OPINION

5G and the Coming World.

“Paranoia” and the future of the human person.

Early Christmas morning, turmoil was unleashed in downtown Nashville when Anthony Quinn Warner detonated a large bomb hidden in an RV outside an AT&T building, destroying a city block in the tourist district. As soon as I heard the AT&T connection in Nashville, I immediately suspected the bombing might have something to do with the increasing opposition to 5G data infrastructure in countries across the world. 5G is the fifth generation of broadband cellular technology, which has much greater data processing speed than 4G.

[A]ttacks on 5G infrastructure are becoming more common.

Less than two days after the explosion, the media reported that the FBI was looking into 5G anxieties as a possible motive. Warner was an independent contractor in information technology. His considerable efforts to reduce casualties suggested that the bomber’s aim was to hit a hard target, not to inflict a death toll. Thus, the bomb’s location outside the AT&T facility didn’t seem to be a coincidence. If the infrastructure within the building was the target, the attack was a successful one: disruptions to the communications network continued for over a week in Tennessee, Kentucky, and northern Alabama.

Perhaps we will never know what motivated Warner to commit such an act of violence. While there is circumstantial evidence that 5G worries may have been a motivating factor, it may turn out that 5G had nothing to do with the event. Nevertheless, attacks on 5G infrastructure are becoming more common. Wikipedia lists a number of nations where arson attacks have targeted 5G infrastructure, many of them European nations that are held up by the American media as bastions of moderate rationalism: the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and more. Curiously, there were also at least 19 attacks on data towers in Tennessee alone over the last two years.

These acts of sabotage are often ignored by the media, but when they do receive coverage, it is usually defined by mockery of the conspiratorial thinking that allegedly animates opposition to 5G technology. A USA Today article on the events in Nashville linked the attack to “conspiracy claims” that 5G causes the spread of COVID-19, before wryly stating that “this claim is false—scientists and medical professionals say that COVID-19 is spread by infectious particles expelled when people breathe.” ABC News quoted a cellular executive who lamented “the selfish actions of a few deluded conspiracy theorists.”

One doesn’t have to wander too far down the information superhighway to find other far-fetched claims about 5G: that it causes cancer, for example, or that the network is being established to facilitate government surveillance of American citizens. But the attacks on infrastructure are rarely accompanied by a claim of responsibility or stated motive. Conspiracy theories aside, there are very good reasons to have deep misgivings about a fully-integrated, global 5G network. The expanded capacity and speed of data-sharing and collection that will come about as a result of this transition will fundamentally change our way of life. But perhaps most important of all is that 5G technology will likely usher in a new era in our understanding of the human person. Unless some public accountability is imposed upon the unchecked power of the technocratic oligarchy, we should expect a rising popular frustration with their unresponsiveness to the will of the people. The longer these powers remain unchecked, the greater the threat of violent opposition will grow.

5G tower.

5G tower.

THE MODERN NOTION OF THE HUMAN PERSON

Over the history of civilization, there have been various competing conceptions of the human person. For example, the Judeo-Christian tradition views the human person as image-bearer, claiming that each individual bears the stamp of the divine. Later, the notion of the human person as subject emerged, which governed the operation of monarchic and feudal societies. The basic idea was that the masses of humanity existed to be governed, to be organized and subordinated along a hierarchy of power, so as to establish a social order that reflected the one observed in the natural world. The existence of such hierarchies in nature implied that they were a part of God’s plan, which in turn provided moral justification for the caste structure that defined medieval Europe.

Americans have understood effective government as policy-making that ensured the maintenance of these modern visions of the human person.

Beginning in the early modern period, two new visions of the human person emerged in Western societies. First, there was a notion of the human person as self. Enlightenment philosophy and Romantic art propagated a vision of the self that democratized the political concept of sovereignty: in recognizing the equal dignity and value of each individual, personal autonomy was validated in a new way. Whereas in the past, the human person was subject to external authorities, the new vision asserted the self as subject: a self-governing, independent person who should possess complete sovereignty over his own course of life. Over a century or two, this radical autonomy came to be the primary measure of democratic liberty.

The other model of the human person that developed in modern society was the individual as consumer. Accelerated by the idea of the human person as self, the consumer-model came to see acquisition and consumption as the means by which one demonstrates personal authenticity. In other words, activity in the marketplace became the primary means of expressing one’s selfhood. Over the course of the twentieth century the American Dream was increasingly intertwined with material affluence: owning one’s own home, two automobiles, and having one’s ideal number of children became the mark of liberty’s promise fulfilled.

