Lord Selborne risked accusations of Luddism this week by voicing concerns about the lack of public debate on the growth of new technologies, including the government's proposals for identity cards.
As chair of the Royal Society's science and society committee, he voiced concerns about the dangers of ID cards, even though 80 per cent of the public, we are told, would be happy to carry them. Speaking at the RS's National Forum on Cybertrust and Information Security, Lord Selborne acknowledged that computers, the internet and mobile phones played an integral part in our lives. But he highlighted their pernicious tendency to isolate individuals.
He warned of a future in which computers that could not be unplugged could dominate our lives. "These developments, along with wireless laptops, personal digital assistants and other gadgets, are increasingly leading to a life of remote and automatic transactions," he said. "Does this relieve us from overburdened lives or simply create more stress as we feel we are losing control? Is the price of such automation a reduction in social interaction?"
Lord Selborne, a former president of the parliamentary science committee, called for a wide-ranging public debate and said society was in danger of sleepwalking into the technological future. The ID card proposals were a case in point, since debate focused on what is possible now, rather than what will be possible in future. He said we should be focusing on whether it was desirable for compulsory ID cards to hold information about our genetic predisposition to diseases, our lifestyles or how much we drink. Of greater concern, he argued, was the issue of data security and the potential for misuse and abuse of databases.
Lord Selborne is also chancellor of Southampton University, chair of the board of trustees for the Royal Botanic Gardens, director of Blackmoor Estate Ltd, and a former member of the House of Lords science and technology committee.