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If I added up all the time I’ve spent in conferences and meetings discussing some policy or piece of research and what it meant for society I’d probably scare myself. If I counted up how many of those were about new technology it would be a tiny fraction.

Yet technology has had more impact on society and individuals over the past 50 years than any legislation, research or government initiative. Mass car ownership, computers, the pill have all revolutionised society, and now the internet is literally re-wiring our brains. Since we are, at least in part, what we think, then the internet is changing fundamentally what it is to be human.

Drone delivery

If you ask policy wonks they will acknowledge technology’s impact on society, but despite this they don’t spend enough time thinking through the societal aspects of technological advance.  Getting through the backlog of interesting reading in between relative hopping over Christmas I came across the news that Amazon aim to start delivering their packages by drones.

So drones are fast becoming cheap enough and smart enough for commercial companies to use. It surely won’t be a year or two more before the rich have their own drones and then continuing downwards until I get my own drone one year for Christmas, delivered by a drone.

What are the societal implications of mass ownership of personal drones?

All modern drones have cameras and they will be constantly flying past windows, including bedroom windows, recording everything. However small the malicious element of this, people are more likely to keep their curtains closed to avoid embarrassment. I wouldn’t want Adrian from two doors down looking at my messy bedroom, even when I’m not in it. Drones will exacerbate the continuing trend of technology making privacy harder to find and us barricading ourselves further in to try and find it.

They will be very useful for police, increasing surveillance of people. While it might start with a team of drones keeping tabs on potential football violence or Saturday night town centre disorder, it will surely expand. Big Brother will edge closer.

There will be a further reduction in small interactions, the social glue that holds communities together. I don’t need to go round to drop back the pliers I borrowed from Adrian, thereby having a chat with him, I’ll simply send the drone instead. The regular conversation with the corner shop owner as I buy a pint of milk will be a thing of the past.

The regular conversation with the corner shop owner as I buy a pint of milk will be a thing of the past.

As the RSA’s connected communities research shows, these small interactions are vital to healthy communities.

Courier jobs will disappear, likely to be replaced with higher skilled drone repair jobs, whether software or hardware, requiring a higher skilled workforce and less opportunities for those who don’t have the skills needed.

So overall then, a huge increase in convenience counteracted by loss of privacy, continuing isolation of individuals and increased surveillance. These implications are surely enough that policy makers would do well to think sooner rather than later about the impact of mass drone ownership on our lives, including the more subtle impacts, and prepare for it. I’m no luddite, technology is amazing and I can’t wait to get my hands on my own drone, I just hope I’ve spent a few more hours of my life in meetings and conferences talking about their impact first.

Oliver Reichardt is Director of Fellowship at the RSA, you can follow him @OliverReichardt


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