After Shankar Narayan graduated from Yale with a law degree, he needed a job that would help pay off his sizable student loans and provide a green card.
It was the early 2000s, and while he wasn’t wild for the idea of representing big corporate clients, he became an attorney at Seattle’s Preston Gates and Ellis (now called K&L Gates), whose clients included technology companies such as Microsoft and Amazon. He figured being a lawyer for the tech sector would be “morally innocuous.”
That was then.
Narayan is now holding tech giants to account in his role as Technology and Liberty Project director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
“In a nutshell, I advocate, organize and litigate to protect civil liberties in a world transformed by technology, with a particular focus on disproportionately impacted communities,” Narayan said. The job is made somewhat easier by insights gained during his nearly four years in corporate law.
While tech innovations are often seen as beneficial to humanity and the planet — or that regulations can be used to create safeguards if problems arise — Narayan said past experience shows that we need to be skeptical of those claims.
“We have a long history of technology impacting vulnerable communities disproportionately,” he said. That includes the use of U.S. Census data and punch cards to intern Japanese Americans during World War II, electronic spying tools used to bug civil rights movement leaders and monitoring of the Muslim community after 9/11.
Narayan is particularly concerned about surveillance technology including facial recognition and body cameras, and automated decision systems (ADS), which use computer algorithms to assist or replace the role of people in decision making. ADS can be used by government agencies and applied to decisions with huge effects on public benefits, criminal sentencing, healthcare and education.
Narayan is working to make sure that diverse voices are able to review these technologies before they’re implemented by government departments and that people understand how they work and who will be affected.
He praised the effectiveness of the Seattle Surveillance Ordinance, which requires public review of tracking technologies. During this year’s legislative session, he fought for new statewide rules creating oversight of the use of ADS; the measure failed, but made it further in the legislative process than he’d expected. Also during the session, the ACLU successfully blocked the passage of privacy rules supported by Microsoft and others, but that the civil liberties group said were too weak.
“The sheen has really come off the rose for the public around many of these technologies,” Narayan said.
To unwind at the end of the day, Narayan goes decidedly low-tech, walking his dog and writing and sharing his poetry.
“I can’t imagine my life without poetry, it makes me better at everything I do,” he said, adding that being creative makes you better at solving problems and looking at the world holistically. It also helps him bear witness to and process the injustices that he confronts in his work.
“It’s a pretty amazing way to balance the tough work that I do on a daily basis,” Narayan said. “It helps keep me sane.”
We caught up with Narayan for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
Current location: Downtown Seattle
Computer types: Two generic desktop PCs, a well-traveled Ultrabook
Mobile devices: LG V40
Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: Signal, ProtonMail, Tor. I don’t always use the latter two, but I’m very glad they’re there when I need them. (ProtonMail is an encrypted email service, and Tor provides anonymous online browsing.)
Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? My walls are covered in leather shadow puppets depicting figures from the Ramayana, a Hindu epic. They help ground me in creativity and wisdom, and also reflect my immigrant experience. I have a lot of plants, including one gigantic one that towers over me, and a big window through which I get reflected sunset light from the skyscraper across the street — little connections to the natural world.
I can look out and watch street scenes unfold, which is a great two-minute mental reset. And the Amazon Go store is right across the street from me, which I’m fairly certain they did on purpose after all of the ACLU’s advocacy around the dangers of Amazon’s face surveillance product, Rekognition.
Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? Make your life sustainable in a way that works for you. Don’t feel that you have to say “yes” to everything, but be intentional about making time for the things that keep you whole. For me, I devote time to my life as a poet and creative, immerse myself in some natural space every day, make sure to cultivate a calm mind, and expand my horizons by learning about things I don’t know about. Ultimately, the goal is to be a whole person at work and outside, rather than seeing your work self and non-work self as different beings.
Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? I limit my social media use, but use LinkedIn as a professional networking tool. It’s easier than exchanging cards at conferences, and also lets folks interested in tech and ethics (and poetry!) follow my work as it develops.
Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? 2,211. But in my defense, legislative session ended not too long ago. Sorry to those who emailed me — I’m working on the backlog now!
Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? 33. Which is much better than what things looked like during session.
How do you run meetings? By creating intentional, courageous spaces. I like to make assumptions explicit, including making space for voices that might not be the loudest, and noticing power dynamics in the room. Time management is also an art — allowing time for spontaneous conversations that have value, but keeping things on task and making sure to get to the goal or having a plan to accomplish it by the end of the meeting.
Everyday work uniform? It depends on the day, but as casual as I can get away with. My job takes me into a diversity of spaces, so it could be anything from a full suit and tie to sneakers and jeans. The hooded vest is a staple, and my trusty black sport coat helps officialize me when needed.
How do you make time for family? Intentionally (or at least I try!). My immediate family is mostly in India or scattered in different places in the U.S., so I have to remind myself to nurture those relationships with time and care. And of course, people close to me in Seattle are also a different kind of family, and I try to invest in those relationships as well. I don’t always succeed in striking the right balance, but I have gotten better at recognizing when I’m not doing a good job and correcting for that.
Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? My Anatolian Shepherd, Dark Prince Linus Akira (known to his fans simply as Linus). Even after a long, stressful day, I can take him for a sunset walk at Lincoln Park, watch the seals and herons fishing, and feel that all is right with the world. Writing poetry, climbing mountains, motorcycle rides and meditation also help.
What are you listening to? A collection of vintage Cambodian rock and roll from the ’70s; Blick Bassy’s “1958”; various bands I saw at Folklife; a lot of current Bollywood; and old ghazals (Persian poetry) by Mehdi Hassan and Farida Khanum.
Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? The Guardian, Seattle Times, BBC Hindi; xkcd and various other webcomics. I remain heartbroken about the death of CuteOverload.com and hope it will come back.
Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? Usually many. Some current ones are “Soft Science” by Franny Choi, “The Robotic Imaginary” by Jennifer Rhee and “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben.
Night owl or early riser? Somewhere in the middle, but probably more on the night owl side. When I write poetry, it’s often late at night when a poem comes to me unprompted, but I can also get a lot of good work done in the morning. I’m pretty good about getting a full night’s sleep, and lights out for me is usually 11:30 or so.
Where do you get your best ideas? Making connections between the various worlds I straddle. I’m a multilingual immigrant who grew up around the world, and even now, I’m both Indian and American. I studied science and math, philosophy and economics, writing and law. I teach ethics and speak to wildly different audiences. I work with incredible coalitions of community-based advocates and members of diverse, intersectional communities. Touching all those different spaces helps me think creatively, and makes me a more effective advocate, a better writer and most importantly, a more whole person.
Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? There are many! One who comes to mind is ACLU-WA’s Executive Director Michele Storms, who’s been a leader in Washington’s communities of color for a long time, and accomplishes all she does with aplomb and grace despite significant barriers.