5G technology and the return of the Luddites


We live in strange times. When a crisis occurs, humankind tends to seek answers and apportion blame. Some people rely on religion during this period. Some rely on their knowledge of the world or physical phenomena or seek the opinion of knowledgeable people or experts. Other people become philosophical and express it in poetry and writing. And another group of people dabble in pernicious conspiracies. All these states of being are natural responses to the fear and apprehension which crises of such magnitude leave in their wake.

It is a natural human desire to want to believe that apparently everyday random occurrences are part of a grand scheme of things, or that someone has brought such an occurrence into existence either through goodwill or malice. This phenomenon explains why there is belief in the afterlife. It explains why there is belief in supernatural forces, high gods and the concept of creation and a creator. Although creationism and evolution are two different meta-narratives, believing in a high god served an evolutionary purpose that fostered cooperation and groupthink among kith and kin, which was a survival trait during our hunter-gatherer days. This trait evolved to help humankind make sense of the world in which we live.

There is a need for humankind to make sense of current happenings in the world. Notably, the new coronavirus pandemic that has caused many fatalities world-wide. The pandemic has also engendered fear and apprehension all over the world, in the sense that there is a palpable feeling something bad is going to happen – laying the groundwork for Internet conspiracy theories to flourish. And one such conspiracy theory that has thrived links spread of the new coronavirus to 5G wireless technology. Such is the potency of the fringe theory that it has led to a 5G transmission masts being torched across the Netherlands and cell towers being vandalised in Great Britain – where the industrial revolution, which set the stage for new manufacturing and technological processes, began in 1760.

Fifth generation (5G) wireless technology is a new technological process. It is the fifth generation of wireless communications technologies. Currently, most Internet consumers in Ghana utilise 3G or 4G wireless technology which have been in existence since in 2001 and 2009 respectively. The frequency spectrum of 5G is divided into millimetre waves, mid band and low band; and the low band is like the 4G frequency spectrum already existing in Ghana.

The 5G millimetre wave is fastest, but the mid band is the most-deployed thus far. This is because the higher the frequency, barriers such as trees, walls, people etc. can block the wireless signal – practically ensuring that as one moves up the frequencies, reach of the wireless signal reduces from miles to metres. This reduced reach requires more infrastructure to support the wireless delivery, leading to a higher cost of the network; meaning that deploying 5G in the mid band removes any tradeoff between signal reach and costs – a highly publicised criticism of 5G wireless technology.

The benefits of 5G wireless technology are numerous. For example, large video downloads are made within seconds instead of minutes; and here, readers who have experienced patchy Internet service in countries such as Ghana can only imagine this. Data transfer speeds will be over 10 times higher than is currently possible with 4G; so that downloading a high definition video, for example, will take less than a second instead of 10 minutes.

In addition, 5G wireless technology reduces latency – which is the brief time-lag between when data is sent to when data is received – so that video conferencing or virtual reality video can be watched without delays or glitches. Moreover, the increased capacity that comes with a 5G network implies increased simultaneous connectivity as more devices and more people can connect and communicate at the same time, providing the required bandwidth or capacity for the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) – a network that links every Internet-enabled device, i.e. computers, phones, robots, cars and sensor-equipped consumer products and infrastructure, to transfer data without human to computer interaction – to truly take-off. This will vastly improve the way we live and conduct business.

Unlike 3G or 4G, 5G is a software-driven network and future upgrades will only be a matter of upgrading or replacing software and low-cost commodity components. According to Tom Wheeler, who is Visiting Fellow, Governance Studies, Centre for Technology Innovation at The Brookings Institution:

“5G is a vast framework for the networked application of spectrum.

When the functions of the network are virtualised in software, the

nature of the software is transformed from its traditional role of

transporting information between points, to abstracting and

orchestrating digital information within an all-digital network.

Because it is a software-driven network, 5G may be the last physical

network overhaul in generations as upgrades will now be only a

matter of replacing software and low-cost commodity components.”

It is noteworthy that this framework will be reliant on the existing Internet infrastructure to expand network capacity. The benefits of 5G are very clear; but what’s more, 5G is a natural progression from 3G and 4G wireless technologies. And in economics, it is well-documented that technological progress works in this manner.

For example, it has taken over 40 years for mobile phone technology to get to the smartphones they are nowadays; and the invention of the telegraph, telephone, radio and computer set the stage for invention of the Internet that has revolutionised the way we live and conduct business. At no point during this process were  zoonotic viruses transmitted to human beings. But it is not entirely surprising that a link can be made between 5G wireless technology and coronavirus, and I will explain how.

While the origin of the new coronavirus is in doubt, there is no doubt about the fact that the virus was first reported in Wuhan, the sprawling capital of central China’s Hubei province, in the last week of November 2019. On 1st November 2019, China carried out one of the largest deployments of 5G technology, making the superfast Internet service available to consumers in 50 Chinese cities. The sudden appearance of the novel coronavirus meant that both the 5G roll-out and new coronavirus seemed to happen in the same month – allowing conspiracy theorists to spuriously link the launch of 5G technology to onset of the new coronavirus, positing that the former caused the latter. And the fact that China and the United States of America were fighting for global leadership in the technology sector did not help, and seemed to provide fertile ground for the conspiracy theories to flourish.

Research in the behavioural sciences elucidate that people who lack the ability to think critically and rationally tend to overestimate the likelihood of co-occurring events, and tend to perceive agency and intentionality where it does not exist. The book titled Moby Dick, written by Herman Melville, illustrates this point quite well. Specifically, if one lines up the entire text of Moby Dick published in 1851 (any other text can be used to illustrate this) into one giant rectangle as illustrated in a Tedtalk, one may notice some peculiar patterns. For example, one may notice words that seemed to predict the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. or references to the death of Princess Diana in 1997, but Herman Melville was not a ‘prophet’.

And we know this because of a mathematical principle called the Ramsey Theory, which is a study of combinatorial objects in which a certain degree of ‘order’ must occur as the scale of the objects becomes larger. Or simply put, given enough elements in a set or structure, some interesting pattern among them is guaranteed to emerge. This, for example, explains why we can find geometric shapes in the night sky, and explains why patterns can be found in just about any text. In everyday application, this means that given the large size of the universe, this guarantees some of its random elements will fall into specific arrangements.

Therefore, the fact that China rolled out 5G in November 2019 which was the same month that the outbreak occurred in Wuhan, does not in any way imply the existence of a link between 5G and the new coronavirus. This is surely an enterprise of the modern-day Luddite, protesting the adoption of new technologies  that will benefit humankind and advance the course of humanity. Had the original Luddites won their campaign to prevent the adoption of mechanised looms and knitting frames, it is possible that the industrial revolution might not have taken place and the world would be a very different place in 2020. Their return should raise eyebrows.

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