“Good old-fashioned politics” is the avenue to achieve change and make big tech companies behave better, says Tim Bray, the former Amazon vice-president who resigned in May over the tech giant’s firing of whistleblower employees.
Speaking to Communitech CEO Iain Klugman in an episode of True North TV on Tuesday, Bray, a Canadian and co-founder of Waterloo Region-based OpenText, said that the questionable behaviour of Amazon and big tech companies like it aren’t the real issue, but rather symptoms of a far greater problem – “the degree of inequality in wealth and power” – throughout the world.
“I think the central larger problem is the egregious and unacceptable imbalance in wealth and power between the 99.9 per cent and the 0.1 percent,” Bray said.
“You know, you can’t just talk to Amazon and say, ‘Amazon, be nicer in [your] warehouses.’ Because even if they listen to you, which is unlikely, then somebody else [will] go in and figure, ‘Yeah, I can [gain] a three-per-cent better profit margin by treating people worse,’ and so they will.
“So if we don’t want that to happen, you don’t achieve that by shooting an Amazon. You achieve that by old-fashioned politics, and getting a better regulatory and legislative framework in place.”
True North TV is a series of virtual discussions with leaders in tech and wider society with an overall “tech for good” theme. The series, which launched last month, began as a response to the cancellation of June’s True North Festival due to the spring onset of COVID-19.
Bray is a University of Guelph graduate who in 1987 joined the University of Waterloo to work on the digitization of the Oxford English Dictionary. That project would eventually morph into OpenText, which has grown into an international software giant. Bray went on to help play a role in the development of the internet’s XML infrastructure.
His resignation from Amazon generated a great deal of mainstream media attention after he went public in a blog post with his reasons for quitting. “I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of COVID-19,” Bray, who is based in Vancouver, wrote.
"Remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised. So I resigned,” leaving behind, he said, more than $1 million in "big-tech salaries and share vestings.”
Responding to a question posed by Klugman Tuesday, Bray said he’s “pessimistic” about “spontaneous, self-driven changes in direction by big tech,” saying it’s “very hard for somebody who’s in [their] position to really have a good appreciation for the way they look from outside.”
The onus, he said, falls on governments to make changes, and for voters to hold politicians to account.
And he said that Canada, while it may have a better ethical and overall brand than, for instance, the U.S., has much to answer for – particularly with respect to the environment. Bray is an outspoken advocate for the environment; in 2018, he was arrested for his part in a demonstration against the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline.
“I can’t help but notice that Canada is the highest per capita carbon-loaded country on the planet. So our brand may be great, but our energy emissions, our [greenhouse gas] emissions are not so great at all.
“If we dig up and burn all the fossil fuel that we know exists, we won’t be able to live on the planet anymore. So we need to stop.”
Bray acknowledged that “the internet has facilitated a lot of very bad behaviour,” but added that “the news is not all bad” with respect to the societal problems generated by technology, and that much that is good serves as a counterweight for issues like fake news, or social media’s amplification of racial division.
“I mean, could you go back to a world without having a GPS-driven map in every pocket? That’s just a life changer, [and] Wikipedia in my view, very nicely expresses the original dream of the internet: You know, let’s make information free and easily accessible and high quality and responsive. How can that be a bad thing?”
Bray said “we can do better, we should do better,” but he acknowledged that venture capital-driven startups don’t “leave a lot of space and time for ethical and moral reflections. And that’s one of the reasons that I’ve become quite disgruntled with the whole VC industry.”
As for his next project, Bray said that he hadn’t given much thought to what it will be, but in terms of opportunities he believes that technology connected to reducing carbon emissions presents a huge upside.
“It seems clear to me that some of the great fortunes of the second half of the 21st century are going to come out of [environmental projects].
“If I were going to pick one thing that's sticking out like a sore thumb and sitting there saying, ‘OK Canadians, this needs to be fixed,’ it sure doesn’t feel subtle to me.”
And the other place where he believes opportunity exists is in the field of augmented reality.
“One of these days, augmented reality is going to become a really, really, really big deal. It’s not here today because the technology isn’t good enough.”
True North TV continues next week with an interview with Harvard Business School economist Josh Lerner.