5G – a terminal condition

08 April 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the globe, 5G technology has become something of a bête noire – blamed for weakening immune systems, making the spread worse, and in some cases being the cause of the virus itself. The Internet is currently awash in completely unfounded theories about 5G, taking legitimacy away from more truthful sources of information about the pandemic and even leading to telecom infrastructure installers being prevented from doing their jobs by concerned members of the public as well as the destruction of wireless towers in England and elsewhere.

Bizarrely, at the same time, others are touting the role 5G has and could perhaps play in helping to stop the spread of coronavirus. One of the major 5G equipment manufacturers, Huawei, has been publicly touting the role 5G plays in both front-line medical and epidemiological responses. Even respected voices in developing countries, most starkly a senior member of the Computer Association of Zambia, are urging 5G installations to be fast-tracked in their countries, despite huge swaths of their populations without even basic mobile coverage or access to the Internet (not to mention proper housing or sanitation).

As the most recent generation of mobile technology, 5G follows its predecessors (2G, 3G, 4G) as the object of substantial resistance relating to its potential health impacts. Familiar as this is, the tenor and intensity of worry and organized action with regard to 5G has reached new heights. This is mainly due to the feeling that millimeter-wave technology is more dangerous to our health since it uses higher frequencies and requires denser network toplogies, in other words the base stations and antennas are more plentiful and physically much closer to people, than previous wireless technologies.

To properly enter into the discussion about the health effects of radiation from 5G technology, it is important to state that there is no overwhelming scientific research to back up these claims. Most – but not all – of the scientists and researchers who study the effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (as in the radiation emitted from wireless technologies) on the body, primary among these, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), have said the technology is safe.  As alluded to, there is not total agreement on this, for example there is an organized entity of doctors and researchers called the 5G Appeal who have been lobbying parliaments in Europe to stop 5G. While it may well be that 5G does pose a health risk, there is, as of yet, insufficient corroborating evidence. Whatever the case, this lack of consensus leaves plenty of room for doubt, and that doubt has kindled quite a bit of fear. This fear, in turn, has lead to various kinds of action.

I recently wrote a piece about how local governments in the U.S., many times at the behest of their citizens, have been seeking to slow down, or even prevent, the imposed installation of 5G technology in their towns and cities. While that piece lauded these efforts, it did not analyze what is behind much of this resistance, namely a “not-in-my-backyard” politics espoused by wealthier folks living in historic, or otherwise scenic areas, mixing and matching aesthetics with health concerns. Even some governments, mainly in northern Europe, have halted 5G altogether until they see better evidence of its safety.

What I find most perplexing about the debate around the health and safety of 5G, is that the most vocal resistors very rarely raise what to me are deeper and more legitimate concerns. Somehow it is easier (social media-induced filter bubbles are a big help), and more efficacious, to agitate and organize around largely unsubstantiated health and conspiratorial claims, when grave and better documented issues surround 5G (more on these below). The “psychomaterialization” of invisible electromagnetic fields into feelings of unease and anger to the point of property destruction (UK example) deserves to be critically juxtaposed with an absence of consciousness and action around the actual, material dangers posed by 5G and its predecessors.

Leaving the radiation aspect aside, mobile technology has had tremendous, deleterious effects on health and safety. In the global North, the most obvious are traffic fatalities due to distracted drivers looking at their phones instead of the road. There is also compelling evidence that, at least in the U.S., the introduction of the smartphone has lead to a precipitous increase in teen suicide, as young people interact with one another less in the physical world they are under constant peer pressure on social media, leading to unhappiness and depression.

However, much of what should concern us about 5G technology happens in the global South. In no particular order…there is an issue around the incredible damage and destruction to the environment and communities where the mining of materials and minerals takes place, much of which is done by women in dangerous conditions. The production of mobile equipment in unsafe working conditions, as another realm of concern. Then there is the pollution caused by the e-waste produced by all of equipment when it breaks or is deemed too old to be useful anymore. From there we can take a critical look at how 5G technology uses two to three times more energy than previous mobile technologies and the impact that has on increasing climate change. One final consideration is the well-documented likelihood that 5G-enabled society will be characterized by important job losses as automation is introduced into more and more sectors of the economy.

Being poor and living in a polluted environment lowers life-expectancy. Period. Let’s get pissed off about that, too. For now, the most vocal opponents of 5G are those living in the global North, worried about phantom health impacts yet more than happy to ignore the myriad dangers laid out above since they do not see, feel or understand how they ultimately affect them. Unfortunately, 5G opposition groups have so far failed to find common cause with those in the global South who provide the minerals and cheapened labor to create the technology and in return receive the rusty container ships of electronic detritus.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all of us to confront many harsh realities: the collapse of the medical system and nowhere to put all the bodies; what it feels like to live in an authoritarian regime of restricted movement, curfews and heightened surveillance; and queuing for hours to buy bread. Many people around the world face these challenges every day, independent of the current crisis. Hopefully, those of us who have never experienced anything like this before will learn a crucial lesson from those that have: we have no choice but to understand and confront major, global events and issues together – whether a viral pandemic, climate change, or technological “advancement”.