Alienation comes easy when you stumble into the glare of a modern airport off a red-eye flight. Bleary-eyed after three hours of fitful sleep, unready for the dawn, I did not know what to make of the bewildering sea of iPads that surrounded me on all sides.
Concourse G in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport has given itself up wholeheartedly to tablet worship. Every single seat in the gate area came with its own iPad-equipped table. A restaurant sprawling nearby continued the theme -- no wait-staff visible, but an iPad in a cradle sitting upright in front of every chair.
Facing a long layover, I knew I had to eat. But for a moment I was paralyzed. Any substantive distinction between the boarding area and restaurant had been annihilated and I didn't know where to turn. I'm no stranger to screen-addiction, but my first reaction to this hall of iPad mirrors -- I could see hundreds from where I stood -- was queasiness. I felt like I had stumbled inside a sadistic Apple commercial, rather than a place meant for living, breathing humans.
I eventually realized that I could sit down and order breakfast-via-iPad from any seat in the concourse. Before starting, I was required to input my flight details (presumably so I could be warned when my flight was boarding). Then I ordered coffee and breakfast -- two eggs sunny-side up, home fries, bacon and orange juice -- through a clunky menu interface. A card-reader to my right enabled payment.
A few minutes later, a waitress appeared with a cup of coffee. Ten minutes after that, she returned with the rest of the food. We exchanged hardly a word.
And I wondered: Why was the airport bothering with any human touch at all? Why wasn't a drone bringing me my bacon? I mean, isn't that the obvious next step?
* * *
It's been a provocative week to think about robots and the ongoing technologically mediated evisceration of labor. On Sunday night, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced on CBS's "60 Minutes" that his company might one day cut delivery times to half-an-hour through the deployment of drones. On Tuesday, Applebee's revealed that the casual dining chain would be installing tablets in all of its restaurants. On Wednesday, the New York Times' John Markoff reported that Google had gobbled up a half-dozen robotics start-ups over the past year.
One quote from Markoff's piece got straight to the point.
“The opportunity is massive,” said Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at the M.I.T. Center for Digital Business. “There are still people who walk around in factories and pick things up in distribution centers and work in the back rooms of grocery stores.”
There are still people employed to pick things up and move them around! Can you even imagine?! It's almost 2014, people!
In response to Bezos, a flood of naysayers immediately decried the impracticality of drone-package delivery in any short-term time frame. One of my own Salon colleagues was also quick to dismiss the potentially dehumanizing aspects of Applebee's tablet move. (She made the hard-to-argue-with point that Applebee's move to tablet ordering won't wreck the social experience of dining, because "everything is already wrecked.") Meanwhile, a majority of economists still seem to be convinced that a robots-everywhere world will spur job-creating economic growth, rather than further accelerate a rising tide of unemployment.
Nobody knows how it will play out, but one thing seems certain: We won't have to wait too long to find out whether a robot apocalypse is going to ravage society. The sense of increasing momentum toward a more robot-infested future is undeniable. No matter what the regulators say, I find it impossible to imagine that there won't be more drones in our skies, more tablet menus replacing human beings, more jobs accomplished by automation. Whether this transition is driven because it delivers true convenience for consumers, or whether it simply makes economic sense for the masters of capital, the logic of this technological evolution is inexorable.
The landscape of Concourse G sent a clear message: We are doing everything in our power to take the human out of the equation.
I suppose it is possible that my Minneapolis nausea should properly be blamed on lack of sleep, but I still found myself wondering: When the humans are gone, what's left?
* * *
The Minneapolis-St. Paul airport isn't alone. OTG, an airport food-and-beverage operator whose "mission is to transform the airport experience for travelers," has similar tablet test projects under way in New York's LaGuardia and Toronto's Pearson airports. So far, however, Minneapolis is probably the largest; one news report says OTG installed more than 2,500 iPads in Concourse G.
And size matters. It's one thing to order a cocktail and a roast-beef sandwich from the seat-back display screen in front of you on a Virgin America flight, and be gratified when the flight attendant drops it off a few minutes later. It seems an efficient and sensible way of organizing logistics on a plane. It's quite another to see the mass reorganization of a large physical space into something designed to minimize the necessity for human labor. Because the obvious implication is: Why stop here? If it makes economic sense to automate the food-ordering process in an airport, what point is there in having a human waiter to take your order at any dining establishment that isn't already charging a premium for high-class flesh-and-blood service.
The current not-quite-prime-time technological capabilities of drones and regulatory constraints on airspace may make Jeff Bezos' grandiose dreams seem like wishful thinking at the moment. But is there any doubt that drone technology will become both better and cheaper?
If it turns out there is money to be made by automating package delivery, I can guarantee you that regulatory barriers will fall. Drones have already been used in attempts to deliver drugs and tobacco across prison walls. We're going to find lots of things to do with them -- and some of them might even be socially progressive.
Similarly, if insurance companies determine from their number crunching that Google's self-driving cars are safer than human-operated cars, they will write the insurance policies that put those cars on the street. They'd be crazy not too. And so Google's robot armies will march everywhere.
Panglossians believe that robots will perform the world's drudgery, ushering in an era of affluence and leaving humans free to nurture their creative instincts. Whether our creative instincts will be able to generate the capital necessary to purchase the products of robot labor is as yet unknown. I've noted before that the big difference between the current technological revolution and the Industrial Revolution is that the initial technological advances of the 18th century created jobs for unskilled workers, while today's robot armies are increasingly replacing the jobs of unskilled workers.
When the warehouse and the delivery and the waitress and taxi driver jobs are gone, where do those workers go? Will our education system be robust enough to keep them ahead of the rising technological curve?
But now I have a new worry. As I sat in the Minneapolis airport watching waiters and waitresses scurry about the concourse delivering food and drink, it occurred to me that they didn't actually need to be replaced by drones -- because they had already become drones. Their job requirements had been reduced to the bare minimum. From the kitchen to the customer and back again they went. And that was it.
But the customers themselves had also become drones. Each staring into their own iPad, alone, even if traveling as a family or a group. Watching them, I felt the same frustration that badgers me when I try to fit my particular customer support problem into the constraints of the decision tree of an automated voice-mail menu. I am a living, breathing human being -- my problem is unique! Don't force me to become like you, an automated, unthinking algorithm!
The truth is, my problem almost assuredly isn't unique. The voice-mail robots are just too dumb. And as the robots get smarter, they'll fit into their world better and better. In this future, we're all drones.