Today's top story concerns a surveillance technology aimed at putting the government behind the wheel of your car (well, motorcycle). The UK is considering installing GPS-enabled governors in motorcycles. Under the scheme, the speed limit for your current road would be transmitted to the bikes, whose governors would actively ensure that they didn't exceed the limit no matter how hard their drivers might twist the little thingamajig (I've never ridden a motorcycle).
First, we had squad cars; then we had squad cars armed with speed guns; then we had unmanned speed guns mounted on poles. Now, a qualitative improvement: Why punish a crime when you can prevent it in the first place? This actually represents a welcome example of altruism on the part of government--it's foregoing a revenue stream (speeding fines) in the name of public safety. And that's laudable, but my head still explodes when I think about the idea.
And yet, and yet. Fifty years from now, the idea of "passive" speed limit signs and vehicles without governors will probably strike people as ludicrously dangerous--they'll view us as irresponsible barbarians with a death wish (sort of the way we think of the people who drove pre-seatbelt cars). Their acceptance of the technology will be further proof that you can get used to anything. Except the metric system, of course. Remember (you're probably too young) in the '70s when the U.S. tried to switch to metric speed limit signs and tradition-conscious people actually shot them up with high-powered rifles? It was good to see the general public getting involved in a standards debate.
So maybe that's how it'll go--people will once again shoot up speed limit signs in a sort of high-caliber act of civil disobedience. Either way, it will be interesting to watch how the idea develops. My suspicion (well, it's more of a certainty, really) is that the UK's motorcycles are just a small, relatively defenseless constituency deemed vulnerable to a first assault--and if it works, cars and trucks will inevitably follow. It won't stop with speeding, either. How about eye trackers that beep when you don't check the mirrors frequently enough? Cell phone dampers that kick in when you're going over 15 kph (Oops. Bang!)? Or maybe Breathalyzer ignition interlocks (oh, wait...they already have those--then maybe universal deployment). We're bad at assessing risks and often do stupid, dangerous things--there are plenty of opportunities to save us from ourselves. And some governments certainly seem bent on trying.