Callie Crossley: It's The Takeaway. I'm Callie Crossley, commentator, and host for GBH Radio and TV in Boston. In, for Tanzina Vega this week. Happy New Year's Eve to you as we happily bid adieu to 2020, tonight. Looking back on this year, I think it's safe to say that almost nothing went as expected and we faced enormous loss. Over 343,000 friends, family, and fellow humans in the US died in 2020 due to COVID-19. Millions of Americans also lost their jobs as entire sectors of the US economy shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19. All of our lives changed dramatically.
The pandemic and stay-at-home orders that accompanied it meant many of us were sitting in our apartments and houses more than ever before. To bridge the gaps, we doubled down on our reliance on tech giants. Zoom replaced the office, Amazon and Instacart replaced the grocery store. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram helped us seek out human interaction. Even as our dependence increased, we've continued to learn about labor and privacy issues with some of these companies, driving many of us to grapple with the question of whether we really need them and how to quit. Regardless, our changed relationship to big tech will surely have long-term effects that we have only just begun to see.
Here with me now is Brian Patrick Green, tech ethicist and Director of Technology Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, and John Herrman who covers tech and media for The New York Times Style section and the magazine. Brian and John, thank you both for joining me.
Brian Patrick Green: It's great to be here. Thank you.
John Herrman: Thanks for having me.
Callie: John, let's start with you. How did the pandemic change how we interact with Amazon and other large tech companies like Google and Facebook?
John: Across the board, whatever your relationship with these companies was before, it's probably become, for lack of a better word, more intimate. With Amazon, in particular, I think the Big Crunch earlier in the year when people were worried about staying at home, having what they needed, that really formed a lot of new habits for people and reinforced some old habits. The demand was so great that it kind of, for a brief time, brought Amazon to its knees. Since then, it's ramped up capacity. It has had, in generally a pretty difficult year, a very good year.
Callie: Is it even possible to walk back how dependent we become?
John: This is something that I think a lot of people are starting to feel. Now, this year, and I would imagine next year, more people turned to Amazon and turned away, but a lot of people started to feel a bit trapped. If your shopping options are limited in the physical world around you, you're turning to e-commerce. If you really focus on e-commerce, you start to notice that for certain types of things, for certain needs, Amazon is not the only game in town but certainly the most convenient.
I think there is a growing awareness, at least among the different people that I talked to who are trying to avoid Amazon, that their choices are diminishing. Or they can see ways in which in the future, their options might be limited.
Callie: Brian, it isn't just Amazon, it's Google, it's Facebook. As a tech ethicist, how do you approach our relationship to tech?
Brian: Well, first of all, what I would say is that these companies provide something that people want, that's the reason they exist in the first place. Then, the question becomes, are they providing it in a way that's actually helpful to the whole world? Is this something that we feel comfortable with? Is it something that bothers our conscience? Do we feel that their workers, for example, are not being treated correctly? This is really a time when we need to think about how we behave, how we act in the world, and how can we work to make sure that the future that we're creating together is really some worth that we want to live?
Callie: How does someone like Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, or Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, think about the products and services they provide, do we know? Have they been held account to that?
Brian: Well, this is a great question. First of all, they've built huge companies. They obviously have a great amount of business sense. Then, the next question is, do we really have a sense of how their products are operating in the world? How people are interacting with them? Do they really recognize the impact that they're having in terms of the negative impacts, especially whether it's on their own workers or whether it's on people in other countries or in our own country?
Callie: John, Amazon's reach is massive. It doesn't just deliver books and toilet paper. Give us a sense of just how big its scope is at this point.
John: For a story recently, I talked to a wide range of people who are trying to disentangle themselves from Amazon. They were avoiding Amazon for all sorts of different reasons. They probably would have disagreed with each other if they were in the same room talking about this. One thing they had in common was that they found it was pretty hard. It's one thing to shop less on amazon.com or to avoid Whole Foods or to unplug your Echo smart speaker. But if you're using the Internet-- let's say, you're using Zoom more for work this year, you're indirectly using Amazon Web Services.
If you're watching Netflix more this year, you're indirectly using Amazon Web Services. Amazon's holdings include all sorts of different companies, some better known like Zappos. If you're using IMDb, you're also sort of in the Amazon universe, audible Twitch and then, of course, the entertainment products with Amazon Prime Video. Even someone I talked to who has spent his life-- Chris Smalls-- this year, protesting Amazon. He was a warehouse worker who led a walkout and then was eventually fired. He said that even his family had a hard time extracting themselves from Amazon and their habits that they had formed with Amazon.
It's not easy to fully avoid the company, even if you make that choice and even if you're pretty well devoted to it. It really doesn't seem like it's going to get easier.
Callie: Mr. Smalls also said that he asked the question, “What did you do before all this?” so encouraging people to think about ways of moving away.
John: It's true. A lot of people I've talked to felt a little bit of guilt and uneasiness. They're people who had maybe ethical concerns about Amazon or political concerns about Amazon. They were still making an exception for one product or another. But it is true that if you really do set your mind to it, you're not going to be able to avoid touching Amazon, especially with the way that it undergirds so much of the Internet, but you can move a lot of your business elsewhere. One thing that came up with a number of sources that I thought was interesting was that it's perhaps not so helpful to focus on avoiding Amazon with all of its diversified products and everything.
It's more helpful to think about where you're taking your business and what effect that might have, because making a choice to buy at a local bookstore, for example, means a lot more to that store than the lack of business could ever mean to Jeff Bezos.
Callie: Brian, you spent time advising tech companies about the intersection of tech and ethics. What can you tell us about the kinds of questions you're helping them answer?
Brian: They're really concerned about how they're operating the world right now. I've got this as firsthand information from people who directly work for these companies, and not just at the lowest levels, but higher up, too. I think a lot of them have had their consciences stoked by what's happened in the last four years since 2016 and the election, and all the way up through the pandemic, and now. They realize that they're having an impact on the world, which is not the positive impact that they thought that they were going to have.
This has really caused an opportunity in their minds to try to reinterpret the way they're looking at the world and to reevaluate their behavior, and try to become better, not just as individuals but, of course, as a corporation. It turns out that that's actually quite difficult if you've developed habits now that have been going on for years, if your business model, for example, relies on scooping up large amounts of information. They really have to think about not only how to improve their products, not only how to improve things day today, but really how to think big picture of how their corporation is operating in the world.
Callie: Brian, Amazon, and Facebook have both come under scrutiny for their labor practices. Amazon's been accused of providing unsafe working conditions during the pandemic. Facebook content moderators have reported being traumatized after reading hate speech and watching violent acts. How have these organizations addressed these issues? Have their efforts been substantial enough?
Brian: These are incredibly important questions. I think most people would agree that they're still working on it. They need to work harder. These are issues that ultimately, they affect the bottom line. It costs money to do these sorts of things, and because these are corporations that are predominantly preoccupied with making money, that's always going to be the first thing on their mind, which, unfortunately, pushes ethics to the side. I think they really need to think a little bit longer term, not just short-term in terms of the money this quarter or this financial year, but in terms of what their overall impact is on the world.
Do we want to live in a world where these sorts of things are going on, where people are being treated badly, where people are being traumatized? How do we make a better world together, where we are controlling these negative aspects of technology and really trying to seize on the opportunity and promise that technology can give to the world?
Callie: John, why do you think we've heard so little when it comes to enacting legislation that could actually address some of the issues we've raised regarding Amazon size?
John: A lot of the discussion about reining in the tech giants or introducing new regulations with antitrust concerns, it's been focused on Facebook and Google. It's easier for regular Internet users to understand, let's say, Google's dominance. There are other search options, but Google, if you use it, if you use it for email, it's really just so central in your life, the idea of leaving it is genuinely hard to think about. The antitrust concerns with Amazon are not so visible from the surface. The main issue right now, where a lot of these discussions and fights are happening, it's the sellers.
It's Amazon's power as a channel for people to sell things. Majority of the products sold through Amazon are actually sold through third parties, by individuals and businesses who are just using Amazon as a way to reach customers. Now, this also isn't apparent to most customers, but this is where there are a lot of emerging concerns that, for example, Amazon might watch what sellers are doing and then move into that space themselves later. Or that they might introduce unfavorable terms for sellers, that put undue pressure on people who are just trying to make their living selling online and don't really have a better option.
I think the reality of Amazon's market strength and its dominance will become more apparent to people in the coming years. But I think big parts of it will remain less visible. They don't really make for the same sorts of rallying cries that you get around Facebook and free speech, for example, or around Google and search dominance, which is pretty easy to get across.
Callie: Brian, what kinds of questions should our listeners be asking themselves if they want to make more conscientious decisions when deciding what tech companies they want to spend their time and money with?
Brian: I think it's always important to think about what the ethical impacts are of what we're doing. I think that people should always be thinking about what the right thing is to do, especially with regards to tech.
John: I think the first step in this process is to take stock and think about it if you did choose to leave one of these big firms, how could you do it, and how easy would it be?
Callie: If you're determined to do it, then maybe you can find a way to do that. All right, Brian, John, thank you both for taking the time.
Brian: Thank you.
John: Thanks for having me.
Callie: Brian Patrick Green is a tech ethicist and Director of Technology Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, and John Herrman covers tech and media for The New York Times Style section and the magazine.
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