By Elena Celestini and Enda O’Riordan (Plan C London)
This is the first article in a multi-part series we will be publishing about the potential for decentralised and democratised technology. Our main emphasis in the series will be on the rollout of 5G networks, the latest generation of cellular network infrastructure. As we will explain and analyse in the series, the 5G network is a significant development with many far-reaching consequences. Its introduction is likely to significantly influence the course of our social and political world in the next decade and beyond. In this piece, we lay out the terrain, explain what 5G is in some detail, and give some reasons for why this subject merits the attention of leftists. At the very end of the text there is also a glossary of some terms that may be unfamiliar to readers and which cannot be fully explained in the main body of the text.
Introduction to 5G
Accurate political writing about 5G technology, if not technology in general, is itself political struggle against the dubious streams of misinformation from which general opinions are often formed. We have once again to contend with two old enemies of the left: reactionary conspiracy mongering on one hand, and the evasive apologetics of capitalism on the other. In the first instance, the left’s struggle with respect to technology is a struggle for understanding and knowledge against its false portrayal in the hands of nefarious right-wingers, who always seek political profit from the overly-simplistic explanation. At the same time, we are faced with the arduous task of mounting serious opposition to a new, technologically sophisticated world, which has drifted far beyond the control or influence of any individual person or community, and which invades and pervades everyday life to a greater degree than at any other time in history.
First, we should deal with sources of misinformation. Whilst actors at either end of the spectrum mentioned above have their own particular agendas to pursue, what is common between all of them is that those interests appear to be well served by obfuscating the reality of what the technology actually is. In doing so, they thereby also constrain the possibility of what it can or could be to a fixed idea in service of their agendas. Whatever the conspiratorial imagination lacks in its ability to imagine an alternative ‘real’ world, it more than compensates for by developing its ever more ludicrous fantasy realities. For this reason conspiracy theory is always a theodicy, meaning, it is a story about how evil things can exist in a world that is otherwise fundamentally good. This is why we say that conspiracy theory is reactionary and essentially right-wing: in its essence it wants to leave everything as it is, there are no fundamental structural problems. But since we experience many bad things on an everyday basis, some kind of explanation is required. Conspiratorial thinking tells us that the system is fundamentally good, but some invasive element has gained control of, and begun to rot out, its core. All social and personal ills can be attributed to this force or league of forces, whatever or whomever they may be. Whilst the solutions are imaginative in one sense, they represent a bleak lack of imagination in another. In providing outlandish and implausible interpretations to real problems, we become obstructed from seeing the real causes of those problems in all of their complexity. We thereby also lose the ability to develop complex methods equal to the task of solving such problems.
But it is important to also see how the apologetics of techno-optimism equally begets a foreclosure of imagination. Though their representatives are at least in principle less subversive in nature— perhaps only because in representing the hegemonic forms of power they have no need to be— they are just as harmful both in terms of their real effects and in the way their very discourse has a tendency to stifle thought. In speaking of ‘techno-optimists’, we have a broad church in mind here. On one hand, we can consider the vast army of tech-bros, Elon Musk sycophants, and the other million raisin-brained representatives of technological liberalism. In the majority of cases, these people simply continue to churn out the same fodder, upholding the uncritical and whiggish versions of history, in which all technical progress regardless of what it does, how it is to be used and by whom, is as it already exists indisputably good. At the most vulgar end of this ‘tech=progress regardless of context’ spectrum, all technical innovation nakedly serves the material interests of those singing its praises. Where not serving their material interests directly, it serves to flatter their worldview or reinforce the same old mantra that the inexorable forward march of technical innovation is the highest good, regardless of how it is to be used or by whom it is to be used and for what purpose.
More nuanced versions of what is essentially the same ideology do exist however: we have in mind here the new wave of ‘woke Democrats’ and their siblings, those who will maintain a straight face whilst telling you that even though an Israeli firm is selling spyware to authoritarian governments to monitor and surveil the phones of journalists, you can also download a suite of apps which tell you how to transition, so the harms are offset. Even less extreme examples exist, of course, but the main point to remember here is that all of them serve to weave yet one more paper-thin layer of rationalisation into the giant edifice of capitalist realism. This very gesture on the part of those who wear the name ‘liberal’ on their sleeve, as though it were a good thing, works hardest of all to starve off that part of the imagination which attempts to consider how a giant apparatus of technological capability could do something else besides its presently given purpose. It presents the capitalist infrastructural reality we inhabit as ‘given’, ‘natural’, and necessarily the only form technological production can ever take. In reinforcing this mould, they surreptitiously bind the notion of technical progress to that of social progress, such that if we say that we want one without the other, we are told that this is impossible, and that we therefore must accept both as a package deal. It is important to note here that there are obviously good things that existing technological infrastructures and instruments provide: at least in principle, the ability to use people’s phones to track and trace contagion in the midst of a pandemic does (in principle, when it works!) really save lives. It’s just that we can still have it without accepting the form that is currently presented to us. But it is the liberal’s job to tell us that this assertion is false, that the world we presently live in is both necessary and good, and that anything bad or maladjusted about it can be solved through some minor tweaks and adjustments further on down the line.
These aren’t the only representatives of hegemonic capital of course. It would be remiss not to mention in passing here that there is a whole slew of technocrats who simply don’t even see it as necessary to condescend to the left or public discourse. Their actions are hidden, at layers of remove from the realities we experience, behind the gloss of sleek and pristine interfaces and advertising campaigns. What is particularly insidious about these actors— and we call them actors and not persons, because usually the persons themselves merely occupy an executive role in the company which could be easily filled by anybody similar in competence— is that they act without ever consulting those who have the greatest stake in the consequences of their actions.
