Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Who amongst us has not gazed up at the sky and thought, “yes, those clouds and birds are a nice sight but what I really wish I was seeing is several hundred delivery drones buzzing about”? Perhaps it would be better to frame this in the opposite direction, who amongst us has gazed up at the sky and actually thought that? It seems like it is pretty safe to assume that the answer is “not terribly many people.” Nevertheless the image of, at least metropolitan, skies filled with drones going to and fro is a vision of the future being articulated in some quarters, particularly vocally by Amazon which has recently proposed reserving air space for its, as yet un-deployed, delivery drone armada.
Drones, of course, have been in use for quite some time – they are not particularly new; however, proposals and plans that would see swarms of the things filling the sky represents a significant shift. It makes sense why Amazon is so interested in the delivery drone game as it will allow the company to stop having to rely on postal workers and delivery services (which it does not own) and it will give Amazon the opportunity to assert dominance in a fresh technological field after the company’s lackluster performance in the smart phone field. At base the idea of a fleet of Amazon delivery drones is the logical extension of Amazon’s quest for ever speedier delivery as it represents the possibility of delivering orders within a scant thirty minutes – delivery times shorter than that would seem to rely on either transporters (a la Star Trek) or precognition. Yet, before delivery drones – which ostensibly would not only be owned and operated solely by Amazon – cloud the skies it is worth asking some questions about this new technology. And when it comes to aiming some critical queries at new technologies, the list of questions Neil Postman posed in Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century (to which two more questions are here added) represents an excellent initial inquiry.
1. “What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?” 
At first glance it would seem that the answer to this question is that: delivery drones allow for much faster deliveries. This is certainly the way the problem and solution are framed by the companies that are pushing for delivery drones – even two-day delivery sounds slow in comparison to the possibility of ordering something and having a drone buzz by with it in less than an hour. And yet it is worth looking askance at this solution if only for the reason that this may be the solution for a problem that is not actually much of a problem. There are some things that a person genuinely needs immediately – life-saving medication might be a good example of this – but those tend not to be the type of things available for purchase from sites like Amazon. Certainly one can use Amazon to purchase books, DVDs, video games, appliances, clothes, household products, and much else – but how many of those things genuinely fall under the heading of “things that a person must have in under an hour or they will face dire consequences”? Not very many. It thus seems that the “problem” which delivery drones attempt to “solve” is not a particularly compelling human or societal problem. So, what then “is the problem”? The answer to this becomes clearer if one steps back from the excited promises of delivery in under an hour – the real problem that delivery drones seeks to address is a fairly standard business problem, wherein a large firm is trying to figure out how to continue to gain an edge over its rivals. The problem is that there are a host of up and coming delivery apps that promise speedy delivery and Amazon wants to prove that it can be faster still. The problem is that Amazon wants more money, and to do this it must manufacture a “problem” and then simultaneously present itself as providing the “solution.” All of which leads seamlessly into Postman’s next question…
2. “Whose problem is it?” 
This is a “problem” for large companies. To be fair the “problem” could also be posed as being an affliction befalling impatient urbanites – but delivery drones, despite the propaganda spun about them, do not really exist for that purpose. Amazon has become a huge and powerful retailer, but it remains hampered by the fact that its store exists online and thus there is a delay between when a customer hits “purchase” and when they actually receive that which they have purchased. Streaming and downloading have done much to enable instant gratification but there is not yet a way to download a roll of toilet paper or a gaming console (though 3D printing enthusiasts will likely reply to this with criticism with “just give it time”). If Amazon wants to further its dominance it needs to be even faster when it comes to delivering things – and building a fleet of robotic couriers is easier (and more impressively high-tech) than investing in a delivery service. Amazon’s emphasis on delivery drones is also a way in which Amazon is seeking the next technological big thing – the company may not have succeeded in making itself a player in the smart phone world, but by heavily investing in drones the company could become the standard to beat. Indeed, in Amazon’s call for reserving part of the sky for drones the company proposes some fairly rigid regulations, the type that appear sensible but which are also subtly constructed in a way that will help Amazon assert dominance in this nascent field. Delivery drones do not really solve a problem that effects most people, because the problem delivery drones solve is not something which most people consider to be a genuine problem. Rather, delivery drones are a solution to a problem Amazon has, and that problem (crudely stated) is: how do we further our market dominance and make more money? The “solution” to this problem is to be found in convincing consumers that it is actually their problem.
