Do ex-Prime Ministers dream of electric sheep? WE now know that the answer is yes. Sir Tony Blair and William Hague, admittedly only a onetime wannabe premier, have just popped up in tandem in The Times with a joint op-ed headlined ‘Science is the single issue all our dreams depend on’.

“Speak for yourselves” was my first response. My unconscious is not boundaried by STEM subjects. Jeering at Blair followed from the expected quarters such as The Daily Mail and Spectator, along with heads shaken that Lord Hague should have fallen into bad company.

The main provocation was a suggestion, which they dwelt on briefly almost as if they were smuggling it out: “We advocate reorganising the centre of Whitehall to drive the use of data and AI across government, including digital ID for every citizen.[My italics]. Doesn’t Sir Tony ever give up? His critics cried, isn’t this just another attempt to bring back new Labour’s failed ID scheme?

The two former party leaders are promoting A New National Purpose: Innovation Can Power the Future of Britain produced by “multiple authors” from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. There is a lot wrong with the full report. For a start it is so strewn with acronyms and clever-clever tech jargon, it is a wonder that every sentence does not start with Silicon Valley’s patronising “So…”.

Few however would disagree with the report’s important basic premise: that the UK must develop and exploit what it calls “a twenty-first century technological revolution as huge in its implications as the nineteenth century Industrial Revolution”. 

The authors even have a point on developing digital ID – though not in the Whitehall-centric way that Blair and Hague advocate. A sentence such as “government must use data as a competitive asset” is chilling. That sounds like “them” selling off “our” stuff. For whose benefit? 

I have anarchist friends who devote much of their lives to staying off-grid. This means never signing-up to anything, avoiding screens and using cash or, better still, barter for their needs. It works for them, most of the time, but most of us willingly engage with modern life and the technology which goes with it. We have smart phones, subscriptions, online banking, cashless shopping, and, email and social media accounts, for our own convenience and because the institutions we interact with increasingly give us no option but do it digitally.

The aphorism “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold” is attributed to an online commentator who goes by ‘blue_beetle’ – even so there’s still a lot of truth in it. Every time we engage with digital technology, we give up information about ourselves which is useful to others. Mostly we do not care. Few of us bother to limit our “cookies” each time they pop up. 

Blair & Hague want to gather, repurpose and exploit this data rather in the way another B&H couple, Burke and Hare, dug up corpses. The two politicians’ report repeatedly calls for these efforts to be “government-led” across a wide range of activities including “sovereign general purpose AI systems”, “supercomputing”, “public service delivery”, “a national health infra structure”, “a secure, privacy-preserving digital ID for citizens”.  All so that the government can use data as “a competitive asset…to drive down the cost of delivery and build high-value data sets, such as the bio-medical field.” 

Lots of us would love greater NHS efficiency handling our records and would be all for a digital system that actually worked. Many people voluntarily share their anonymized data for mass health studies and take part in trials. I doubt we would want the government selling off our health data “competitively” so that the state can drive down the costs of its surveillance systems.

The government should invest in technological research and development and provide regulation to protect citizens but it does not need to own or run it? I don’t think that is how the original Industrial Revolution worked. 

The report gives the game away when it proposes: “Rather than creating a marketplace of private-sector providers to manage the government-issued identity credentials of citizens, the government should provide a secure, private, decentralised digital-ID system for the benefit of both citizens and businesses.”

What’s wrong with the marketplace? The agricultural and industrial revolutions were achieved by individual innovators competing to make things better and to make money. Of course nobody thinks a national IT system should be contracted to private contractors like Captiva or Deloitte, as the UK government has done so often in the past at the cost of wasted billions of tax payer money. 

Do we need a national “digital-ID system” at all? The individual’s rights and privacy are likely to be protected more reliably by competition bewteeen tech giants, provided that legislators regulate and hold them to account. That is why Apple is at war with Alphabet and Meta over the privacy protections it is building into its devices. 

Data networks will grow and link-up whether we like it or not. Better this evolution happens under the eagle eyes of competitors and centres on the rights of the individual or customer, rather than be promoted by the state. As far as government is concerned, we have passports, driving licences, and tax, health and national insurance IDs anyway. Personally I don’t think it would make much difference if they were digitized together but that is as far as it goes. Other interactions should be on a patchwork of systems where the individual manages the overlaps, without having to utilize  a centralised ID. 

Lots of countries are developing so-called “eGovernment”, whereby all routine interactions between citizens and the state would be online. That depends on everyone being able to access the web easily and cheaply. Successive UK governments do not have a good record in ensuring the roll out of universal fast and reliable wifi or providing public access to it through libraries and advice centres. Basics should come before “dreams”.

Instead of trying to build government-led digital ID, lawmakers who care about the future of citizens should be thinking about digital IP. How citizens can manage their own digital “Intellectual Property”, which is basically the data they throw off. Generative AI, such as ChatGPT, has opened up vast issues over the IP of the source material it draws on, there are equally knotty challenges over our individual rights as people. 

Some countries, notably China, which are most ahead in developing integrated IT systems, are autocratic, motivated by controlling people. For them digital empowerment of the individual is an unwelcome by-product. The US is leading the way de-coupling its tech giants from China.

Our philosophers, non-scientists, politicians and retired leaders should devote their energies first to facilitating and encouraging technological innovation from the ground up and monitoring where it goes, rather than dreaming, from positions of wonderment and incomprehension, where they might try to direct it. 

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