It will be some years before commercial drones whiz through U.S. skies, but as Amazon’s latest announcement should make obvious, the application of unmanned aerial systems to commerce is inevitable. Speaking on “60 Minutes” Sunday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced the retail giant’s long-term plan to have small drones deliver packages. The drone delivery system already reportedly in development, Prime Air, optimistically hopes to have unmanned aircraft delivering packages weighing under 5 pounds (86 percent of all Amazon deliveries) within 30 minutes of a customer’s order being placed as soon as five years from now.
The frenzied social media response to Bezos’ announcement belies the total predictability of a plan like Prime Air. The movement of military-developed technologies into domestic law enforcement and then into commercial applications is such a well-worn pattern it’s practically a rite of passage for U.S. technological innovation. Package-delivering drones are not yet a reality — as a point of technology development and legislation — but be assured that they will be (as likely, too, one day will drone pizza and taco delivery). It’s the sort of innovation that capital loves: minimizing the cost of labor, maximizing the lightning-quick flows of money and goods. Seventy percent of drone manufacturers are based in the U.S. according to a 2011 study by the global marketing research group Lucintel; total revenue from unmanned aircraft systems is expected to exceed $7 billion over the next decade. “Make it so,” demands capital.
Commentators have already spilled ink explaining why drone delivery systems, especially the FAA regulation that they would require, are a long way off (longer, likely, than Amazon’s ambitious projections). I don’t want to reiterate this point here. Rather I want to suggest that the frenzy over Amazon’s plan alone suggests that we’re already framing the issue of commercial drones badly.
As I’ve written before, it makes little sense to argue whether drones are good or bad. Drones are an apparatus. What we can ask is what sort of world demands drones, what sort of world does the application of drones produce and maintain, and do we like such a world? It’s safe to say that a drone delivery system relies upon a state of always-already possible surveillance. More specifically, delivery drones would rely on a highly developed mapping system of consumers’ addresses. Amazon’s robots would operate on a sophisticated GPS system. But, and this is crucial, we already enable and live through a world of devices that render our lives surveillable by major corporations and government agencies (and the nexes where the twain meet). We’ve been giving Amazon vast swaths of personal information — from cultural taste preferences, to shopping habits, to credit card numbers — for many years. The idea of flying delivery robots is thus currently properly dystopian, by which I mean it relies on artifacts already present in our current context (such as a near-totalized state of surveillance, a tendency to machinize industry and reduce the labor force, drone technology) and extends these elements to a logical narrative conclusion: little robots delivering little packages into our desirous digits just minutes after we’ve clicked “buy.” If the specter of drone deliveries scares you, you should be scared already — the conditions of possibility for such systems are already here.
With the promise of developments like Prime Air we face a double bind: For a such a system to actually work (and not be plagued by midair collisions and misplaced deliveries) it would have to be highly sophisticated. But, the problem is this: For such a system to work, a highly sophisticated system would need to be in place — advanced tracking and mappings systems rendering our daily lives ever more surveillable by major corporate interests.
There is nothing new, of course, about technological developments rendering swaths of the workforce defunct. It may indeed be some time before flying robots replace mailmen, but certainly it’s in the cards. In the name of consumer convenience, jobs will disappear. Do we need to live in the sort of world where our books ordered online (“What’s a book?” ask tomorrow’s grandchildren) arrive within an hour in the metal grip of an unmanned aircraft? Is it worth throwing another workforce into precariousness? No, we probably don’t need drone delivery systems for our online shopping. But, as a desperate King Lear reminds us, “Reason not the need … Allow not nature more than nature needs, Man’s life is as cheap as beast’s.” This isn’t about need and, of course, Amazon would not be Amazon, nor would capitalism be capitalism, if need were the determining factor. The robots have long been coming; reason not the need.