Beware the Drone Invasion!

As the world knows by now, Lady Gaga had 300 mechanical backup dancers for the opening of her whiz-bang performance at the Super Bowl: a fleet of drones, produced and programmed by Intel. They appeared at first to be a constellation of stars before morphing into a giant pixelated American flag. The drones reappeared at the end of the half-time show to spell out the name of its sponsor, Pepsi.

The progression of those images is revealing. The technological achievement of Intel’s Super Bowl stunt (which viewers subsequently learned was pre-recorded) was impressive, but the money paying for it was, not surprisingly, driven by more prosaic impulses, namely, commercialism and profit. Also not surprisingly, the same can be said of the drone industry as a whole, which is hoping to convince members of the general public to welcome its product into their midst. That means overcoming fears that drones might crash into passenger jets or be used as a weapon by terrorists. Cool displays of drone dexterity are a step toward ameliorating those concerns. As the headline in the online magazine Quartz put it, “Companies want to make drones less terrifying — before they’re flying everywhere.”

Amazon’s “Finger Lick” teaser

A more direct drone promotion appeared during the Super Bowl’s fourth quarter, in a teaser ad for Echo, Amazon’s new voice command appliance. Echo connects to Alexa, Amazon’s version of Apple’s Siri. The spot shows a man and woman seated together on a couch watching the game, a bowl of Doritos between them. We see the man licking his fingers while the woman, sensing an imminent crisis, tells her nearby Echo, “Alexa, reorder Doritos from Prime Air.” Alexa replies, “Ok, look for delivery soon,” and immediately a drone is seen hovering outside the window.

Prime Air is Amazon’s drone delivery service, which, given the anti-regulatory proclivities of the Trump administration, could quickly win federal approval. The Super Bowl teaser promised the ultimate consumer dream: anything you want, delivered instantly, without ever having to move off the couch. But will we never learn there’s a price to be paid for convenience? Should their presence in our lives become anywhere near as pervasive as the industry hopes, drones will be delivering something else the ads and entertainments won’t show you: massive amounts of noise and clutter.

The spatial equivalent of information overload

In their public statements, drone boosters tend to focus on all the things drones will do to benefit humanity. They’ll help us find lost hikers, hunt criminals, inspect bridges and track storms. All great. What they don’t talk about are the times drones interfere with fire fighters, kill civilians in military strikes or hit infants on the street. Even those who worry about drones tend to focus on their threats to privacy, jobs and the safety of air travel; the aesthetic and psychological impacts of filling the relatively open space above us with swarms of buzzing machines are never mentioned.

These may sound like trivial concerns, but they’re not; the cumulative effect could easily become the spatial equivalent of information overload. For those of us who live in cities or suburbs, planes and helicopters provide plenty of noise and congestion as it is. Drones flying over our houses at all hours of the day and night, dispatched not only by package delivery behemoths like Amazon and UPS but by every pizza parlor, real estate agent, TV station, 7/11 store and CVS within flying distance, will up the ante exponentially. We’re talking about a major change in what academics call “the surround.”

An example of the unintended consequences of technological ubiquity

A problem we seldom think about in the honeymoon stage of new technologies is ubiquity. We gush over the advantages they offer in our individual lives without considering what their impacts will be collectively, when almost everybody has one. Cars and mobile phones are examples of this pattern; drones are likely headed in the same direction.

The philosopher of technology Langdon Winner coined the term “technological somnambulism” to describe our habit of sleep-walking through the introduction of new technologies, never thinking of the problems they’ll create until they’re too well entrenched to do much about them. If we continue to ignore the nightmare we’re opening ourselves up to with drones, somnambulism won’t be a problem. They’ll be keeping us awake, literally.

This essay was originally published on February 8, 2017, on The Question Concerning Technology.