I've been away for a few days (family stuff) and the travel gave me a lot of time for thought (you can't type on an inter-city train going at full tilt on our crappy lines). As we seem to be moving into Grim Meathook Future territory with the current government trying to make being poor illegal, I decided to Get With The Program, and invent the most evil business master plan I can think of for capitalizing (heh) on the New Misery.
Note that I am too damned old to play startup chicken all over again, and besides I've got books to write. This is just an exercise in trying to figure out how to make as many people as possible miserable and incrementally diminish the amount of happiness in the world while pretending to be a Force For Good and not actually killing anyone directly—and making money hand over fist. It's a thought experiment, in other words, and I'm not going to do it, and if any sick bastard out there tries to go ahead and patent this as a business practice you can cite this blog entry as prior art.
So. Let me describe first the requirements for the Evil Business Plan of Evil, and then the Plan Itself, in all it's oppressive horror and glory.
Some aspects of modern life look like necessary evils at first, until you realize that some asshole has managed to (a) make it compulsory, and (b) use it for rent-seeking. The goal of this business is to identify a niche that is already mandatory, and where a supply chain exists (that is: someone provides goods or service, and as many people as possible have to use them), then figure out a way to colonize it as a monopolistic intermediary with rent-raising power and the force of law behind it. Sort of like the Post Office, if the Post Office had gotten into the email business in the 1970s and charged postage on SMTP transactions and had made running a private postal service illegal to protect their monopoly.
Here's a better example: speed cameras.
We all know that driving at excessive speed drastically increases the severity of injuries, damage, and deaths resulting from traffic accidents. We also know that employing cops to run speed traps the old-fashioned way, with painted lines and a stop-watch, is very labour-intensive. Therefore, at first glance the modern GATSO or automated speed camera looks like a really good idea. Sitting beside British roads they're mostly painted bright yellow so you can see them coming, and they're emplaced where there's a particular speed-related accident problem, to deter idiots from behaviour likely to kill or injure other people.
However, the idea has legs. Speed cameras go mobile, and can be camouflaged inside vans. Some UK police forces use these to deter drivers from speeding past school gates, where the speed limit typically drops to 20mph (because the difference in outcome between hitting a child at 20mph to hitting them at 30mph is drastic and life-changing at best: one probably causes bruises and contusions, the other breaks bones and often kills). And some towns have been accused of using speed cameras as "revenue enhancement devices", positioning them not to deter bad behaviour but to maximize the revenue from penalty notices by surprising drivers.
This idea maxed out in the US, where the police force of Waldo in South Florida was disbanded after a state investigation into ticketing practices; half the town's revenue was coming from speed violations. (Of course: Florida.) US 301 and Highway 24 pass through the Waldo city limits; the town applied a very low speed limit to a short stretch of these high-speed roads, and cleaned up.
Here's the commercial outcome of trying to reduce road deaths due to speeding: speed limits are pretty much mandatory worldwide. Demand for tools to deter speeders is therefore pretty much global. Selling speed cameras is an example of supplying government demand; selling radar detectors or SatNav maps with updated speed trap locations is similarly a consumer-side way of cleaning up.
And here's a zinger of a second point: within 30 years at most, possibly a lot sooner, this will be a dead business sector. Tumbleweeds and ghost town dead. Self-driving cars will stick to the speed limit because of manufacturer fears over product liability lawsuits, and speed limits may be changed to reflect the reliability of robots over inattentive humans (self-driving cars don't check their Facebook page while changing lanes). These industry sectors come and go.
Can I identify an existing legally mandated requirement with which the public must comply, and leverage it to (a) provide a law enforcement service at one end, (b) a rent-seeking opportunity at the other, and (c) a natural monopoly that I can milk in the middle? And, wearing my Screwtape hat, do so to maximize misery at the same time?
Oh hell yes I can do that ...
The European Commission is a well-intentioned organization where it comes to protecting its citizens and the natural environment. As they say in their environment notes, "Just in terms of household waste alone, each person in Europe is currently producing, on average, half of tonne of such waste [per year]. Only 40 % of it is reused or recycled and in some countries more than 80% still goes to landfill." They have, helpfully, decided to promulgate a set of standards for recycling waste, to be implemented by governments throughout the EU: the EU Waste Framework Directive "requires all member states to take the necessary measures to ensure waste is recovered or disposed of without endangering human health or causing harm to the environment." (From the British Government notes on Waste legislation and regulations.)
