Say what you will about Jeff Bezos, the man knows how to touch off a media storm. Which is precisely what ensued after Bezos told 60 Minutes that Amazon is testing the use of drones to deliver goods. Immediately, everyone was discussing the prospect of ordering a box of tissues from Amazon and having a drone arrive at your doorstep in half an hour. We’ve asked some Rosenfeld Media experts to join the fray on this audacious idea.
Are drones the next logical step for a service culture that demands ever more instant gratification?
Victor Lombardi: Amazon knows that any commercial use of drones lies far off in the logistical future. Kevin Roose argues that Amazon is therefore dabbling in some sort of pre-lobbying of the government, but I prefer David Steitfeld’s wider view that Jeff Bezos spun a tale of drones as a masterful use of public relations, mostly to counter negative criticism.
But even this interpretation fails to grasp the power of Amazon’s imagination, the company that started by selling books, grew into a marketplace for anything, and then offered its own cloud computing platform for sale. Clearly, they aspire to more than mere retail. But they know for us to take them seriously they must put forth an image of themselves as something more, something special.
Don Norman calls this reflective design, which goes beyond our senses and perception of usability to influence our understanding of who the company is and who we become when we patronize it. In my book I discuss how Apple publicized the iPod. It didn’t emphasize how pretty the device was or how great the features were; Apple showed us how we would feel using the device. I think Amazon is doing something similar: inspiring us, getting us to think differently about who Amazon is and what we think about ourselves when we shop there. Before, I shopped at Amazon to save money and time. Now, I’m affiliating myself with this cool company that thinks about drones and how awesome their customer service can become. Now when I shop there, I’m cooler, too. Thanks Jeff.
Nate Bolt: I don’t think there’s any inevitable progression towards autonomous quadcopters playing a role in our service culture. But drones are absolutely fascinating. We’ve been largely introduced to sophisticated drones as killing machines. That’s been our biggest cultural exposure up to this point, aside from all the other small-use cases we see. Most of us understand that drones themselves can offer all sorts of functionality that wasn’t possible even a few years ago. If there’s any logical progression happening, it’s simply military technology always disseminating out to the rest of us. I do think many of us in the tech world will continue to experiment with drones, because flying and autonomy cut so close to the dreams of every nerd. [Editor’s note: Nate once flew a drone around the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library.] It sparks the imagination to think of all the issues in the physical world–search and rescue, agriculture, photography–that can be improved by drones.
Every time I hear people worry that a new way of doing something is going to fundamentally change society or destroy civilization, I remember that these same concerns were raised about the printing press, the train, the personal computer, the Internet, and the waltz.
At the very least it was a brilliant marketing effort for Amazon. Taco drone, pizza drone, France post office drone–it’s really all been marketing. I wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon kills this program internally when it stops keeping their name in our conversations. I generally like it when large companies pursue things just because they are cool, but it’s usually driven by marketing. The product designers and engineers at Amazon and other large companies don’t have quite as much leeway to simply investigate technology they think might be cool in five or ten years. But I wish they did.
Laura Klein: I don’t think they’re the next logical step. They are a possible step, but I think that a much more logical next step would be same-day delivery by humans (which is already being done in some areas) or even self-driving cars. Amazon picked drones as the announcement because drones are a thing that everybody is talking about right now. They get a lot more press from talking about drones then they would from slightly improving their supply chain to roll out same-day delivery to a few major metropolitan areas.
The phrase “a service culture that demands ever more instant gratification” seems needlessly derogatory. There’s nothing inherently wrong with not wanting to wait two days for a purchase you make. We expect to get our purchases right away when we’re in a store. What’s wrong with getting our purchases right away when we buy them other ways, as long as it’s not hurting anybody? Sure, getting packages immediately may seem like a needless extravagance, but at one point so did stores staying open on Sundays.
It’s a longshot that this will ever happen. But let’s imagine for a moment that Amazon pulls this off. A terrible road to go down, or awesome?
Laura Klein: I’ll take a stab at “awesome”. Drones make it possible to get things where they need to go faster and more flexibly than they currently can. Your mail gets delivered to your house once a day. Your email gets delivered to you when it gets sent, which immediately makes people more productive. I think that’s a big reason why email is destroying snail mail.
On a small level, it could improve traffic. Not only would there be fewer UPS trucks traveling down narrow San Francisco streets, there would also be fewer suburban folks like me having to jump in their cars to go grab that thing they forgot to get at the drug store. If I need it in 30 minutes, I can have it in thirty minutes without driving.
Now when I shop there, I’m cooler, too. Thanks Jeff.
It also makes things much cheaper to send to difficult-to-reach places; for example, delivering medicine and food to places where roads have been destroyed by natural or manmade disasters.
But the real reason I’m predicting that it will be awesome is that every time I hear people worry that a new way of doing something is going to fundamentally change society or destroy civilization, I remember that these same concerns were raised about the printing press, the train, the personal computer, the Internet, and the waltz. Not all of the changes brought about by those inventions has been fabulous or predictable, but they’ve certainly been largely positive in my life.
We fall in love with ideas, with visionaries, with progress for the sake of progress. And that leads to failure.
Nate Bolt: Here’s what will happen:
An individual or company will crash a drone in a populated area and it will hurt or kill someone. Hobbyists know this happens with RC [radio control] aircraft all the time, but when it’s an autonomous quadcopter, the media will be much more interested. It’s the autonomous flight capabilities and awareness of its environment that make a drone a drone. These things offer the promise of flying themselves, and a crash highlights the scariest part of technology–unintended consequences. So it might be a car accident, the props might cut someone, it might just hit a pedestrian; who knows?
A high-profile privacy lawsuit will come about because of a drone.
I do think many of us in the tech world will continue to experiment with drones, because flying and autonomy cut so close to the dreams of every nerd.
There will be a media shitstorm from #1 and #2.
The laws that exist will be enforced much more, and new laws will be passed. It will all of a sudden be laughable to think that in 2013 you could buy a DJI Phantom and crash it in the middle of Manhattan without much fear of prosecution.
The cost and complexity of anything drone-related in populated areas will increase. This is inevitable and probably a good thing. If Amazon or anyone wants to fly in populated areas, the amount of failsafe technology required will make self-driving cars look like cake. It will also cut down on the ability of photographers to legally capture images and video for artistic purposes. That last part is a bummer and why I try to cram in so much #DroneLucy photography right now.
Some use cases will eventually emerge where drones make sense for delivery. Basic physics aren’t going to change any time soon, and that means to carry even a five-pound payload, props and batteries will have to be big enough to make these things rather valuable and rather dangerous. But with the right object avoidance and failure algorithms, they will indeed make sense in some cases.
Sweet new gangs will emerge that are dedicated to shooting down drones, and they will get to design awesome stickers to represent how many drones they’ve shot down.
Victor Lombardi: The danger is in trying to answer this question using reason rather than experimentation. And that’s because drone package delivery is so new we have no idea if it’s awesome or not. To find out, we need to test it. The reason we fail to get these things right is because we fail to treat them as experiments. We fall in love with ideas, with visionaries, with progress for the sake of progress. And that leads to failure.
The very fact that we’ve written this piece and you are reading it means we’re interested in this as an idea. Meanwhile, there’s another organization testing the idea, quietly.
Like what our experts had to say? Guess what: you can have them bring their brains to you. Laura Klein and Victor Lombardi are available for consulting and training through Rosenfeld Media. And we’d be happy to introduce you to Nate Bolt.