Stop being cynical about technology!

Google Project Wing Drone Delivery 1

Google’s Project Wing. From

I’m going to start this post with a simple premise: Any sustainable future we ever manage to achieve will look, to our eyes, like science fiction.

That probably sounds like a pretty straightforward thesis. It’s nearly a cliche now to point out that our present-day society, with smartphones and electric cars and an international space station would look a lot like science fiction to anybody living in the 1880s, or even the 1980s. And anybody who has done any serious thinking about sustainability knows that we will have to make some further massive changes in order to attain it.  It follows that a future society; especially one in which we have solved such a fundamental problem as sustainability, will look bizarre and futuristic to us. But whether or not they accept this in princple, people often seem to have trouble applying it to the case of specific proposed technologies. Case in point: the vision of Drone Delivery.

I wrote about PrimeAir, one possible manifestation of drone delivery, a while ago, when the project was first announced a bit less than a year ago. Back then, I argued that the plan was somewhat plausible, with some definite sustainability benefits. I still hold that view. But today I want to use PrimeAir and other proposed systems like it to make a more general point. The kneejerk mockery and more sober dismissals to which PrimeAir was subjected were often based largely on the fact that PrimeAir looked like something out of a science fiction novel. We don’t live in a science fiction novel, so how could this idea possibly have any viability? Prominent (and slightly obnoxious) youtube atheist Thunderf00t’s dismissal of Solar Roadways falls into a similar trap: He points out the astronomical cost of making enough LEDs to supply all the solar road panels, while utterly failing to conisder that the promise of such a technology might make people find ways to dramatically reduce the price of LEDs.

Since I last wrote about it, the idea of drone delivery looks just a little bit more plausible. Google has recently been testing fixed-wing delivery drones by making deliveries to cattle farmers in the Australian outback, and parcel delivery giant DHL is now using a quad-copter to make actual deliveries to the North Sea island of Juist. So actual drone deliveries are now being made. True, these experimental projects are mainly being conducted in rural areas, and only in a purely experimental context. But the basic premise has been proven. And if it’s only viable in rural areas, so what? That just means it’s great news for people who live in rural areas. Drone delivery isn’t guaranteed to become a reality yet. It could, for example, suffer from the Hindenburg Effect if one of these drones has a bad crash in the next few years. But it is certainly within the realm of future possibility.

The history of technology shows that people are not very good at accurately assessing what is within the realm of future possibility. Newspapers at the turn of the twentieth century, for example, routinely predicted that the horse would continue to have an important economic role in the future. Sure, they conceded, cars might be useful for a few things. But they’re next to useless on country roads, they can’t pull a plow, and you can’t ride them into battle. So the horse is here to stay. These writers failed to predict that country roads would get paved, that tractors would be invented, and that cavalry would be made obsolete by machine guns. And therein lies the problem: The future is a complicated thing. Millions of things will change between now and even ten years from now, making new things possible and old things obsolete. To rule out something like drone delivery, you’d have to account for all of them. And that’s something you simply can’t do.

I maintain that there is a way to get around this limitation, although it is a very inexact science. My research suggests that you can assess the plausibility of a new technology by asking a few simple questions about it. I’ll list them below.

1. Is it physically possible? Does it work? If it doesn’t, then it’s obviously a non-starter. For some things such as a space elevator, the answer to this question is uncertain. For others, like cold fusion, it’s a definite no. But for drone delivery, we have to say yes. Drones have proven to be within the realm of physical possibility.

2. Can it attain cultural legitimacy? Cultural legitimacy refers to the general perception that a new technology, or a new way of doing things, is acceptable according to cultural standards. That means that it has to be perceived as safe, generally beneficial, respectable,  and not too threatening to the things people value. Nuclear power plants have struggled with cultural legitimacy. The segue failed on the respectability point. Delivery drones could reasonably tick this box, but only if they deal with the concerns about surveillance and the displacement of human workers.

3. Is there a viable niche? Virtually no technology arrives on the market in a sufficiently refined state that it can compete directly with the dominant way of doing things. New technologies are “hopeful monstrosities“, and to move beyond the laboratory, they usually need some specific, narrow application that they’re really good at. The people working on a radical new technology can use this niche as a place to refine their technology, and gradually make it more effective, efficient, and attractive, eventually allowing it to take over larger markets. Solar panels, for example, found a useful niche in space. And drone delivery might have one in delivering to remote places such as the Australian Outback and the Island of Juist

4. Does it have sufficient practical advantages that it could compete? Even once a new technology has matured within a niche, there has to be a good reason for people to make the switch to a new way of doing things. In simple terms, that means that it has to be better than the alternative. Cars were able to supplant horses in part because they are faster. To be viable, drone delivery will have to be either more convenient, or cheaper than human delivery. Or both.

