Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make credulous. In the case of technology, especially technology involving computers, that’s pretty easy to do. Quite why people are so overawed by computers when they are blase about, say, truly miraculous technologies such as high-speed trains, is a mystery that we will have to leave for another day. The only thing we need to remember is that when important people, for example government ministers, are confronted with what a sceptical friend of mine calls “computery” then they check in their brains at the door of the meeting room. From then on, credulity is their default setting.In which state, they are easy meat for technological visionaries, evangelists and purveyors of snake oil. This would be touching if it weren’t serious. Exhibit A in this regard is the government’s plan for “smart meters”. By 2020, more than 26 million British homes will have their old-style electricity and gas meters replaced by shiny new digital smart meters to monitor their gas and electricity usage.In principle, this is an attractive idea. It will enable much greater flexibility in the way we generate, distribute and consume energy. The meters will tell consumers about their energy use on a minute-by-minute basis. They will enable utilities to charge different rates at different times of the day higher in times of peak demand, lower when demand is slack and thereby enable customers to make more informed choices about when they switch on devices. Dishwashers may one day come with a red button for “do it now” and a green button for “do it when electricity is cheaper”. The current legions of peripatetic meter readers will be redundant. There will be no more “estimated” meter readings. And so on.So far so good. But there is another side to the smart-meter story. Inside each device is a sim card that enables it to communicate with the utility companies that supply the gas and electricity. This is how the utilities will always be able to supply an accurate meter reading. But it will also enable them remotely to terminate your supply if, for example, you fail to pay your bills on time. Which means – and here’s the interesting bit – Kim Jong-un, the Chinese army or any number of unsavoury characters in the Middle East or Russia could do the same.
Why smart meters might not be so clever after all