3. “Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?” 
The playful way of answering Postman’s third question, is to say: any person who enjoys the sight of the sky will be harmed by that sky being filled with swarms of delivery drones. Yet such a silly, if somewhat true, answer overlooks the many groups and institutions that will genuinely be harmed. Groups that will be negatively impacted by delivery drones include the companies that play an important role in getting Amazon’s boxes from the distributor to the doorstep – thus companies like the US Postal Service stand out as they will lose a slice of their business and income should the switch to delivery drones become prevalent. Those who celebrate the “disruptive” attributes of technology, and crow merrily about how automation will replace ever more jobs, are unlikely to be bothered by this harm – though it is worth remembering that people who experience technologically caused unemployment are real people with real families and with real needs. And there is nothing wrong with a measure of empathy and compassion. In this case, though, there is a further issue to consider insofar as an organization like the Postal Service has a mandate and a responsibility to serve (at least in the US) all of people. As a private company, Amazon does not need to hold to any such mission. Thus delivery drones may primarily serve those in dense metropolitan areas where operating such drones is profitable. Furthermore, as ever more financial power is concentrated in the hands of Amazon and as more people come to expect the convenience of swift home deliveries a negative impact may spread throughout various retailers who are not capable of operating their own drone fleet. It may be that many people have an easier time seeing themselves as beneficiaries, instead of victims, of delivery drones – but this does not mean that there will not be people negatively effected.
4. “What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?” 
While there are certainly some groups who have privacy concerns regarding drones, the “problem” being focused upon here is not centered on that issue (though it is a real one). A “new problem” worth mentioning is the chance that drones can be hacked, another is that drones may collide with each other, another is that drones may have a negative impact on birds and insects, and still another problem is that drones may ruin the aesthetic luster of the sky. A further issue – in keeping with “the problem” primarily being Amazon’s – is that delivery drones will hardly represent the end of Amazon’s pursuit of ever more profitability. Once the delivery drones flood the sky, a company like Amazon will certainly be hard at work on its next plan to further increase its value. A fleet of drones is also, ultimately, made up of actual physical devices which will break down, need to be repaired, and need to be replaced – and thus another issue involved is one that considers the material lifecycle of these delivery drones – from the mining of metals, through assembly, to repair, and all the way to eventual disposal. It is hard to know for certain the degree to which these “new problems” will be real issues and it is likely that Amazon is already well aware of the potential danger of some of these problems (at least in terms of collisions and hacking) – but when considering the further problems that will be created by delivery drones it may well be that the simplest solution is just to say “no” to delivery drones at the outset. That’s likely the answer that birds would prefer.
5. “What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?” 
Delivery drones represent a fairly naked power grab by Amazon – and should such drones become commonplace, Amazon will be the business that reaps the largest share (by far) of economic power (and the political influence that can buy). As was previously alluded to, in Amazon’s proposal to reserve a portion of the airspace for delivery drones the company has suggested a set of fairly rigorous rules to ensure that the drones whizzing about are all playing nicely with each other. By investing heavily in delivery drones, by advocating loudly for them, and by pushing this issue, Amazon is staking out a position as the dominant voice in the discussion. And by grumbling about the slow speed of government action, Amazon is repeating the standard tech company script of portraying the government as a barrier to innovation – regardless of the fact that delivery drones may be the type of innovation that nobody (except the company itself) terribly needs. If Amazon can become the de facto rule making body for delivery drones – and their ilk – than Amazon puts itself in a position where it is the authority in the manner – it can determine the standards that its would be competitors have to meet. What delivery drones represent is Amazon trying to beat its rivals into a new, and potentially lucrative, field – and to set itself up in an unassailable position from the outset.
6. “What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?” 
