The pizza delivery boy has long upstaged the proverbial milkman in the naughty imaginings of the Western world. In a society of nuclear families with no servants, where front-doors are always shut, and people tend not to drop in at one another’s homes without notice, there is something sexy about a stranger ringing the doorbell to provide a service that has been paid for already. In poorer societies, where class barriers are more absolute, families more extended and homes more porous, such visitations of the unknown are a normal part of everyday domestic bustle. Bread, newspapers, fish, vegetables and most of the bills are delivered to the door, and this is regarded as more annoying than exciting. So, the whiff of the perverse in buying a longed-for book, dish or gadget, and having it delivered by somebody to one’s door, become part of the pleasure of modern consumption — a taste for which is being acquired by affluent or middle-class urban Indians as well, especially with the rise of online shopping.
But a new genre of fantasy has now cut into this world of smart shopping and smarter service. Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, has announced that it is testing unmanned drones to deliver goods to customers within half an hour of placing an order. Something called an Octocopter — looking like a cross between a UFO and a barbecue grill — will come flying across the sky and drop an object somewhere on, or near, the customer’s home (the imagination struggles a bit at this point, conjuring up a variety of peculiar mishaps), and this will boost both profit and efficiency no doubt beyond measure. Talk of drones to an Iraqi or Palestinian, and he will certainly not think of books falling from the sky. Perhaps it is heartening that technologies originally developed to kill or spy on people are now being used for more peaceful purposes. But there is something undeniably dispiriting about there not being a smiling young person at the door, and it is the thought of a gradual displacement of the human in the drive for efficiency and profit that makes drones and robots part of the dystopian, rather than utopian, imagination. If Amazon is promising drones, then Google is dreaming not only of driverless cars but also of ‘intelligent’ robots. Activities as natural as herding and milking cows are now happily being delegated to robots by farmers. There are even serenely mooing robots that move slowly through the maternity paddocks at night, monitoring cows that are due to calve.
Yet, it is also true that during the Christmas season, human ‘pickers’ in Amazon’s British warehouses have been found to do 10-hour night-shifts, when they have to run around in 800,000 square feet of storage to collect orders every 33 seconds, with scanners beeping every time they slow down — conditions that could actually make them physically and mentally ill. So, better to relinquish the comeliness of delivery boys to the dreariness of drones than to get Yuletide gifts that may have driven people mad.