By Joanna Roughton.
A word to the wise. When Amazon, or another big American tech company, tell us that the future is nigh – reach for a pinch full of salt.
In the last fortnight alone I have heard of plans to deliver emergency blood supplies by drone in war-torn Rwanda. And of a proposal to ensure every new home has a charging point for an electric car.
These are laudable, noble ambitions. And a world without ambition would be a poorer place. But are they on the point of happening? Or is a PR team congratulating itself somewhere for another publicity coup or two?
Amazon’s latest wheeze is typical. It addresses the growing fashion for home deliveries. There is a Klondyke-style rush to secure the riches of the ‘straight to your doorstep’ boom. It’s a classic illustration of capitalism’s bias towards creative destruction. High-streets are littered with empty retail units as more customers elect to have products brought to them by a courier.
Amazon’s plan seeks to solve the biggest and most obvious pitfall with home deliveries – that the home is empty when the delivery driver calls. The company says it will offer households the chance to create a secure storage area. The door, perhaps to a lobby, utility room or garage, would be opened with an access code. That code would change after each delivery and the driver sent a text with a new code before each new drop off.
It will, claims Amazon, circumvent the most annoying aspect of home deliveries – The Card. The card that waits for our return announcing that the parcel has gone to a depot because you, the naughty customer, didn’t ensure anyone was at home when Amazon called. If the technology can be made to work, this sounds like a sensible idea.
But, in terms of the philosophy of the home, it is another example of how society increasingly accepts the home as a space empty and often devoid of human agency. The idea that there might be some benefit to a home occupied and managed by a real, living person does not feature in any nascent debate about how much a home ought to be colonised by technological housekeepers.
The debate, in fact, is non-existent.
It is taken as a given by every corporate entity, arm of government, media outlet and technologist – that the home has to be an empty shell for much of the time. How else can homeowners perform their principal societal function – of going to work and making the only contribution which seems to matter under our new dispensation – to earn a wage.
What a load of balderdash!
As this column has argued before, the ledger is only half filled in at the moment. A home – to operate optimally – has to be lived in. There. It sounds such a facile thing to say. But how else can it be run to its full potential?
This is not just about having the time to create an environment apt to nurture a spouse and relatives from more than one generation. It is not just about having the potential to care for children, clean, cook and launder without recourse to sub-contractors.
It is also about being there for unexpected visitors. Business imagines that this means them. But mainly it means neighbours. Because people know I might well be there, my home is often a place where the doorbell rings unexpectedly.
Usually it’s just a social call, but it might be more pressing. An elderly neighbour who needs help getting to hospital. A working parent who cannot take care of a sick child and asks for my assistance as an emergency child-minder.
How do we put a price on this utility? How can we weigh the benefit of the social cohesion which springs from this neighbourliness? It is not Amazon’s duty to answer that question.
But it should be something which occurs to those we elect to govern our lives.