Regulation is rapidly becoming a means of control by the elite argues Kevin Carey
I was not surprised by a demonstration of a 'smart home' at the BT labs in Martlesham in the mid-1990s about the time I was working on Resource Description Frameworks (RDF) and the 'Semantic web', so the 'internet of things' has been a long time coming; and it may be a few more years before it is more than a curiosity.
The same cannot be said of the driverless car. It is already clear that in spite of the usual objections it will be much safer than human-driven cars; but, still, it will take another decade to get it past the regulators because of the human tendency wrongly to rank its skill over mechanical devices.
The drone, on the other hand, is already with us and is out-striding regulation. Its role in cutting the fatalities in war, cutting the cost and increasing the scope of natural disaster relief in remote areas, its potential for transforming crop spraying and its use as a parcel delivery vehicle are all well-known.
But all I hear about is a drone camera taking photographs of people sunbathing naked in their back gardens. Incidentally, how many people do you know who sunbathe naked in their back gardens?
A similar jumble of regulatory powers applies to the ownership, control and privacy of data. Take the case of a pretty young celebrity whom I photograph sunbathing almost naked on a public beach.
Do I need to ask before I take a picture of her in a public place? Do I own the picture? If I own it, must I keep it as a piece of private property or can I sell it? If I can sell it, can I sell it to a major corporate and pick up a royalty every time it is used?
Does it matter that she's a celebrity? Our instinct is that I can't do any such things but none of these issues have really been settled in most rich countries.
The real complication is that the political forces which are most economically libertarian are, simultaneously, supposed to be the most in favour of individual liberty.
The trouble is, when it comes down to the wire, economic libertarians rank this above individual liberty; they may object to the state telling people what to do, unless, of course, they are socio-economically disadvantaged when it can boss them about all it likes, but they don't mind major corporates bossing everybody about except, of course, themselves.
Instead of being an impartial method of ensuring fairness, regulation (and, conversely, de-regulation) is rapidly becoming a means of control by the elite both to entrench their economic advantage and to shape society to meet their needs.
For the record, I was once a regulator in the early days of Ofcom when its stance was exemplary as an evidence-based regulator but the recent notion of the Home Secretary that it should be a terrorist censor is a harbinger of much worse to come.
As for the constant complaint of business about red tape, we should remember that one person's cut in red tape is another person's death in a fireworks factory; and I have not yet met a business leader who wants de-regulation when it is to the disadvantage of his company; Government interference is resented but tax incentives and reliefs are to be welcomed.
For a variety of obvious reasons, particularly difficulty with mobility, the 'smart home', the driverless car and the drone are all likely to benefit people with disabilities, so it is important to be careful what regulatory stance we adopt; and it might just be that we end up with some strange or, to put it more sharply, obnoxious bedfellows. Are we to be ideological politicians or pragmatic diplomats?
It's an interesting but a relatively short-term question. Regulation has been a convenient half-way house between litigation and chaos but with the simultaneous decline of solidarity prompting us to stand up for each other and the decline of legal aid, why should the rich care?
Unless we take urgent action, we will end up with a post regulatory economic free-for-all in tandem with the reinforcement of socio-economic disadvantage.
There's no point complaining about a disproportionate voting system; the resolution for a fairer system was thrown out by referendum in 2011. We voted for unfairness; we've got unfairness.
That's democracy for you! But there is more to democracy than voting in elections and referenda. There is the steady, and occasionally spectacular, success of effective lobbying; but, as I've said before, if you want something fixed, don't lobby, just fix it! It will almost certainly be much cheaper.