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Can San Francisco rely on tech leaders to recognize and resist global catastrophe?

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The Bulletin of Atomic Sciences moved the Doomsday Clock forward 30 seconds closer to global catastrophe last week. (Courtesy photo)
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Tech companies have a libertarian streak that we sometimes find in conflict with San Francisco values. Libertarians often describe their political philosophy in terms of broad, personal and economic liberty.

Disrupting established industries like transportation (Uber) and hospitality (Airbnb), innovators continue to head to The City, whose motto is “Oro en paz, Fierro en Guerra” (Gold in Peace, Iron in War), with big ideas and a spirit of adventure.

When companies innovate quickly, it takes the government a while to figure out what they are doing, and even more time to figure out if they should do something about it. Oftentimes, these companies don’t wait around. For tech companies, one might say they tend to make their own rules, interpret them by their own logic and enforce them at their own discretion.

It makes sense that San Francisco is the home for innovative communications technology. The City values the freedom to live and love how you want; few people here care about who your grandparents were or how you worship (or not). People pride themselves on tolerance and openness to new ideas and experiences.

Without a doubt, the companies that lead in technology are shaping the world in new ways. They contribute to the breakneck speed of social change that lifts up some but leaves others feeling like they are losing their bearings or feeling stuck — unable to figure out which of yesterday’s rules still apply today.

My anthropology professors would call this a sense of “anomie.”

We live in interesting times. Twitter, headquartered in San Francisco, is the preferred communication platform for our current president, who, many believe, is dangerously flirting with totalitarianism and whose reckless acts and words are brewing a threat to humanity.

Last week, the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences moved the Doomsday Clock forward 30 seconds closer to global catastrophe, based on concerns about the existential threats of climate change and nuclear weapons. The clock was started in 1947 by Manhattan Project scientists.

In a speech last week at the National Press Club, Rachel Bronson, executive director and publisher of The Bulletin, cited “cavalier and reckless language, used across the globe, especially in the United States, during the Presidential Election and after, around nuclear weapons and nuclear threats” among the reasons for the board’s decision to move the clock closer to midnight.

Until last week, the clock had not been this close to midnight since 1953, after the United States and Russia had tested hydrogen bombs.

As people take actions into their own hands, we are seeing individual acts of resistance everywhere. It is becoming difficult to keep up. The rulebook has been thrown out, and people are increasingly forced to turn inward to make decisions, based what they believe is the highest and best good.

From “alternative” Twitter accounts being created for government scientists (@RogueNASA, @ActualEPAFacts) to acting Attorney General Sally Yates refusing to enforce President Donald Trump’s travel ban, targeting people from certain countries (she was fired), people are finding the courage to act.

A family member of mine carried the signed orders from President Harry S. Truman on his body to the blast site for “Mike” Shot of Operation Ivy, the first hydrogen bomb explosion. (He was the “blast man,” responsible for calculating a physically safe distance from the test site. He became a peace activist before he died.) If he were alive today, I can’t help but think Uncle Francis would be deeply disturbed by the ease with which reckless words, with such terrible implications, can travel.

Some of our tech companies have become the roads on which virtual tanks roll in a coup de etat, and sometimes, in other nations, we have seen them followed by actual tanks. Nobody would argue that these companies know how to be Golden in Peace. But would they recognize a war in the land of free speech, and know how to be Iron in it?

Maureen Erwin is a Bay Area political consultant. Most recently she led Sonoma County’s Measure M, which will create the largest GMO-free growing zone in the U.S.

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