Since the Second World War, Americans have understood effective government as policy-making that ensured the maintenance of these modern visions of the human person. In order to fulfill this role, an expansion of the government’s involvement in everyday life was needed. Americans accepted that expansion precisely because it promised to improve their financial fortunes. But now, there is a growing sense that decades of economic mismanagement and government corruption have upset the social contract. As a result, the old view (of the human person as the individual consumer) is in the process of being displaced by a new vision—the human person as data—a transition that the full integration of 5G networks will dramatically advance.

5G worker.

5G worker.

THE INTERNET AGE AND THE HUMAN PERSON AS DATA

Perhaps one reason that the internet went from being a novelty in 1992 to virtually omnipresent in 2002 was the way that it seemed to extend and reflect the dominant modernist conceptions of the individual as consumer and as self. Early on, the emergence of the internet was hyped precisely on the grounds that it would democratize public discourse. The central purpose of the internet for most people was to facilitate personal expression, and such communication became the primary way by which the individual signified his unique personality.

[T]he costs of the digital revolution escaped widespread scrutiny; there seemed to be tacit agreement that they were outweighed by the gains.

Thus, the web was an affirmation of the worldview that sees the human person as self.

Further, the growth of the internet brought with it new consumer goods and new products, the purchase of which became a means to express one’s individuality. Here, the notions of the human person as consumer and as self affirmed one another, and cyberspace came to be an important platform for self-fashioning and the display of authenticity.

For nearly three decades, the costs of the digital revolution escaped widespread scrutiny; there seemed to be tacit agreement that they were outweighed by the gains. But the first hint that a new model of the human person was emerging—the human person as data—came around the time online retailers began using predictive analytics to market particular items to likely consumers (based on previous purchases) with surprising accuracy. Soon, streaming music services could introduce you to fantastic music that you had never heard—music that perfectly aligned with your tastes (the predictability of which undermined your status as a “unique” individual). The introduction of the smartphone in 2007 enabled an exponential increase in the amount of data that could be mined from not only our internet activity, but from our basic movement in the world. Corporate entities in the digital world now knew when you were at home or away, whether you were on foot or in a car. They knew where you shopped, and what you were buying there.

Then, in the years after 2010, came Alexa, Siri, and the rest of the in-home assistants. Now Big Tech could hear what you were saying in your own home. The term “internet of things” became popularized around this time. The internet of things is considered the next frontier in the digital revolution. It refers to expanding the information network into all of the material objects that you interact with over the course of your day: your appliances, your television, your bed, your exercise equipment, even your “personal massage” tools. On a road trip, your car might flash you a message warning that you are approaching roads on which there may be ice.

The ubiquity of these technologies hints at how the view of the human person as data differs from the older, modern models of the individual. To an extent that even Thoreau could not have imagined, we have become the tools of our tools. If technology is to be a means of personal expression, the person must be operating the machine. But given the necessity of the internet in achieving basic daily tasks (e.g., paying bills, getting an Uber, purchasing niche items most readily available online), this relationship is inverted. When the machine comes to operate the person, the modern values of agency, autonomy, freedom, and choice are liquidated.

Unquestionably, the “smartification” of our machines enhances their usability to a certain extent. But there is very good reason to believe that the concept of privacy will not only suffer with the full integration of the internet of things: it likely won’t be able to survive it. The amount of personal data that can be amassed by such a network is virtually unimaginable by most people. And global 5G—a network that can handle the transmission of such a tidal wave of information and do so in real-time—is the key to bringing this brave new world into reality.

Anti-5G protester.

Anti-5G protester.

DEHUMANIZATION AND THE DIGITAL FRONTIER

5G is already operative in a number of markets around the world. Within the next 10 years, the implementation will be complete. Then, we will see rapid advances in the digital revolution: reliable face recognition, augmented reality, elegant forms of machine learning, and the remaking of the practice of medicine enabled by nanotechnology. These phenomena will not merely change our culture—they will change the nature of reality itself. No aspect of human life will be untouched: the labor market will be disrupted, manufacturing will be disrupted, the economy will be disrupted, the government will be disrupted, education will be disrupted, the law will be disrupted, sex will be disrupted, the family will be disrupted, nature will be disrupted. As the digital frontier is expanded and settled, everything will be disrupted. A radical change to the very fabric of society is coming, and it is being deliberately pursued, with almost no deliberation as to its dangers or its costs.

[A]s these technologies become more embedded in daily life, so too does the notion of human person as data.

