The Drone Invasion

Music piano keyboard for festival poster. Piano keys elements.
Music piano keyboard for festival poster. Piano keys elements.

If Jeff Bezos, the billionaire CEO of Amazon, has his way, thousands of drones could soon be hurtling through the airspace above our heads, delivering millions of packages to Amazon's customers. Instead of having to wait the eternity of a day to receive their orders, consumers could get them in 30 minutes, or less.

Talk about catering to our worst instincts.

The proposed drones are the latest in a swarm of socially destructive new artifacts, from robots and nanotechnology to genetically engineered organisms, being unleashed on the world with virtually no public accountability. A new technological elite is remaking the world in its own image.

Last week, lobbyists for Amazon, Google, and other high-tech behemoths scrabbled through the Congress, trying to shape a bill that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration to regulate the use of drones in the US. Such is the vast power of the feudal states we call corporations that they will probably succeed.

Critics have pointed out that having thousands of drones buzzing around, particularly in the vicinity of our airports, is a recipe for disaster. Privacy advocates have meanwhile raised the alarming specter of a total surveillance society. Imagine the NSA harnessing the power of drones equipped with high-definition cameras and sophisticated communications equipment, monitoring us in our own backyards, or even our homes.

But the potential for government spying is hardly the worst thing about Amazon's plan. Rather, it is the damage it would inflict on the natural world, and on our tenuous and fraying connection to it.

There is hardly a square inch of terrestrial space not already subject to some form of private technological control. Nature has been honeycombed with human technics of domination and surveillance. On land, mechanized animal agriculture alone covers one-third of the surface of the earth, annihilating biodiversity, destabilizing the climate, and imprisoning billions of animals in misery. At sea, fisheries fleets scour the oceanic depths using sonar, GPS, and other sophisticated devices, in an unending war of extermination.

Now, the air itself is to be colonized, parceled up, and subjected to the administrative control of private wealth.

But the air is not mere empty space. It is a living medium inhabited by countless billions of beings. And it is the latter who stand to lose the most from a drone invasion.

For 60 million years, birds enjoyed total freedom of the skies. Today, birds have to contend with glass windows, aircraft, wind turbines, shotguns, and other lethal human threats. Companies like Amazon would now also force them to compete for airspace with thousands, perhaps millions, of robotic machines.

Biologists are unsure what the impact of so many drones would be. But the available evidence suggests that they would frighten, confuse, or anger many animals, introducing yet another source of stress and physical hazard into lives already circumscribed and threatened by human encroachment.

But it isn't just the other species who would suffer under the drones. Our own would, too.

For countless generations, the open sky has been the horizon of human myth and imagination, of our dreams of transcendence and divinity. We too are animals who dwell under the vault of the heavens, who make meaning and take solace in that expanse.

What then would it mean for us to gaze upwards and to see, interposed between us and the clouds, an endless, airborne stream of cheap commodities?

The spiritual loss we would suffer, though less tangible perhaps than the loss of our privacy rights, would be more profound. That a single CEO might now have the power to strip us of this sacred space is frightening, a sign of how thoroughly we have ceded control of our lives to an unscrupulous techno-economic elite.

A century ago, the sociologist Max Weber warned that bureaucracy and the quest for technical efficiency were replacing the more qualitative aspects of our experiences and relations. Anonymous systems of administration were robbing us of genuine connection and community. Nature had been "disenchanted," stripped of its magic and mystery.

This "iron cage" of technological rationality, as Weber called it, has become our reality. We feel ruled by bureaucracies and powerful agencies over which we have little control. Corporations anticipate and manipulate our behavior and desires. Robots replace workers, and no longer just on the assembly line. The wealthy effectively elect our representatives for us, deploying lobbyists and consultants to hollow-out what remains of our democratic institutions.

The artifactual world is meanwhile fast crowding out any contact we still have with the surface of the natural one. We feel more comfortable conversing with Siri than with strangers at the gym. Young children know what Skype and Candy Crush are, but few can name any of the trees, flowering plants, or nocturnal animals living in their own neighborhoods.

The trouble is, once an artifact has been unleashed, there is no sending it back into the void it sprang from, no matter how destructive it later proves to be. As philosopher Langdon Winner observes, technological "choices tend to become strongly fixed in material equipment, economic investment, and social habit." Decisions about new technologies are thus "similar to legislative acts or political foundings that establish a framework for public order that will endure over many generations."

Technological elites like Jeff Bezos, futurist entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, among others, are thus shaping not only our lives, but the lives of our children and of their children, too. They have arrogated to themselves the right, so they believe, to act as our unelected "legislators," issuing the laws that will determine the iron cages of the future.

Their brave new world is already closing in upon us. It is a world of genetically mutilated animals, robots minding our abandoned elderly, drones hovering continuously on the margins of our lives. It is a world in which power and wealth flow with terrific efficiency to the top, while toxic waste and material and spiritual devastation get sloughed off onto the poorer, vulnerable masses below. That too is by design.

There is still time for the citizenry to stop Amazon's mad scheme--if Americans can put down their electronic gadgets long enough to notice how ill-advised and dangerous it is. But stopping the drones alone won't interrupt our longer-term trajectory. So long as the technological system remains in the hands of a tiny economic elite, slavishly serving their interests, we are certain to lose more and more control over our democracy, our technics, and our lives. It may already be too late.