Drone delivery is bullshit

What do AI, self-driving cars and Amazon drones have in common?

Cory Doctorow
3 min readAug 5, 2021
An Amazon Prime Air drone superimposed over a raging fireball.

When Amazon announced “Prime Air,” a forthcoming drone delivery service, in 2016, there was a curious willingness on the part of the press — even the tech press — to take the promise of a sky full of delivery drones at face value.

This despite the obvious problems with such a scheme: the consequences of midair collisions, short battery life, overhead congestion, regulatory hurdles and more. Also despite the fact that delivery drones, like jetpacks, are really only practical as sfx in an sf movie.

Now, Amazon has laid off more than 100 Prime Air employees. Departing workers told Wired UK that the division is “collapsing inwards,” “dysfunctional,” “organised chaos.” They called management “detached from reality.”


As Andrew Kersley reminds us, Prime Air was the centerpiece of a massive PR push, with school tours of a “secret” facility and showy promotional videos (high-sfx sf movies, really). Execs said drones would arrive “within months.”

But after the PR wins, the organization became a do-nothing boondoggle where employees openly drank beer at their desks at 10AM.

All of this raises the question: why? Why spend millions on something that was obviously not going to work out?

My theory is tech companies promise to deliver impossible things n order to cultivate an air of mystical capability that’s invoked to mask real-world awfulness.

Amazon’s automation claims — about drones, warehouse robots, and self-driving delivery vehicles — masks their ghastly labor abuses. This is especially useful when automation is used to make workers’ lives worse.

The more automated an Amazon warehouse is, the more workers it injures. Amazon warehouses injure more workers than any other kind of warehouse.


Seen in this light, many of tech’s worst promises become less silly: Uber promises self-driving cars to distract us from its exploitative labor practices. Imaginary self-driving cars are a way to make worker misclassification seem temporary.


Facebook’s promise of AI-based content moderation is a good way to distract us from its dysfunctional, high-handed and corrupt moderation practices, making htem seem like a minor hurdle that will soon fall.


Every single thing Elon Musk says goes into this category: “It’s ok to destroy astronomy because my satellites obviate the need for fiber infrastructure.” “Tunnels (not transit) will solve traffic jams.” “I am saving the planet by keeping SUVs on the road.”

It’s all the kind of thing Riley Quinn calls “jingling keys” — a distraction for the technologically unsophisticated (and techies who have dipped into their own product) while everyday corporate crimes are committed under our noses.

Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include The Shakedown (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power; Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering; and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias.