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Professor Explores Big Tech’s Effect on Our Lives

Self-reflection necessary in tech-driven world

Professor Bill Yousman

By Kimberly Swartz

More than a year ago, Sacred Heart University communication and media professor Bill Yousman saw an advertisement for Amazon Key that led to an awakening, and to his current research project, “Amazon Key and the Neoliberal Home Invasion.”

Amazon Key is a service that allows authorized delivery personnel to enter homes of Amazon Prime customers during specific times to leave packages. It enables keyless entry, guest entry and in-home delivery, according to Amazon.

“The advertisement made the service look great,” said Yousman, who’s been teaching in the School of Communication, Media & the Arts since 2015. He said the ad depicts a woman who learns last-minute that her parents are coming to visit, but she is stuck at work and can’t properly prepare for her guests. With the Amazon Key app, she can have a cleaning service enter her home to tidy up. Food and flowers are delivered inside, and everything is ready before the woman or her guests step into the house. “The ad made everything seem seamless,” Yousman said.

But then he started thinking about it. “So it’s not good enough for Amazon to have a device in your house, a device you interface with in your home? Now Amazon wants physical access to your home.” Yousman was referring to the Amazon Echo, a voice-operated device in the home that can play music, turn on appliances, answers questions and more.

While Amazon answered the many safety concerns Amazon Key raised (it’s a secure system, only the user can unlock the door, there are cameras, and the door relocks as soon as a delivery person leaves), Yousman still had questions, such as, “How far can this go in allowing corporations into our most intimate spaces?”

At this point, Yousman started researching Amazon in depth. “There’s a difference between the image Amazon projects and its reality,” he said. Generally, people like Amazon’s prices and convenience, he noted, “But what’s going on behind the scenes?”

Through his research, Yousman learned that, for a long time, many Amazon employees were earning minimum wage, while news reports have identified Jeff Bezos, the company’s founder and CEO, as the wealthiest man in modern history. Only recently, after this news was uncovered, did wages increase to $15 per hour. Yousman also discovered employees work long hours under harsh conditions. “There’s this dark side to how they treat their employees who, in turn, make our lives easier,” he said.

Earlier this year, Amazon opened AmazonGo, a brick-and-mortar store in Seattle that doesn’t require cashiers. Everything is automated, and cameras keep track of the customers as they shop. The company plans to open between 2,000 and 3,000 of these stores in the next few years. If Amazon stops hiring people and turns to robots to do their work, who will have jobs and an income to buy what they’re selling, Yousman asks.

Questioning the operations of big tech corporations like Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft is important, Yousman said. “These are huge, multi-billion-dollar companies worth more than some countries, and they control so much, but they’re not held accountable.” Because of that, Yousman said, society risks giving their lives over to them.

Yousman emphasized he’s not against the technologies these corporations sell. He acknowledged their positive aspects and how they make lives easier. “I’m not anti-tech…this technology is here to stay, and it will only become more integrated into our lives. But let’s find a rational way for us to be in control, rather than have technology be in control of us,” he urged.

Yousman encourages people to be more informed, to take a step back and reflect on how they integrate technology and big corporations into their lives. He believes people should ask themselves questions, such as: Am I in control of my phone, or is my phone in control of me? Am I making a conscious decision about how much time I spend online? Or have I become addicted?

When Yousman presented his research at the fall 2018 College of Arts & Sciences conference, he saw looks of surprise on students’ faces. “It was this, ‘Oh! I never thought about this before,’ look,” Yousman said. Some will be interested in his research, he acknowledged, and others will shrug their shoulders. But those who want to know more will make conscious decisions about their relationships with technology, and that’s his goal, he said.