An Amazon Prime Air Drone

An Amazon Prime Air Drone

The Victorians were into some weird stuff but one thing that could stand to make a comeback is a subgenre of speculative fiction called “utopian romance.” These books were somewhat light on plot and spent most of their pages describing utopian futures where everything you could ever want or need was directly at your finger tips. I suppose that is as good a way as any to work through the existential angst that persists in the face of incredible violence mixed with the lavishness of global empire. One person that was not too keen on these novels was a legal stenographer by the name of Ebenezer Howard. He was reading one such utopian romance called Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy which described something akin to Amazon: an enormous network of hyper-efficient delivery systems that could get you just about anything you want nearly as soon as you wanted it.

Unfortunately for Howard he could not partake in the excitement about this new novel because he kept getting caught up in the details: What was keeping these supply routes running? Who made all of that possible and what was keeping them from going on strike, raising prices, or demanding some sort of unimaginably high concession from the rest of the world to keep the supplies flowing? These questions plagued Howard so much that it drove him to create a whole new profession that has touched just about every city on the planet: urban planning.

And now here we are, in the future, and Amazon wants to surpass the speed of human delivery systems by using drones to airdrop our orders.  I won’t pretend that such a prospect is uninteresting to me. I want robots to do my bidding as much as the next guy, but our history with labor-saving robots has been sketchy at best. We’ve been here before and there are lots of predictably bad outcomes from automation.

Amazon’s promo videos for their drone service conveniently obscure the humans in their warehouses and only show happy customers. Unless entire production lines are automated there is inevitably someone somewhere trying to keep up with the inhuman tempo. And if the suffering human isn’t in one production line, they are somewhere else in the production chain, either providing the raw materials or receiving the finished products. In any case the story remains the same: Human labor is rarely saved in a way that is good for a worker. No single worker in an automated factory is working less or more comfortably, rather there are fewer workers doing more repetitive tasks faster than ever before. David Noble, in America By Design showed that automation, when it is first implemented, is never as efficient or cheap as the human labor it supplanted. It takes years before assembly lines reach the quality and efficiency of human assembly lines and so the loss in productivity can be seen as a down payment on a smaller, more pliable workforce. Robots do not need health insurance, retirement packages, or break rooms.

This dynamic can even be found in spaces that too few people are willing to acknowledge even contain workers: home kitchens. Home appliances, as Ruth Schwartz Cowan famously observed, never reduced housewives’ labor. Instead, the amount of work expected of them increased. Rather than cooking a meal and repairing some socks, a day’s work involved multiple meals, a spotless house, and several loads of laundry.

If the past is prelude then the drones that replace your delivery person will probably be good enough. That is, the automated portions of the delivery system will work enough of the time that few customers will drop the service while engineers perfect the drones and the delivery person’s union loses its appeal in court. Legal and technical timeframes are both taken into account in this sort of transition.

Write-ups on automated delivery like the one that ran in The Verge last January, cast regulations as something in the way of an inevitable future. Regulations are “holding back” exciting new developments. And on one level that’s true, although I would say that is a good thing even though the wording of such articles clearly begin and end with the opposite assumption. What’s even more frustrating is that all the regulations that do stand “in the way” of drone delivery are safety regulations for flying aircraft. While safely rolling out an automated fleet of drones is important, no one is asking if the roll out should happen at all. How will this impact Amazon’s notoriously sad and overworked employees or the employees of competing firms? Transportation is an enormous sector of the economy and delivery in private and public organizations constitute some of the largest unionized workforces. The prospect of replacing one of the biggest employment opportunities in North America with drones should at least merit a public conversation.

Of course none of this is a problem if we decouple work from individuals’ means of subsistence. If extended unemployment were not tantamount to a slowly unfurling death sentence, then the rise of robot deliveries would be very desirable save for those that gleam some sort of emotional reward for delivering the mail. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in their new book Inventing the Future: Folk Politics and the Left do a thorough job of describing the work needed to have our cake delivered by drones and eat it too:

If we think of global just-in-time supply chains, for example, these are economically efficient under capitalism, but also exceptionally effective in breaking the power of unions. In other words, hegemony, or rule by the engineering of consent, is as much a material force as it is a social one. It is something embedded in human minds, social and political organizations, individual technologies and the built environment that constitutes our world.

Hegemony, a theory developed by the Italian author Antonio Gramsci, tries to make sense of the fact that while capitalism benefits a relatively small elite it has many champions who are actually on the losing end. Gramsci argues that capitalism’s staying power resides in its ability to appear as common sense. Most of us don’t think twice about the relationship between hard work and material comfort, the former is simply a prerequisite for the latter. Drones, of course, make this all very confusing because on the one hand they are taking away opportunities to work but they are also the product of engineers’ work. We resolve this seeming paradox by creating a hierarchy of whose work is more desirable: the creative and complex labor of building machines is valorized while the grunt work of delivering packages is cast as respectable but not something to aspire toward.

Hegemony is much more than ham-fisted propaganda: it is lived experience. Or, as cultural theorist Raymond Williams puts it, hegemony is “a set of meanings and values which as they are experienced, as practices appear as reciprocally confirming.” We are not merely encouraged to strengthen the power of managers and put workers out of the job, we are surrounded by a world in which every marker of encourages us to destabilize other people’s means of subsistence while increasing the power of elites. If I sound conspiratorial it is because a crucial part of hegemony is making detractors sound like tin-foil hat-wearers. And of course, even saying that just makes me sound like I’m typing from within a faraday cage.

Srnicek and Williams point toward a way out of all this and it involves nothing less than undoing common sense itself. They prescribe a broad, long-term strategy that in many ways retreads the path that free-market radicals took in the 80s. We need new narratives of individual success and societal triumph. We must, as their title implies, invent a new kind of future that puts justice and dignity at the center, not growth for its own sake.

David is on Twitter

This essay was crossposted with Cyborgology

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