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Paul DourishAs the UCI community continues to mourn the loss of beloved alumnus Vincent Steckler, who led the tremendous growth of Avast Antivirus Software during his time as CEO, solace can be found in seeing the impact of his legacy. Steckler, who graduated from UCI in 1980 with a B.S. in information and computer science and a B.S. in mathematics, was a dedicated advocate for socially responsible technology. As announced in January, a generous gift from Steckler and his wife, Amanda, led to the creation of the Steckler Center for Responsible, Ethical and Accessible Technology (CREATE) in UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences (ICS). Funding from that gift also helped establish the Steckler Endowed Chair, with Chancellor’s Professor of Informatics Paul Dourish taking on that role effective July 1, 2021.

“Building on a long tradition of scholarship at UCI on technology and society, the establishment of the Steckler chair reflects the pressing urgency of those topics today,” says Dourish, who has been studying socially responsible technology for years and now serves as the director of CREATE. “We’re in a particularly significant moment for research on socially responsible technology,” he explains. “On one hand, there is a growing dissatisfaction with tech industry practices and business models, while, on the other, the pandemic has made us even more reliant upon digital infrastructures in working life and beyond.”

One area in particular Dourish is currently researching is the practical contexts in which AI and data systems are deployed. “As researchers, we produce new ideas, systems and technologies, but when real-world organizations pick them up, the practical realities of institutional politics, organizational dynamics, uneven technical capacities, and the competing interests of different stakeholders are often at odds with our idealized assumptions,” he explains. “If we want to build systems and strategies that have impact in the world, we need to begin with those realities and organize our technologies around them.”

In addition to his research, Dourish also notes the importance of educating future designers and developers to better understand the consequences of their creations. “We need to make sure that the next generation of technical professionals are able to engage with the social and cultural dimensions of their work,” he says. Recognizing that engagement with social and cultural dimensions requires pulling in new perspectives, Dourish prioritizes diversity in STEM. “The Steckler gift was inspired in large part by the challenges of ensuring a diverse and inclusive technology workforce to serve an equally diverse and inclusive society,” says Dourish.

The chair position may be held for five-year renewable terms. “Only one person can hold the chair, but I’m very conscious of the support of my many mentors, colleagues, collaborators and students,” says Dourish. “I regard myself as holding the chair on all of their behalf.” In fact, many ICS colleagues and students are CREATE collaborators working with Dourish on projects focused on principles of equity, accountability and care.

“Dr. Dourish is a world leader in understanding the intersections between technological innovations and social environments. He has spent a fruitful career analyzing the moral implications of a dramatically changing world,” says Melissa Mazmanian, chair of the Department of Informatics. “His technical savvy, rich humanity, and unwavering commitment to ethical, inclusive, and safe futures make him an ideal candidate to realize Vince Steckler’s legacy.”

An event celebrating Steckler’s legacy and honoring Paul Dourish as the first Steckler Endowed Chair will be held later this year.

— Shani Murray