5. What would be necessary to accommodate it? New technologies need new infrastructures, new regulations, new financial arrangements, and new cultures. Not all of these things have to fall in place right away. But in order for something to go from a mere technology to a system, it will eventually have to start changing society around itself. The accommodation of commercial flight, for example, required an airport system, a whole new regulatory apparatus, and for people to be willing to incorporate flight into their daily lives. Drone delivery would need new kinds of warehousing, new aviation laws, and probably new ways of picking up packages as they arrive at your house. The question is, how likely are these changes to occur?

6. Who, or what, stands in its way? And how powerful are they? Some people don’t want the world to change. Every new way of doing things is going to come up against vested interests, and these vested interests need to be assessed before you can declare a new technology plausible. Napster, for example, failed, because the powerful recording industry objected. In the case of drone delivery, we can expect delivery companies, labour unions, and conventional retail stores to kick up a fuss. Can Amazon or Google win a political battle against them?

This post isn’t really about drone delivery. Your answers to the above questions might be different than mine, and that’s fine. You might also suggest a slightly different list of questions. But ultimately, this kind of framework is what we need to be able to assess new technologies effectively. Assessing future technologies based on present-day capabilities and parameters, or simply looking at a futuristic-looking proposal and saying “That looks stupid. Never gonna happen”, is not a very sound way of considering future change. Nor is it a very effective way of encouraging sustainability. If we don’t make at least a few big technological bets, then we will almost certainly destroy the planet. We need to be critical, but not cynical: We need enough enthusiasm that we can endorse promising technological visions, and help them become reality. We need to be willing to risk the embarrassment of being wrong about the promise new innovations. Change always seems impossible, until it happens.


Wednesday Quickies: Climate Change, Terrestrial and Otherwise

I tried to do a little digest of science, technology, and sustailability news last year, but I made the mistake of starting it right before the summer, when I was far too busy goofing off (or working at a frenetic pace necessitated by my previous goofing off) to do any blogging. But there have been a few interesting things that have happened this week, so I’m going to try again. Without further adieu:

The sky is pretty crowded over Mars right now. India’s Mangalyaan spacecraft is just arrived in Martian orbit this morning, marking India’s first interplanetary object. I don’t have much time for the argument that a developing nation such as India shouldn’t be spending money on space-flight. Science, like art, should be accessible to all people, and to all societies. Developing a functioning scientific infrastructure is, furthermore, a crucial aspect of developing a modern economy. NASA’s MAVEN probe arrived in Martian orbit a few days ago. It will make a few dips into the planet’s atmosphere to study it, with the goal of determining  how it was lost over time, turning Mars from a world where liquid water could exist on the surface, to the red desert that exists today.

NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft. From

There’s more exciting news pertaining to terrestrial climate change. Sunday was, of course, the global day of action, which saw people marching worldwide (especially in New York City) to demand action on carbon emissions. But the next day was much more interesting, as some very bold protesters in New York flooded Wall Street and held their ground there for a few hours before the police moved in. A few hundred more actions like that, and we might actually spur the powers that be to do something!

But at least one power that be did decide to do something: The Rockefeller Family has decided to divest from fossil fuels. This is good news, and it makes me wonder if maybe targetting personalities might be one of the best ways to expand the divestment campaign. If protesters made an effort to lean on wealthy people and institutions to divest from fossil fuels the same way they leaned on companies like Nike to treat their labour better, then we might make a bit of progress. Either way, I really hope that the Rockefellers do more than just divest. They should take the money they otherwise would have invested in fossil fuels, and use it in a targetted, strategic way to encourage the development and uptake of some kind of alternative. The defection of powerful actors like that could potentially turn a radical innovation into an established system.

Lastly, the first rigid airship in quite some time has made its first flight. I don’t think there’s too much to say about the technology at this point other than that I still find it extremely cool. Of course, it’s designed for freight, rather than passengers, so I won’t be able to schedule my around-the-world airship cruise just yet.