There will be benefits. Due to technological advances in production and the monetary and material surpluses that will be produced, chances are that (globally-speaking) people will be healthier with greater material well-being. But these innovations in digital technology are not being driven by a benevolent desire to improve the quality of life on Earth; nor are they driven by a desire to protect individuals and consumers. Rather, the driver is the prospect of acquiring the truly unparalleled power that derives from an ever-increasing body of data that reaches down into the most minute dimensions of human existence. (That is to say nothing of the enormous prospects for financial gain.)

The public allows this rapid acceleration and growth by Big Tech because what they produce seems to conform to long-standing models of the human person: technology is perhaps the most coveted consumer item, and people experience its use as the primary medium of personal expression. But as these technologies become more embedded in daily life, so too does the notion of human person as data.

Therein lies the conflict: the human person as self can only be incrementally undermined by the notion of the human persona as data. That is because the latter positions the individual simply as a means to an end that disproportionately benefits entities outside the self. The value of your personal information is not derived from your value as a person: rather, your data is only valuable insofar as it allows a greater understanding of people in general, a digital demographic mapping that maximizes Big Tech’s creation and manipulation of the public sphere.

5G engineer.

5G engineer.

THE SINGULARITY AND ITS COSTS

In his opus The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, futurist Ray Kurzweil argues that because the rate of technological change is now exponentially accelerating, “we won’t experience one hundred years of technological advance in the twenty-first century; we will witness on the order of twenty thousand years of progress.” 5G integration will be critical to the social and political upheavals that will extend from the technological revolution that Kurzweil describes.

Not only is the old vision of the self liquidated, even the concept of the person as consumer is dissolved.

In his recent book Google Archipelago: The Digital Gulag and the Simulation of Freedom (2019), former NYU professor Michael Rectenwald shows that as Kurzweil’s predictions have unfolded, Big Tech has increasingly usurped powers that are traditionally utilized by the nation-state. For example, the courts have been the historical arbiter as to which public speech crosses the line that deprives it of constitutional protection. Today, the large social media platforms can effectively ban individuals from participating in any public deliberation at all. Pornography proliferated on the internet because of the assumption (endorsed by the state) that everyone should have equal access to cyberspace. But now, as if at the flip of a switch, a conspiracy of tech conglomerates can annihilate an entire private platform like Parler. This is to say nothing of the way that Big Tech’s ideologically-motivated throttling and censoring of information is meant to influence the outcome of democratic elections—rituals which the state used to make considerable efforts to insulate from outside influence.

Not only is the old vision of the self liquidated, even the concept of the person as consumer is dissolved. While the tech industry’s early commercial prowess grew out of the dazzling array of choices available for purchase, after consolidating their hold on the marketplace they began using their power to restrict consumer choice. Those who preferred Parler will have to settle for Twitter or nothing; if you have an Apple product and you want a new device to be properly integrated into your home network, you’ll have to buy more Apple. Because most Americans associate the expression of their individuality with the products they choose to purchase, a circumscription of the options available in the marketplace is simultaneously a limitation on the means of self-expression.

Rectenwald understands the central role that 5G will play in bringing about this transformation: our brave new world will be governed by what he calls “Google Marxism,” “the first system with sufficient flexibility, scalability, connectivity and, with the release of 5G, speed to enable the distance-defying, mass, and small-scale niche production and distribution possibilities to enable a truly globalized system.” He warns that “the new paradigm will not be limited to 3-D printing or the vaunted ‘smartification of everything,’ the Internet of Things. Such phrases and acronyms hardly capture the extent of the profound transformation that is underway.”

In contrast to the democratic state, the tech oligarchy is neither obligated nor inclined to be accountable to the public…

We may never know what drove a man to detonate a bomb in order to destroy critical AT&T data infrastructure last Christmas. But, as Kurzweil’s “singularity” approaches, and the scope of its societal disruption becomes clear, more people will awaken to the reality that rapid technological innovation is driving the chaos. A main factor that constrained large scale, domestic violence against the government was a shared belief that the democratic process ensured the state’s accountability to the will of the people.

As Big Tech incrementally usurps the power of the state and the freedom of markets, we will likely see increased violence directed towards the infrastructure that facilitates this transfer of power. In contrast to the democratic state, the tech oligarchy is neither obligated nor inclined to be accountable to the public (nor, as it seems, the state). Big Tech’s unresponsiveness to the people it now rules will naturally foment anger and outrage among citizens of a democracy. We need procedural checks on the technocratic oligarchy, or, at minimum, an honest and open accounting of what will be lost as the new order comes into being—and whether its promises are worth the human cost.

Written By:

Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston–Downtown, where he studies rhetoric, writing, and public discourse. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, is available now. Reach him at adamellwanger@gmail.com, on Twitter @DoctorEllwanger, or @TheHereticalTruth on Parler.