Dr Maximilian Jablonowski (email@example.com) is a Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of Zurich; Dr Anna Jackman (Anna.Jackman@rhul.ac.uk) is a Lecturer in Political Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London.
This blog post relates to the Global Discourse article Anna Jackman and Maximilian Jablonowski: Investment in the imaginary
Setting the scene
On the evening of 1 December 2013, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos presented on CBS a video advert for the company’s new project; named Prime Air, the venture promised the shipment of goods to customers via drones within thirty minutes. This announcement was likely the first discursive event of commercial drone use. While initially exposed to ridicule, Amazon’s plan went on to change how commercial drones, and in fact drones more widely, are publicly imagined. Since then, drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, have been increasingly re-imagined and re-spatialised from battlefield origins to their growing embrace as domestic actors transforming urban skies. If we are, as it is asserted, entering into a ‘drone age’ or ‘zeitgeist’, the aerial delivery drone is a key facet of this evolving drone imagination.
Amazon’s video was an important starting point for these emerging drone imaginaries. While Amazon was not the first to develop a drone programme, it captured the headlines not just for its delivery drone claims, but for its distinct envisioning of drone-enabled techno-futures more widely. Seeking to re-define robo-convenience and its mediation of everyday life, Amazon have emerged as active crafters of drone futures and cultures. While they claimed this vision of the future to be a reality within five years, it remains a highly speculative one. As this blog post will examine, visualisations have been crucial in the company’s goal of both promoting and actualising its visions of delivery-drone futures.
Visualisations act as key sites and representations through which the drone is speculated. In the paper inspiring this post, we explore Amazon’s speculative drone visualisations through two particular anticipatory practices, the patent and the advert. Both, we argue, employ particular aesthetic mechanisms through which the drone is imagined and mobilised.
Patents as windows of speculation
Amazon’s drone aspirations continue to grab global headlines, in part spurred by the company’s ongoing release of drone-related patent documentation. Featuring both techno-speculative visualisations of potential drone products and infrastructures, and provocative textual descriptions of their potential capacity and usage – patents mark an important form of ‘anticipatory practice’ through which drone futures are imagined and claims to intellectual property staked. For example, in 2017 an Amazon patent for a drone-enabled ‘fulfilment centre’ or warehouse was released. Pictured below, the patent features images of high-rise warehouses from which parcel-laden drones are launched and emerge. While described as located in a ‘densely populated’ ‘urban setting’ (United States Patent and Trademark Office 2017), the patent nonetheless opts to limit the depiction of the busy and congested environment within which it imagines its own basis.
The patent continues that the structure will enable ‘hundreds of thousands of orders’ to be fulfilled ‘each day’ (ibid), suggesting a large-scale re-imagining of last-mile parcel delivery – taken to the skies. Following scholarly calls for attention to the ‘effects and affects’ of volumetric drone geographies, we note that Amazon’s visualisations feature drones punctuating low-level airspace with little regard to the inhabitants – both human and non-human, in their midst. While delivery-drones continue to be rationalised as ‘disruptive’ technologies combatting road-based congestion, they nonetheless raise a series of socio-political questions around, for example, noise pollution. While noting their passage through ‘open air’ as ‘navigable airway’, such anticipatory visualisations fail to acknowledge their implications on existing soundscapes. As Paine laments, under such a future, ‘the world is about to get a lot louder’. The effects of the drone’s ‘high pitched’ hum are, further, not limited to human ears – and rather may disrupt the communications of non-humans like birds. Just as Klauser and Pedrozo call for drones to be considered in relation to ‘fixity and mobility, enclosure and openness’, we must too acknowledge the drone’s buzzes and hums as silencing, piercing, or disabling. Speculative visualisations such as patents can thus act to reveal potential material futures and the corporate logics seeking to legitimate them, while prompting critical questions of such anticipations and the social relations they enact and engender.
Speculation in and through advertisements
In thinking further with speculative visualizations, we can also turn to examine Amazon’s video advertisements, those enacting an important facet of the company’s aerial ambitions and aspirations. Since 2013, Amazon has published four ‘vision videos‘, those not simply showcasing an anticipated product or service, but rather sketching out a vision of a particular future. While Amazon’s patents are arguably directed towards a more specialized audience, its advert videos seek to gain the attention of a wider public.
In the videos, Amazon deliberately employs an aesthetic refraining from any allusion to Science Fiction, while nonetheless remaining not yet actualised and/or potentially fictitious. The videos situate drones in a comprehensible and relatable ‘social universe‘, illustrating their possible embeddedness in near-future lifeworlds. Showing stereotyped white, upper middle-class family life or a financially well-off senior citizen, the videos’ protagonists represent Amazon’s targeted customer groups. Interestingly, all videos are set in suburban or rural environments that create a sharp contrast to Amazon’s own speculations on downtown drone-supported fulfilment centres or the hyper-urban imaginations of delivery drones programmes more widely.
Amazon was the first company to outline a ‘realistic,’ if improbable, narrative of how drones could be embedded in actual near-future Western middle-class lifeworlds. Degen and colleagues point to the widespread “problem” of speculative imagery in portraying a convincing “anticipated future social life.” In this sense, Amazon’s adverts address this “problem” as they go beyond a speculative visualisation of future technology, instead seeking to capture a feeling of lived technological change that forgoes hyper-vertical and hyper-urban imaginaries.
Delivery drones are increasingly anticipated as aerial inhabitants poised to feature in and punctuate our everyday lives. In their speculation however, they do not simply envision new means of circulating goods and information, but rather embody and act to promote a particular set of aerial-desires and relations – from the appropriation of vertical and volumetric spaces, to the re-spatialization of pollutants.
Speculative visualisations of the drone both participate in and reveal, we argue, the formation and entrenching of a techno-fetishist neoliberal agenda positing technology as a privileged and panacea agent of futurity. While Amazon’s project currently lacks the technological and juridical conditions for its realisation, we can understand their effort as speculative work, trying to position commercial drones as a possibility in the imagination of near-future everyday life. Amazon Prime Air was primarily an investment in the customers’ sociotechnical imaginary; as such, it doesn’t necessarily need a short-term return on investment. Amazon Prime Air shows that the value of speculative work can be realised without being immediately monetised. In light of this, we, as researchers, need to further both theoretically and empirically approach and interrogate such speculative sites, spatialities and strategies. After all, they act as both valuable windows into – and active anticipatory envisionings of – airspace futures, as well as the social relations that cohabit and enliven them.