There are still some of us around who remember it. The Jetsons (broadcast in Spanish as Los supersónicos) — the most modern, futuristic cartoon series on early television — is now fifty years old (and the future still obstinately remains the future). In that cartoon world of tomorrow, as in most science-fiction worlds, the ordinary means of transport was by flying through the air. It makes sense: the air seems to be a much better and bigger conducting medium than the ground. But the fact is that in real life, most of the time, we stubbornly tend to move around at ground level - feeling lower than a snake in a wagon rut.
This is why, every now and then, some news item involving flight particularly attracts our eye. This time it is the drones with which Amazon says it is going to deliver books to our doorstep. So said the boss of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, on TV, acknowledging that it sounded like science fiction, but arguing it was already possible and — once a few regulatory problems are solved — he plans to start it up so that you can order a book on Amazon and, if it weighs less than two kilos, in a matter of 30 minutes it will be there.
In terms of publicity, this was a play that beats Shakespeare. Thanks to only a few words, the whole world was again talking about his company. On the internet planet, to say that you are going to do something strange is the best way of getting lots and lots of people to buy what you are selling. This time the excitement of progress set millions of screens aflutter, obscuring the obvious, depressing fact that if the invention works and catches on, the air will be filled with a swarm of remote-controlled bugs, like the biblical plague of locusts that "darkened all the land of Nile." We also forget that, in order to send these contraptions off to alight at people's doorsteps, you need a society where you can leave a package on a doorstep and count on it staying there: a society that, one feels, is purer science fiction than the contraption. In short, we forget the many drawbacks of drones.
Innovation in the delivery of material objects looks like obstinacy in building a future of the past
Drones were, like so many inventions, developed for war: yet another attempt to turn war into a game for the rich. And they are passing into civilian life: a way of replacing the work of human beings. The celebrated industrial revolution, now three centuries old, amounts to this: machines doing things for us. First they took over craftwork, then industrial work, then agrarian toil; now they are invading the penultimate reserve: services. In the rich countries, much employment is centered in this sector. A study recently published at Oxford says that the United States may automate some 47 percent of its jobs in the next two decades; that is, blow away the jobs of half of its workers.
One particular half: the jobs that normally most allow of automation are unskilled, low-paid tasks. Nothing tends more to aggravate that social inequality that President Obama has so recently lamented, when he said that he didn't want his country to be like Argentina.
The solution, of course, is not in prohibiting emails so as to give the postman his job back. Equality is not about maintaining more or less toilsome junk jobs. It is about equalizing sectors of society, by means of laws and redistribution of income, so as to share out the benefits of technical improvement. The solution is, as always, a political one.
This is — almost — another debate. Meanwhile, the delivery drone is a rather strange case of modernity. At a time when most advances involve some sort of dematerialization — when Amazon itself is fighting to replace the paper books that got it started with digital ones, to escape from the oppression of matter — innovation in the delivery of material objects looks like obstinacy in building a future of the past.