first started, I definitely was,” she says.

In addition to academics and former public sector employees, one other group of workers is in high demand in the tech ethics space: those with demonstrable international experience, like Emma Leiken. After graduating with a bachelor’s in religious studies, she spent a year as a Fulbright fellow conducting ethnographic research in India. But when Google began its Next Billion Users project, focused on its expansion into developing economies, her deep knowledge of India’s cultural diversity was an asset. For Leiken, the opportunity also presented an opportunity to advocate for human rights from the inside, after learning how deeply connected tech access was to quality of life in the country.

“There’s something to be said for the importance of, not just global perspectives, but almost a global reckoning,” Leiken explains. “You need people with different cognitive landscapes, experiences, and people who are situated in different geographies to actually tackle these issues.”

Luckily, she also says she sees a trend toward integrating those perspectives. Now she’s both the Chief of Staff, Programs and a member of the Responsible Technology team at the social change venture Omidyar Network, giving her a birds-eye view of where the tech ethics conversation is going. “There’s a lot of value in this trend of tech companies bringing on interdisciplinary thinkers, from nonprofits, civil society, academia, and other sectors, as advisors or on oversight boards,” she says.

However, she still offers one caution: “We can celebrate these moves, but only as long as the external, interdisciplinary experts are really given the mic.”

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