STEINBERG: Trying to see the future through clouds of drones

SHARE STEINBERG: Trying to see the future through clouds of drones

Are the skies soon going to be thick with drones delivering books for Amazon, sushi for GrubHub? | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

The clouds in the east were pink early Tuesday, painted by the rising sun.

It was about 6:30 a.m. I was taking our dog Kitty on her morning stroll and did what people nowadays do upon seeing anything unusual: whipped out my iPhone and took a picture.

Why? Who knows? Possible Facebook cover shot. Potential blog illustration. The truth is, it’s a habit. Almost a reflex. I worry I’ll step in front of a truck someday and lunge to snap its picture as it bears down on me when what I really should be doing is leaping out of the way.

Clouds documented, I continued on. A buzzing sound. I looked up: high in the sky, a drone, lights winking. I looked down: standing directly in the center of the intersection, a young man bent intently over a control box.


The young man never looked up as Kitty and I approached. I stopped and — what else? — took a picture of him. Intrusive? One’s expectation of privacy standing in the middle of an intersection is quite small or should be. We rounded the corner of Briarwood and headed down Center Avenue.

Are the skies soon going to be thick with these things? Delivering books for Amazon, sushi for GrubHub. Each house with its droneport, a 4-by-4-foot platform, raised off the ground so the squirrels don’t get at the fruitcake your Aunt Agatha sends.

The future is hard to perceive. Maybe impossible. So many ways to misread what’s coming. There is what I call the Arthur C. Clarke Syndrome. Clarke, the author of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” extrapolated a few moon landings to expect colonies on Mars. Are drones this year’s Space Food Sticks? Or the Model T in 1910?

I’d put my chips on Model T. Are drones good? Bad? Can’t tell. Hard to see through the fog of fear — people worry that drones will be part of an intrusive despotic state because they’ve worried about intrusive despotic states ever since George Orwell published 1984, gee, almost 70 years ago.

People worry about that, even though our current government, rather than infringing more and more on our lives, seems heading toward disintegration. Our government errs more through ignoring its citizens than by keeping too careful track. Thus we have a president whipping up a frenzy over patriotic songs at sporting events while 3.4 million American citizens face disaster in Puerto Rico.

I’m more worried about Americans being ignored than spied upon. The concern isn’t that we’ll be swatting away the micro-drones that follow us around like a cloud, urging us in their squeaky little voices to buy the iPhone19. Frankly, I’ll be happy if our the future includes electricity to power the drones, and not a planet scoured by cataclysmic, climate-change-stoked storms and whatever nuclear exchanges Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un cook up between themselves.

I got maybe quarter a block past the boy and his drone when I decided this was a lack of curiosity on my part. We doubled back — dogs are nothing if not creatures of habit — to investigate the situation.

The drone was very high now. A winking speck. I contemplated possible conversational sallies. “Is it stuck?” came first to mind. No, that sounded snide. The young man looked 18.

“Birthday present?” I ventured.

“Yes,” he said.

“What kind of drone?”

“DJI” he said. Top of the line, I later learned. Pricey — a grand and up — with “complicated instructions and a steep learning curve,” according to one website. Hence the focus on controls.

“Does it have a camera?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I wanted to take a photo of those clouds.” I nodded; good, so it’s not just me. He went back to his box.

“Well, happy birthday,” I said, and left him, wondering just how clueless “Does it have a camera?” must sound to a young person. I’m sure ALL drones have cameras.

Oh well. The future is always hard to adjust to.

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