Event Recap: 8 Ignites on Tech & Society

Ignite attendees grab tamales and mingle before the talks begin.

Last Wednesday we held our first evening of Ignite talks, centered on the theme of Tech & Society. About 70 people gathered to hear eight members of the TechEquity community share their thoughts on how tech influences society — and vice versa.

1. We kicked off with Alessandro Gagliardi, who gave us a 30-year, biased, personal history of the Internet, its corporatization, and redemocratization.

It was amazing to see how the Internet has evolved (and devolved) over the years; he helped us ponder what Web 3.0 will look like and how it should be shaped to avoid the major pitfalls we’ve experienced (Cambridge Analytica anyone?).

One of Alessandro’s slides that brought us back to uglier, simpler times.

2. Next up we had Allison Chan, who addressed race, inequality, and ethics in data. She posited that data is not a reflection of empirical reality, but that it actively manipulates it.

She gave us examples the ways data is collected, analyzed, and used to make decisions that can cement racial bias and inequities, similar to our talk with Virginia Eubanks, author of Automating Inequality. Allison urged us not to fall into big data mysticism and to hold the companies where we work accountable to the ways they engage with data.

Allison urges us to not buy into the big data hype.

3. The next presentation from Aviv Ovadya gave us insight into how tech can avoid saying “oops”. He posited that tech companies currently don’t feel like they hold responsibility for when things go wrong and their actions have “unintended consequences,” like anti-Islamist propagandist videos getting highly recommended on YouTube, or Facebook ads being used to throw an election.

Aviv recommends that tech companies enlist the help of anti-oops organizations, organizations that can provide expertise, services, incentives and warnings around company initiatives that might hold potentially danger to public safety.

(Shameless plug: our Corporate Sponsorship program serves just this purpose! Learn more and get in touch.)

Aviv lays out how companies can avoid saying “oops”.

4. Carla Fernandez provided us with an antidote to the ills of our hyper-connected, hyper-isolated reality.

She highlighted how loneliness has increased in the digital age, and how it prompted her to start The Dinner Party, a regular gathering of people to openly discuss the grief they’ve experienced in their lives. She’s attempting to answer the question: “How do we turn our conversation killers into conversation starters and relationship builders?”

Carla led us in a mini-Dinner Party exercise on how tech has impacted our emotions.

5. After a quick break, we launched into our second half with Val Sanders, who brought us the hot take that the problem with tech isn’t tech — it’s actually just us. Fear, abuse of power, communication lines gone awry; these are all very human problems that are reflected in the mirror that tech holds up.

She’s learned this from her work at Empower Work, a text service that provides free and confidential support for work issues. To increase our empathy towards our coworkers, Val encourages us to follow the acronym WAIT: Why Am I Talking?

Val tells us that empathy and inquiry are the best ways to affect change in the workplace.

6. Elizabeth Allen shared with us how communities of people with disabilities online can be transformative. She drew on her personal experience of getting Lyme disease and the damaging consequences it has had on her health and sociability.

Elizabeth recounted her experiences of being bedridden and isolated from the world. Exploring Lyme-related hashtags led her to a group of people also dealing with Lyme disease, and with it came Lyme life-hacks, shared pains and triumphs, and necessary human connection.

Elizabeth Allen shares with us some of the hashtags that led her to vital community.

7. Next we took a step into the whimsical with Alex Feerst, as he prompted us with a question most of us had never asked before: What if Jane Austen ran an Internet platform of her very own?

Using characters from her novels, Alex painted a picture of some of the issues that could have arisen on the totally real platform Pember.ly. Jane grappled with the responsibilities of a content moderator, toeing the line between creating a safe environment for her participants and stifling free expression and discourse.

Methinks Jane is left with many more questions than she hath answers.

8. To wrap up the evening, Yoav Schlesinger gave us insight into how to not regret the things we build. He dove into EthicalOS, a toolkit to identify risk zones as well as provide scenarios and strategies to address potential long-term impacts of tech being built today.

He explored Risk Zone 6: Data Control & Monetization, and gave us questions to think about if we’re building tools around data, like “What is the worst thing someone could do with this data if it were stolen or leaked?”

These are the 8 risk zones identified in EthicalOS.

We’re happy to have created a social setting that sparked such fascinating discussion. If you want to come to more social events like this as well as learn and work to address the Bay Area’s deep inequalities in housing and labor rights, sign up for our newsletter to get involved.

Big thanks to all of our presenters, and extra big thanks to our event sponsor, Omidyar Network!

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