Over the past few months, Canadian telecoms have begun rolling out their new 5G networks in major cities. 5G, which stands for “fifth generation,” is a network standard meant to replace 4G technology as the way smartphones and other wireless devices access the internet. As with the move from 3G to 4G, this generational leap requires new infrastructure, with old cell towers either being upgraded or replaced to handle updated network standards.
While these cell tower upgrades will give incremental improvements to connection speeds, 5G’s real appeal is the use of high-bandwidth microcells — cereal box-sized transmitters that will allow for download speeds more than 600 times faster than 4G.
The 5G technology is being sold to us on the guarantee of that increased speed, along with the promise that more connection points will allow for a range of new consumer technologies such as augmented reality, self driving cars and internet-enabled devices.
The catch is that these microcells only have a range of a few hundred metres, requiring telecom companies to install transmitters throughout urban centres.
The promise of thousands of tiny cell towers installed throughout our cities is probably why 5G has provoked conspiracy theorists, who have filled comment sections with anti-5G screeds. These conspiracy theories range from concern that 5G emissions may cause cancer to 5G networks being used for government mind control. Conspiracy theorists have also been increasingly concerned with the supposed connection between 5G and COVID-19 — depending on who you ask, 5G either generates COVID-19 in our blood cells, makes the body more susceptible to the virus or just spreads it directly through radio waves.
Conspiracy theories have the unfortunate tendency to distract from legitimate concerns — 5G is no exception. Though microcell transmitters won’t give you COVID-19, their implementation marks an intensification of an economic logic that threatens our privacy and the future of our planet through the endless, perpetual collection of data.
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As explained by Nick Srnicek in his book Platform Capitalism, tech companies treat the data they collect from users as a natural resource by harvesting, processing and profiting through its exploitation, including directly selling user profiles to advertisers on their platforms. The need for more data is a part of what has driven 5G’s development, as it allows for significantly faster and more accurate data collection in urban centres. Accordingly, the intensified data collection will exacerbate two urgent societal problems caused by existing data collection regimes.
The first is privacy. 5G will increase the amount, and accuracy, of data companies collect from us. Moreover, the rise of internet enabled devices means activities previously conducted outside of the digital realm will now also be tracked.
While internet enabled devices such as smart-thermostats are already common, the speed and pervasiveness of 5G allows for a wider range of objects to maintain a fast, constant connection to the internet — even when outside. The most well known example of this is self-driving cars, which require the constant, low-latency internet connection provided by 5G to navigate and communicate with other vehicles.
With more of our vehicles, public infrastructure and tools becoming internet-enabled in the service of creating “smart-cities,” the companies controlling these data-collection platforms will have a more detailed profile of our daily behaviours. As with user data, this will allow these companies to further refine the methods they use to influence our behaviour and sell us products — a process euphemistically referred to as “personalizing content.”
Governments, in all likelihood, will also have access to this new font of data. As revealed in the Edward Snowden leaks, the American government has direct access to much of the data collected by platform owners like Microsoft and Google through classified surveillance programs such as Prism and Upstream. But even without these programs, tech companies are often more than happy to hand over user data when law enforcement agencies request it, meaning a 5G expansion will make it easier for them to track and monitor individuals.
Additionally, more data means platform owners will need more storage and, since most tech companies try to keep their data for as long as they can, this means more data centres.
This increase in the volume of data, combined with a need for a network of new “edge” data centres located in urban areas to account for 5G’s speed, will require the IT industry to invest an estimated $194 billion by 2025.
Almost everything accessible via the internet is already being kept in data centres around the world — high-security, temperature controlled warehouses that contain racks of computer servers, used to store all of our social media posts, cloud uploads and every other piece of data we knowingly or unknowingly send into the internet.
These data centres have a profound material impact on our world, as they run their servers non-stop, using extreme amounts of electricity. The estimated annual energy usage of global data centres exceeds that of Iran, and their carbon footprint rivals the aviation industry.
Additionally, since constant use tends to wear out computers quickly — and because capitalism has a tendency to constantly revolutionize itself — server banks in data centres need to be replaced every few years. This consumes vast amounts of energy and materials, and creates substantial e-waste, much of which is dumped overseas in badly poisoned communities.
Now, with the rise of 5G, billions of gigabytes of new data gathered from internet-enabled devices, self-driving cars and 5G emitters themselves will also have to be stored indefinitely.
This expansion of the “data centre industrial complex” has no signs of slowing down, and is especially irresponsible at a time where scientists and activists are calling for a scaling back of unnecessary and profit-driven consumption in order to save our planet from environmental destruction. All of this for the promise of being able to download a movie to your phone in 30 seconds instead of five minutes — a false need that can only sound appealing in a capitalist regime that pressures its subjects into commodifying and optimizing every spare moment.
5G is locking us into unmanaged growth for the foreseeable future, with the public having little say in how this privately-owned infrastructure is being used.
Though recent successes in organizing against facial-recognition technology have shown it’s possible to combat the futures tech companies plan for us, this resistance can only come through an educated movement willing to seriously organize to win concessions. Sadly, conspiracy theorists are neither of those things, despite being some of the only people skeptical of 5G that aren’t also trying to start a war with China.
Ultimately, this is the real threat posed by the conspiracy theories surrounding 5G — not that they might convince people a harmless technology is dangerous, but that they’ll stop people from seeing the real danger ahead.
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