The linguistic changes that come with the delivery drone largely have to do with shifts that cannot be attributed entirely to the drones. Yet words like “convenience,” “speed,” and “patience” all undergo a slight tweaking as the skies fill with delivery drones. To be fair – it would be convenient to have what you ordered dropped at your doorstep in under an hour, it would certainly be speedy service if that happened, and it is easier to be patient for an hour than it is to be patient for a week. Streaming and downloading have made it so that there are many things that a person can have nearly instantly – but when it comes to physical objects the problem remains of how to get it from one point to another. A further important change that delivery drones represent is the way they alter the word “delivery.” For many people this is a term that conjures up the idea of an actual person who actually delivers something. But with delivery drones a hovering robot replaces this person. Thus an important linguistic shift which might be carried by these drones is that they help take another task performed by humans and give it over to machines.
[And now two additional questions that are not part of Postman’s original six]
7. What are the material and environmental implications (from mining to labor to e-waste) of this new technology?
The delivery truck that parks on your street is made of metals, plastics, glass and requires gasoline in order to get around. The delivery drone is also made of metals, plastics and requires power to get around. An armada of delivery drones will require significant material inputs – and as these seem to be fairly high-tech couriers it is likely that they will require many of the same types of rare earth materials that go into other high-tech devices. There will obviously be a significant outlay in the beginning in order to create a fleet of delivery drones, and it is easy to imagine that there will be a fair amount of turnover as drones get damaged, and get older. Where will the decommissioned drones go? To e-waste landfills where some elements will be extracted even as the rest of the device goes on to leech toxins into the soil? On a similar note, given that the drones will be connected to the Internet, how much power are they drawing from servers? Amazon, at least according to a recent study, has one of the “dirtier” clouds that draws its power from non-sustainable resources – will that same cloud be powering the delivery drones? All of these are issues that could easily fall under “new problems” and yet they are matters that are often shrugged off, insofar as those who live next to e-waste dumps tend to not be the same as those benefiting from a new technology. It is fairly safe to assume that the Amazon executives pushing for delivery drones do not live near mining sites, have family working in drone assembly plants, or have homes next to e-waste dumps. Delivery drones are made with real minerals, they are assembled in real places, they require real power (and probably a fair amount of it), and when they are decommissioned they really go somewhere. These are all vital matters to consider when contemplating a new technology like delivery drones – especially if the answers are discomforting.
8. What happens when you hit this piece of technology with a rock?
While the intent of this last question is not to advocate that anybody throws a rock at a delivery drone, it is still a question that needs to be asked. Many pieces of Internet connected technology do not do particularly well when it comes to this question – smart phones, gaming consoles, e-readers, smart watches, Google Glass, Oculus Rift…all of them tend to lose out in the battle between the device and the rock. Granted, “rock” is here just shorthand for any number of physical forces that can have a hard impact on a device. Yet the point is relatively simple – many of these devices are not particularly sturdy. For a device like a smart phone this risk may most clearly emerge when it comes to the danger of the phone being dropped – but when it comes to drones it may be worth actually wondering what happens when somebody tosses a rock at it. Delivery drones will fly about outside, exposed to the elements, that can be dangerous for the drones. Will Amazon pursue legal action against anybody who throws a rock at a drone or shoots at a drone? Probably. But, what if the sky is filled with drones and then a hailstorm occurs? What if a pigeon flies into a drone? What if a drone swerves to avoid another drone and hits a different drone? To reiterate – the intent here is in no way shape or form to suggest that people throw rocks at delivery drones – but just how sturdy are these automated couriers? And when one is damaged does it just come crashing to the ground?
* * *
Executives at Amazon may dream of the day when the sky is abuzz with their automated armada, but if you look out your window right now, and glance up at the sky, you will likely not see the air contaminated by delivery drones.
What’s so wrong with keeping it that way?
A sky that is clear of drones is not a problem that needs a solution.
Postman, Neil. Building a Bridge to the 18th Century (Vintage Books, 2000).
[Image note – the photo of the Amazon drone is by Zuma/Rex – it has been edited for this post]