Great. Like speed limits, recycling is both inarguably sensible and necessarily mandated by law (because it's a tragedy of the commons issue, like speeding). We can work with this!
Here in Edinburgh, we're supposed to separate out our domestic waste into different bins, for separate collection. We have on-street recycling of packaging materials, and, separately, of paper. We have general refuse, and in some areas biomass/garden refuse (not so much in the city centre where I live). Glass recycling ... should be a thing, but they're struggling to separate it out: ditto metals such as cans. (As for WEEE I have no idea what we're supposed to do, which is kind of worrying.) Let's take Edinburgh as a typical case. The city provides refuse collection as one of its services, and this includes sorting and recycling. By pre-sorting their ejecta, citizens are providing a valuable labour input that increases the efficiency of the recycling process and reduces the overheads for the agencies tasked with shifting our shit.
Now, what happens when the mundane reality of household garbage recycling meets the Internet Of Things and Charlie's Evil Business Plan of Evil (and Misery)?
Well, we know that ubiquitous RFID tags are coming to consumer products. They've been coming for years, now, and the applications are endless. More to the point they can be integrated with plastic products and packaging, and printed cheaply enough that they're on course to replace bar codes.
Embedded microcontrollers are also getting dirt cheap; you can buy them in bulk for under US $0.49 each. Cheap enough to embedd in recycling bins, perhaps? Along with a photovoltaic cell for power and a short-range radio transciever for data. I've trampled all over this ground already; the point is, if it's cheap enough to embed in paving stones, it's certainly cheap enough to embed in bins, along with a short-range RFID reader and maybe a biosensor that can tell what sort of DNA is contaminating the items dumped in the bins.
The evil business plan of evil (and misery) posits the existence of smart municipality-provided household recycling bins. There's an inductance device around it (probably a coil) to sense ferrous metals, a DNA sniffer to identify plant or animal biomass and SmartWater tagged items, and an RFID reader to scan any packaging. The bin has a PV powered microcontroller that can talk to a base station in the nearest wifi-enabled street lamp, and thence to the city government's waste department. The householder sorts their waste into the various recycling bins, and when the bins are full they're added to a pickup list for the waste truck on the nearest routing—so that rather than being collected at a set interval, they're only collected when they're full.
But that's not all.
Householders are lazy or otherwise noncompliant and sometimes dump stuff in the wrong bin, just as drivers sometimes disobey the speed limit.
The overt value proposition for the municipality (who we are selling these bins and their support infrastructure to) is that the bins can sense the presence of the wrong kind of waste. This increases management costs by requiring hand-sorting, so the individual homeowner can be surcharged (or fined). More reasonably, households can be charged a high annual waste recycling and sorting fee, and given a discount for pre-sorting everything properly, before collection—which they forefeit if they screw up too often.
The covert value proposition ... local town governments are under increasing pressure to cut their operating budgets. But by implementing increasingly elaborate waste-sorting requirements and imposing direct fines on households for non-compliance, they can turn the smart recycling bins into a new revenue enhancement channel, much like the speed cameras in Waldo. Churn the recycling criteria just a little bit and rely on tired and over-engaged citizens to accidentally toss a piece of plastic in the metal bin, or some food waste in the packaging bin: it'll make a fine contribution to your city's revenue!
We can also work the other end of the rent pipeline. Sell householders a deluxe bin with multiple compartments and a sorter in the top: they can put their rubbish in, and the bin itself will sort which section it belongs in. Over a year or three the householder will save themselves the price of the deluxe bin in avoided fines—but we don't care, we're not the municipal waste authority, we're the speed camera/radar detector vendor!
There is a side-effect, of course: fly-tipping. But hey, not our problem. And anyway, it's just a sign that our evil scheme is working.
Meanwhile 90% of our waste mountain comes from the business sector, not consumers, but we don't care about that—businesses do not constitute a captive market as their waste collection is already commercialized and outsourced.
Anyway. The true point of this plan is that it's possible to pervert the internet of things to encourage monopolistic rent-seeking and the petty everyday tyranny of regulations designed not to improve our quality of life but to provide grounds for charging fines for petty infringement. Screwtape would be proud, and our investors will be extremely happy.
What other opportunities for using the IoT to immiserate and oppress the general public for pleasure and profit can you think of?