The silent ‘smart meters’ controversy

« The principal source of injustice in our epoch is political approval for the existence of tools that by their very nature restrict to a very few the liberty to use them in an autonomous way. The pompous rituals by which each man is given a vote to choose between factions only cover up the fact that the imperialism of industrial tools is both arbitrary and growing. […] This means that politics in a postindustrial society must be mainly concerned with the development of design criteria for tools rather than as now with the choice of production goals. »

Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (1973)

More than thirty-five years later, Illich’s visionary comment is today illustrated with a silent but growing controversy about smart meters and other mass surveillance systems deployed under governments auspices. A recent article by John Vidal from the Guardian, entitled Why smart meters could make power firms richer, made things even clearer. In fact, we know from the example of illustrious Web companies that collecting and using personal and behavioral information leads to very profitable businesses.

However, this point is not so commonly made in Europe, where huge amounts of money are going to be spent on smart meters without questioning the very design of these systems. In fact, detailed answers to several important questions are still missing: What is the business model of smart metering? That is, who will make money from it, to cover its costs? What kind of data will be collected, and shipped to whom?

Silence. Currently, deeply intrusive and weakly secured technology is about to be massively deployed without stating clearly its purpose. Industrialists are tiptoeing around the issues and apparently avoiding facing uncomfortable facts… Why real-time highly accurate individual data has to be transmitted outside homes if it is supposed to help people monitor their domestic energy consumption? Silence. Are all these details really needed to manage large-scale electricity networks? (It seems that aggregated data would do the job, doesn’t it?) Silence.

We live in strange times: the path towards sustainable development should be focusing on enlightened collective responsibility and individual autonomy, and sometimes we shiver when a dark cloud passes over the sun, casting its gigantic shadow on the ground.