The Pitfalls of Techno-optimism (and the Ambition of Amazon)

on December 4, 2013
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Photo of Amazon drone (Amazon.com)

Jeff Bezos’ interview with Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes accomplished three things. It told the world that Amazon is a true technology company, not just a giant retailer.  It took attention away from unpleasant subjects, such as working conditions in Amazon’s fulfillment centers or the company’s chronic lack of profits. And it established beyond a doubt that Bezos is the true successor to Steve Jobs as the tech world’s premier visionary and magician.

The interview showed Bezos to be better than Jobs, because Steve could only create his reality distortion field in person. Judging by the sometime rapturous reception given to Bezos’ promise of  drone-driven Amazon Prime Air, he can do it just fine over the airwaves. Although there were some misgivings in the cold light of Monday, most initial responses sounded as though Bezos had made a real announcement of a real product. “Amazon Chief Reveals Drone Delivery System: Unmanned delivery aircraft could be ready within five years” reported the normally sober Time Tech. “Amazon’s Drones for Delivery,” read the headline in an unquestioning Wall Street Journal report. and Bezo biographer Brad Stone, while expressing at least a dose of skepticism, wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek:

The aerial drone is actually the perfect vehicle—not for delivering packages, but for evoking Amazon’s indomitable spirit of innovation. Many customers this holiday season are considering the character of the companies where they spend their hard-earned dollars. Amazon would rather customers consider the new products and inventions coming down the pipeline and not the ramifications of its ever-accelerating, increasingly disruptive business model.”

In fact, the Bezos announcement belongs to the same absurd-but-taken-seriously genre as Udacity founder Sebastian Thurn’s proclamation  that the success of massive open online courses would eliminate the need for all but 10 universities in the world, and the reporting of it mostly without a bit of critical analysis reveals a major failing of tech journalism.

Economic sense. For example, just about no one who wrote about the Amazon idea bothered to consider the economics of drone delivery. Until we have fully autonomous drones, and that is a lot further off than Amazon’s five-year horizon,  each of those cute octocopters is going to need a remote-control pilot. Piloting a drone to deliver on a customer’s front porch (and we have no idea of how Amazon plans to make deliveries to multifamily residences; maybe the drones will be able to open the apartment building door and fly straight to your doorstep) is vastly less efficient and thus far more expensive than a traditional truck route. The number of purchases for which drone delivery could make sense will never be more than minuscule.

Small, cheap drones are a fascinating technology with huge potential. But their most likely use seems to be in a large variety of remote-sensing roles (which themselves could be good or evil), not delivering packages.

The techno-ethusiasm that greeted the Bezos interview  is hardly unique. We have seen the same sort of reaction to 3-D printing, which at least has the advantage of being real and available today. 3-D print is also a very exciting new technology that enables many things once thought impossible. But it has also inspired a vast quantity of tech journalistic nonsense: 3-D printing will replace conventional manufacturing, families will meet all their needs for manufacturing objects with home printers; or, my favorite, we will solve the problem of hunger by printing food. These breathless predictions uniformly ignore the limitations of both technology and economics, not to mention the fact that after 40 years, old-fashioned 2-D printers remain the most unreliable pieces of tech equipment that most of us own.

Interesting experiments. Similarly with the crypto-currency Bitcoin. It’s fascinating experiment in a privately, indeed collectively, issued fiat currency with no government or central bank to stand behind it. But despite a lot of techno-enthusiasm, the chances that Bitcoin will replace the dollar or the Euro, or even become an important medium of exchange, a nil.

I give Jeff Bezos all the credit in the world for the PR coup of 60 Minutes. He launched the holiday shopping season by getting everyone talking about Amazon, in a mostly good way, at the cost of producing a clever video. But it’s time for the tech commentariart to show the ability to do more than parrot outlandish claims.