Wall Street, Flooded. From New York Magazine


Why e-bikes make me nervous

A few years ago, while riding my bike along the Don Valley cycle paths (a gorgeous urban cycle route that any cyclist in the area should check out), I was, to my confusion, passed by a man who couldn’t have been younger than 60 riding a rickety old bicycle without even pedalling that hard! Furious at this affront to my honour as a cyclist, I gave chase. Keeping pace with him for a few minutes was just about all I could manage. Frustrated and confused, I eventually noticed the high-tech looking plastic box sitting on the frame of the man’s bike. I had been racing with somebody who had the extra benefit of an electric motor. This was my first encounter with the increasingly popular phenomenon of the e-bike.

In principle, e-bikes are a fantastic development. Cycling is an excellent means of alternative transport: It is sometimes faster than cars, it is certainly healthier and more sustainable, and switching to cycling might even make you happier. But cycling does involve a certain amount of privilege. To use a bicycle as a useful way of getting around, you have to be reasonably able-bodied and fit, and you have to live in a city where the distances and grades are manageable. E-bikes eliminate some of these requirements; allowing people to use bicycles who may not otherwise be physically capable of doing so. And even if the argument can be made that e-bikes are not, strictly speaking, active transport, their status as very light-weight electric vehicles means that their contribution to climate change will be minuscule, even compared to that of an electric car.

The problem, however, emerges with the fact that very few technologies remain static. E-bikes are a relatively new development, and like most other new technologies, we can expect them to change considerably as they become more popular, and as the people who make them have more money to pay engineers and inventors to improve them. E-bikes currently exist as a kind of bricolage combination of cell phone batteries and bicycle technology, but they will evolve. And what they evolve into may force us to rethink what actually constitutes a bicycle.

Notice how it still has pedals.

This has, in fact, already happened in the case of motorcycles. A brief glance at wikipedia demonstrates that motorcycles are about as old as cars. These early motorcycles were literally motor-cycles: cycles with motors on them. Attach a motor and an extra stabilizing wheel to a penny-farthing, and voila! You’ve got a motorized vehicle. Motorcycles thus have a completely separate genaeology from that of the car, which was initially conceived as a horseless carriage. If you are at all familiar with e-bikes, then this should start to sound familiar.

1910 FN

A 1910 Fabrique Nationale motorcycle.

To make a long history short, motorcycles continued to look like bicycles for some time, and as bicycles became more sophisticated, so too did motorcycles. Gradually, the pedals disappeared, to be replaced with a stronger engine which in turn required a sturdier frame. Motorcycles began to diverge from their pedal-powered cousins. By the 1930s, motorcycles had taken on a distinct form of their own, with almost all signs of their pedal-powered history expunged in favour of more power, speed, and durability. And these, in turn, gave rise to the high-speed crotch-rockets that can often be seen in flagrant violation of speed limits today.

A 1920 Indian Powerplus.

A 1930 “Squariel” motorcycle. By now, almost all signs of its bicycle ancestry are gone.

This is a very crude history, mostly culled from wikipedia, so you shouldn’t take it as authoritative. My expertise is cars, trains and (occasional) aircraft; not motorcycles. But you only have to look at the pictures to see the clear trend: The metaphor of biological evolution is actually a very good one to describe the development of motorcycles and many other technologies besides: A mutation (innovation) caused one small population (motor bicycles) to diverge from a parent species (pedal-powered bicycles), at which point it was subjected to a different set of selection pressures (a different user base), and gradually diverged to become something completely different.

As with biological evolution, the question of when a new species actually emerged is a purely subjective one-a crucial consideration when we consider the future of e-bikes. At this stage, there is no reason why e-bikes should not be allowed in the bike paths and bike lanes that make cycling a safe and enjoyable means of transport for so many people. We could justifably be accused of ableism or age discrimination if we did not allow them to use these spaces. But e-bikes, like motorcycles before them, will almost certainly evolve into something distinct from bicycles. They could become faster and dangerous for the slower cyclists around them. But at their point their riders may not take kindly to being pushed off of the bike paths they have become accustomed to using. Indeed, e-bike technology will likely evolve based on the assumption that they will be used in these spaces. The possible outcome could be that what was once bike paths will become a kind of second-tier road, dominated by electric motorcycles on which pedal cyclists will be, once again marginalized.

This might not happen. Technological development is impossible to predict. But we do need to acknowledge that, one way or another, the technologies we use today will change into something else. And as they do so, the social practices and political structures that have built up around them might not change with them, or at least might not change in a way that resolves the problems caused by changing technology. Laws and habits are much harder to modify than bicycle frames. That means that when we think about how to integrate e-bikes and other new technologies into our society, we need to consider not only how they are, but also how they will be.