Rumor has it that the future drones of Amazon Prime are a Cyber-Monday PR gimmick, sure to face insurmountable technical difficulties and never pass muster with the FAA. Who knows. And, whatever. Much more interesting is what Jeff Bezos' plan actually suggests about the culture that's drooling over it too much to ask whether it's a good idea.
When you're the top online retailer in the world, it's appropriate to be curious about what kind of world it actually is. In our case, Jeff, it's a burning world. While Arctic ice disappears, we scorch the earth with fracking and reach for another handful of flamethrower buffalo wings. All on track to blow our 3 degree temperature rise budget before hell unleashes. Do you really want to plot out ways to increase the heat and speed of our consumption? Your drones are all sleek and cool, and I'm sure their propellers throw off a refreshing draft, but they will only fan the fire of consumer excess, and the infantile regression at its root.
My son is almost 14 months. He has become imperious in his sweetness, a fascinated pioneer in his power over us. He spends a good portion of his day climbing up to the highest perches he can find - chairs, coffee table, the arms of the couch. His walking is toddling along, but he's much more interested in surveying the room from his improv thrones, and pointing sharply to this toy or that book -- or sometimes, nothing at all -- and barking for us to retrieve it. When we can't or if we refuse (that's a cleaver, bubba -- can you say cleaver?) he melts into an overwrought despair, pretending to bonk his head on the floor and weeping with fleeting misery. He peers through his tears to assess our response. He is a delightfully unwitting megalomaniac. He has every right. He's a baby.
He's "His Majesty the Baby," in fact, as Freud puts it in On Narcissism. He's tipsy on the omnipotence of innocent drives. His wobbly mobility coupled with our utter devotion to his needs has us scurrying to devise newer and quicker ways of satisfying. The impulsive point-and-bark is not so far removed from the impulsive point-and-click, is it? Mumma and Dadda hover like drones: spying, delivering the payload. But as baby matures, this should change, no? Or is there a part of us that wishes to preserve this manic relationship, this frantic intimacy that drops gifts out of thin air?
The megalomania of the baby is a minor discovery of Freud and his successors. The more subtle target is how baby's presumed omnipotence is also a projection of its parents needs -- specifically the wish to relive a vanished power:
The child shall have a better time than his parents; he shall not be subject to the necessities which they have recognized as paramount in life. Illness, death, renunciation of enjoyment, restrictions on his own will, shall not touch him; the laws of nature and of society shall be abrogated in his favor: he shall once more really be the center and core of creation -- 'His Majesty the Baby', as we once fancied ourselves... At the most touchy point in the narcissistic system, the immortality of the ego, which is so hard pressed by reality, security is achieved by taking refuge in the child.
And this is where we face our greatest ecological paradox: what does Jeff Bezos want? Too many things for anyone but him to know. But likely among them are 1) mad stacks of cash; 2) to please his shareholders; 3) to serve His Majesty the Baby in a way that mimics a perfect parental intimacy; 4) to achieve security "by taking refuge in the child." Read: consumer.
Points 3 and 4 are relational, rather than libidinal drives. They are appeals to affection and connection. Jeff wants to make the mad stacks, but he also loves humanity with that nameless personal wound we all share that can only be satisfied by hovering, anticipating, and improvising comforts for the children of today that our own inner children, now sickly with age, could only have fantasized. And the whole thing is ruining the planet.
In the Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin hones this paradox to a fine point, although he leaves the developmental psychology to the side. We are yearning for connections that will both console the emergence of alienated human consciousness while struggling to develop the potential of our empathic hardwiring. But every paradigmatic shift in our interconnectivity, Rifkin writes -- from agriculture to text to industry to digitization -- is accompanied by an explosion in energy consumption and energy entropy. Down to our very mirror neurons, we long to serve each other's needs, perhaps as dearly as we long to meet our own, and our anxious attempts to do both -- to keep that external or internal baby happy -- are burning the house down.
Freud again (I'm not a fanboy, but sometimes he really hits it):
He is not willing to forgo the narcissistic perfection of his childhood; and when as he grows up, he is disturbed by the admonitions of others and by the awakening of his own critical judgment, so that he can no longer retain that perfection, he seeks to recover it in the new form of an ego ideal. What he projects before him as his ideal is the substitute for the lost narcissism of his childhood in which he was his own ideal.
What can we say? Perhaps:
It's okay, Jeff. You can let us grow up. We can all mourn our lost childhood together. We don't need the drones to make us feel better. They can rest like fairies in a book we have long since put away. It was fun when we dreamed of fairies bringing us things. Yes, we were once the center of attention, and we got whatever we wanted, most of the time. But we're almost okay with life now. Nothing needs to be faster. We may be more capable of contentment than we know. So you can stop hovering. You can stop watching over us with that strange confusion of empathy and surveillance.