Stop being cynical about technology!

Google Project Wing Drone Delivery 1

Google’s Project Wing. From weburbanist.com.

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.

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