Let's talk about 5G

Or, more accurately, let me expand on a dumb tweet

I put forward a casual question on Twitter this week and was mildly surprised by the volume of the response:

I probably didn’t articulate myself very well, but my point was that there is a groundswell of conspiratorial thinking coalescing around the rollout of 5G, and the opposing narrative has been weirdly nonexistent from the get go. The average person with no particular interest in network infrastructure or consumer tech will see the conversation totally dominated by two things: nutty stuff about 5G causing COVID-19 / brain cancer / zombielike submission to the New World Order, and somewhat less nutty geopolitical squabbling about China and Huawei.

Being able to download a movie in three seconds and cloud-connected industrial robots don’t really figure quite as prominently in the popular discourse. This may well be because 5G is barely ready for suppliers to bundle up and sell to subscribers, but it certainly seems that, if you were a curious person wanting to find what all the hubbub was about, you would find fairly anodyne write-ups from tech journos about spectrum bandwidth and telco networks on one side, versus a sprawling narrative tying together evil tech companies, coronavirus, big pharma, and pedophile elites on the other. (Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes is Huawei.)

There seems to be a huge vacuum in the discourse which allows conspiracies to find quarter in people who might not be that way inclined, with only the vaguely Whiggish assumption that technology will just keep getting faster, better and more pervasive — and that’s just how it is — as the only counterpoint to the paranoid thinking. And it does feel especially febrile right now. Increasingly common stories about 5G towers being destroyed by activists aside, I’m sure most people have by now seen friends, relatives and acquaintances sharing stuff about 5G which sits somewhere on the ‘harmless but weird’ to ‘deeply concerning’ bizarro spectrum.

Many of the responses to my tweet from those who did not accept the premise of the question prosecuted the same few points:

  1. Nobody had to ‘sell’ 3G and 4G, so why should it be any different now? There were kooks making all sorts of insane claims about those too, which has now largely been forgotten.

  2. What is there to sell? It’s faster and better and connects to more things. It uses a tighter frequency on the electromagnetic spectrum allowing for vastly more data to be transferred. It’s a radio — do we really need to explain that, and what would be proven by doing so?

  3. Since when are facts a reliable bastion against crazy thinking? Surely the last decade has proven repeatedly that they aren’t.

These are all valid, and it may well be that it’s a lost cause anyway. As a friend said to me on this subject, the selection of 5G as the lightning rod for people’s grievances is likely arbitrary, and it is “just a way for people to work out their dislike of being indirectly dominated.”

Regardless, I think the 5G conspiracy, which seems to unite cranks across the ideological gamut — from QAnon freaks to kombucha-huffing hippies and all those in between (like Pete Evans) — is an interesting inflection point for a few different trends of the past decade.

The most obvious (and boring!) is that the 5G conspiracy is a symptom of narrative collapse. Traditional media is no longer trusted, universal truth is out the window, and people piece together their news from all sorts of dubious places like Facebook groups and busted websites run by Romanian teenagers to harvest ad impressions and sell nootropics.

In this account, this has only become more pronounced over the past few years, hence the fact the 5G conspiracy seems far more embedded among normal people than the similar conspiracies which sprung up around earlier network rollouts. Helpfully, the mere notion of a global installation of a telecommunications network by governments and big corporates fits pretty neatly into any sort of paranoid thinking you personally subscribe to — which is why you see 5G panic emergent in so many disparate conspiracy communities.

But there’s another trend it speaks to I think is more interesting, and it plays into what I was getting at in my tweet (Yes, this newsletter is little more than an exercise in apologetics for things I have tweeted).

It’s rote to say by now to say that people increasingly distrust tech, even as their lives are further dominated by it. This tension leads to truly weird outcomes. Take for example the anti-lockdown protest in Victoria over the weekend, where a speaker rambled about governments and big tech installing microchips in their citizens while waving around his smartphone, from which he was reading much of his material. One assumes that a microchip of presumably similar function only becomes overtly sinister when installed subcutaneously. It’s fine, I suppose, if it’s permanently situated a foot from your brain at all times anyway.

The recent acceleration in the turn against tech has been popularly attributed to two concurrent developments: the increasingly virulent conservative dislike of liberal Silicon Valley and platform censorship, and progressive outrage that those same companies and platforms, with all their power, did nothing to prevent retrograde outcomes like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. (I’m using the American/British example here, and rudely oversimplifying, but I think it’s fine shorthand.)

The first half of the 2010s also saw rapid advances in consumer tech, mostly through smartphones and the emergence of various new social media platforms, which began to dominate the bulk of human interaction online. I’d say it was at one point possible to reliably measure the progress of time by iPhone releases. 2010 was the iPhone 4 year, 2012 was the iPhone 5 year, and so on. There’s good reason why one of the elements which really dates Uncut Gems — aside from the 2012 NBA season which forms its narrative core — is the fact it constantly and deliberately shows iPhones running a now-antiquated version of iOS. That this user interface is so embedded in the cultural memory speaks to the point I’m getting at here.

let's stand here tenderly and gaze — winterswake: UNCUT GEMS (2019 ...

We’re well past that now. Smartphone releases are incremental. The cameras and screens get better. What year did the iPhone 8 come out? Would you be able to identify one in a lineup? Probably not.

The advances to 3G and 4G were really bound up in the earlier rapid development. You might recall there were countless articles in the tech press circa 2011 agonising over when Apple might include the then-new 4G tech in their phones. 3G let you finally browse content-rich websites on the go. 4G prepared you for a digital existence oriented around posting photo and video. If people were spreading conspiracies about them, it was up against the fact it made people’s lives more frictionless.

What does 5G prepare us for? That doesn’t have as compelling a human pitch, given 4G provides speed and latency more than adequate for what most people do.

Not really something you’d put on a Telstra billboard!

This is what I’m talking about when I say 5G hasn’t been ‘sold in’. The general acceptance of propulsive advances in technology as being innately good has withered, and the benefits to the average person no longer obvious. What we’re left with is a vacuum which in which conspiracies can easily thrive.