I was trying to find a good name for this post — something catchy, like “60 Minutes of Fame,” or “The Day of the Octocopter” — but the more I read and the more I wrote, the more I realized that with this news cycle, drones had become the perfect embodiment of America’s economic prosperity — with all the feelings of pleasure, guilt, and hopelessness that entails. But that’s a hell of a way to start a post, so let me back up for a moment, and we’ll start from the beginning.
As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, on December 1, on the CBS show 60 Minutes, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos revealed his plans to deliver lightweight packages, half an hour from online ordering, via robotic drones.
Ars Technica, Buzzfeed Business, CNet, TechCrunch, Gizmodo, even the Washington Post’s Tech Column “Switch” got in on the action by Sunday evening. The headlines were all variations on the same theme: “Amazon Plans to Deploy Delivery Drones,” “Amazon testing ‘octocopter’ package-delivery drones,” and so on. Best were the unsubstantiated subheadings, by which we are now to believe, I think, that they’ll likely be operational in 4-5 years (Ars), or at least they could be making deliveries in four to five years (Buzzfeed), or, well, they might someday get to you via octocopter (CNet) …eventually (WaPo).
By Monday, more had followed suit, but many had a less jubilant tone. ZDnet’s article had a rather more skeptical headline: “Amazon unveils delivery by drone: Prime Air. No, seriously.” Gizmodo’s new piece “Amazon Drones Are Truly Revolutionary [Marketing],” and Popular Science’s Zero Moment blog’s “Warning: Drones That Appear On News Magazines Are Further Than They Appear” seemed to be in a race to determine who could explain best why it won’t work. Popular Science’s main page took a more sober approach, trying to calmly clarify “Why Amazon’s Plan For Delivery Drones Isn’t Quite Realistic,” and Mother Jones wants the viewing public to know “Why America Isn’t Ready for Amazon’s Delivery Drones.”
Then there were the implications articles: From the “but what if it does work?” files, Forbes wants to make sure everyone knows “Why Drone Delivery Will Be A Nightmare For Law Enforcement,” Tech Crunch wants to tell us how “Rentals Delivered By Drone Could Make Ownership Obsolete” http://techcrunch.com/2013/12/02/nirvana-brought-to-you-by-robots/ and the Washington Post warns us about the future of drone lawsuits — that “it’s all fun and games until Sally loses a finger.”
Meanwhile CNet now wants us to wonder whether Amazon drones are a “bold experiment or shrewd publicity stunt?”: Well, it’s twenty shopping days to Christmas, so you tell me why Amazon might want to be in the news.
[On a side note, does anyone remember when “shopping days till Christmas” wasn’t entirely synonymous with “days till Christmas”? No? Okay that’s fine then, I’ll go back to Canada in the 1980s.]
This is all somewhat expected, and, if you remember last month’s circular reporting of the case of the (in)flammable mummy, actually quite tame. A little overzealous at times, but in general, just an example of the many heads of the news hydra begging for a little attention. What’s more interesting is the general discomfort that developed about it, after the excitement had started to wear off.
Quite early in the cycle, on Sunday night, someone had started tweeting from what may be my new favourite soon-to-be-shutdown mock twitter account, @AmazonDrone: “Terrorizing your skies with tiny packages of stuff in about 10 years.”
I’m posting my new favourite ironic gif for posterity here, in case the account gets DMCA’d into oblivion, because it lies right at the convergence of America’s thought processes when it comes to drones.
We’re already starting to see the “post-Amazon” drone fallout. Drones are still trending, so our informants are seeing what else might be worth talking about on the topic. The Verge is telling us that UPS is thinking in the direction of delivery drones too, and USA Today wants us to know that the drone economy is already here, meanwhile someone cheerful over at The Atlantic wants us to know “How Scientists are Using Drones to Fight the Next Big Oil Spill.”
But for how long will relatively popular and user-friendly stories about drones remain at the top of the news cycle? Hidden amongst the google returns for “drone” (best found if adding “-amazon” to your search terms) are reminders that there are some other things going on in the world of autonomous aircraft. For the first time, the United Nations has started to deploy drones, this time in Africa as a part of the mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even the New York Times noticed, even if they only devoted 100 words to it . Also buried since Sunday are the stories of US drone use in Pakistan, and the supply-line-stopping protests going on there.
We live in a media landscape that is carpeted daily with bad news, news that in the western world (especially America) carries a weight of guilt with it. And maybe it should: with America holding 39% of the world’s wealth even at the back end of a recession — and only ~4.5% of the world’s population — we can’t help but feel a little guilty when we see the ugly consequences of that global dominance. Drones, and the hellfire missiles they deploy remotely, have become a symbol of that disparity, the news reports about them broadly showing only destruction and chaos (and a decided lack of things). Like the economic dominance of the US, drones seem to be inhuman agents of power, part of a system of inequality at once unsettling and also too big for the average American to feel anything but helpless about.
Bad news is everywhere in America, and so when we get a chance to distract ourselves we go for it. But the discomfort seeps through. I have a suspicion that if Amazon had begun drone delivery on Sunday, we would still have seen the gradual creep back from the good news stories. The question is why.
Americans are a contradictory bunch. Even as we enjoy it, we are made very uncomfortable by our own prosperity. We’ve been uncomfortable with “Christmas creep” for over a century. We recognize that something is wrong with the placement of a shopping day like “Black Friday” the day after a holiday dedicated to being thankful for what we have. We are consistently upset with the presence of war in the world, and yet nearly constantly at war with someone — and often making a profit from it.
And now drones have gone the same way. Until now, drone stories have been dominated by their military uses. Names like Predator, Reaper, and Avenger have created a persona for the technology that made them unambiguous in the common understanding. Enter Amazon’s delivery drones, and that persona shifts to mimic everything that makes Americans most uncomfortable: like America itself, drones will deliver commodified wealth to Americans, and indiscriminate (or at least poorly-discriminate) destruction to others. Drones will now carry the same dual valence as war itself.
And so that’s why this isn’t a post complaining about the media excitement surrounding the possibility of drone delivery, from Amazon, UPS, or anyone else. In a sense, it’s good news — exciting new technology being used to make the world a better, more interesting place. I say, just for today, let drones be a symbol of the future, like a Jetson’s-style hoverbike or jetpack, or even just a new convenience, like a fridge that knows when you’re out of milk, or a robot that sweeps your floor while you’re out. I say let the good news people have their day.
As this news cycle shows, it’s really only just the one.