Of course, they argue that this is not strictly true, relying upon the neoliberal platitude that movements of the market demand curve provide them with the kind of positive feedback signals of approval that mandate whatever course of action they decide upon next. This, of course, is a completely moribund ideology which would long have been cast onto a burning pile were it not for the fact that it did a pretty good job of serving some very powerful interests. There isn’t time to discuss this point at length here, but one very important aspect to highlight is that treating people as consumers is not the same as treating people as democratic subjects. In fact, it is the very antithesis of what it means to be a political subject, since it rests upon the assumption that whatever a person chooses in a narrowly-constrained set of options, permitting no alternatives and which require participation no matter what, is reflective of their true interests, desires, hopes, dreams, etc. To spell this out a bit more directly: in the modern world it is almost impossible to participate in society without owning a smartphone. You are forced to choose between the options you are presented with: even though Android has various privacy and security vulnerabilities, Apple is a rip-off and severely restrictive about the right-to-repair, and both are complicit in some of the worst labour-relations and violations of basic human dignity on the planet, you must still choose. No doubt, the same could be said about the choices we are faced with between established political parties in representative democracies: go figure.
But underneath all of this is that tacit consent to the way things are is being gleaned from these constrained and necessary choices which we are forced into every single day; the very kinds of choices which are founded upon diminishing our actual abilities to make decisions of our own subjective and collective self-determination. Most important of all, and the upshot of our entire project here, is that we believe that a technology like 5g could be the very kind of thing which in a technological and practical sense facilitates these more engaged and direct forms of democratic participation in the large and unfathomably complex kinds of societies we inhabit today. This is precisely what we mean to do when we say that we are seeking a more truthful appraisal of what this technology is and what it could be used for, and we will absolutely uphold this position as infinitely better to one which simply rules out technology’s emancipatory potential on the grounds of what it presently appears to be.
Wading through the thicket of noise surrounding this technology then, we attempt a very simple and clear, but also critical explanation of what it is. In fact, it is this very practice of seeking to shed light on the reality of things, not by embellishment or falsehood, but through honesty and rigour, that we renew our commitment to the tradition of the left. Said otherwise, what one commits oneself to in taking sides with the left, above all else, is a love for one’s fellow being. This love can only truly be expressed, not by the attempt to cajole and manipulate others for some further personal gain, but through a spirit of trust which is built upon the practice of truthfulness. Contra the right-wing conspiracy theorists who will tell you that 5G is a secret plot to subdue and harm populations through ambiguous means, we simply tell you that this technology is value-neutral, and can be used for good as well as evil. However, against the new evangelists of techno-capitalism who herald the introduction of this new technology as a signal of inexorable social progress, we also warn that it seems likely to be used to subdue and exploit populations in far subtler and more insidious ways than before. Finally, it is important that we understand truth not only as a matter of debunking the falsehoods of nakedly self-interested actors seeking to exploit the anxieties and apprehensions of a population held in ignorance, but also as an exploration of what true possibilities lie within this technology, but remain obscured or invisible because of its misinformation-saturated discourse. The development of technology in itself is something to be celebrated as an achievement, not of capital, but of human beings— of workers across multiple disciplines and at many different stages of production. The purpose of truth in this sense is to restore to rightful authorship/ownership what has been produced by our collective knowledge and labour, such that we can decide what can and should be done with it, rather than have it decide what it wants to do with us.
What Really is 5G?
5G is the latest generation of cellular network technology. Depending on what length of time you’ve been using mobile phones/technology for, you will most likely remember the rollout of previous generations: 3G and 4G for instance heralded better mobile coverage, faster and cheaper download speeds, and in the latter case the widespread introduction of smartphones. Smartphone apps have, in the past 5-10 years, overtaken and replaced the previous function of mobile phones: giving us real-time navigational capabilities, instant messaging, video-calls, dating-networks, public photo-diaries of our lives, and much more. None of these things could exist in the same way that they do today without the existence of 4G cellular technology. Given that a certain level of performance is required to make these apps usable in most contexts, the purpose of upgrading the entire network infrastructure was by and large to ensure that the smartphone and its apps would gradually be woven seamlessly into the fabric of everyday life for most people. Suffice it to say that as far as the interests of social media giants and smartphone retailers are concerned, this was a remarkable success.
5G is yet another iteration of the same, but instead of smartphones and apps, it serves to primarily facilitate the introduction of ‘smart objects’, a wide range of network-integrated appliances and amenities collectively referred to under the heading of ‘internet of things’. The classic example of a representative technology here is the autonomous or self-driving car. These already exist, either being live-tested or actually in use in some parts of the world. However, as we know from the very fact that they are still spoken about as novelty items, these appliances are not in widespread use. There are a number of reasons for why this is the case, even when the technology itself already exists: on one hand we might say that the transformation of cultures which have used manually-operated vehicles for a century is far more fraught and complex than the relatively smooth shift from flip-phones and Blokias to pocket-sized computers. However, just as the transition from horse-drawn carriages to motorised vehicles seemed impossibly unlikely in its day, we should not be fooled by the thought that the seeming unlikelihood that human-operated vehicles will ultimately be replaced in most parts of the world means that it will not actually happen. In fact, with the aforementioned tech-bro-optimists fresh in our mind, it is hard to imagine any shortage of gushing Elon Musk fanboys lining up to purchase the first consumer-end, fully autonomous Teslas with their Bitcoin.
We shouldn’t overstate things to say that the only remaining obstacle to the self-driving car is a powerful network infrastructure capable of hosting it. However, just as highway technology had to be updated with techniques such as chip and tar in order for the first motorised vehicles to be properly usable, so too does the entire cellular network infrastructure need to be upgraded to 5G before self-driving cars can be introduced at scale. Our example of self-driving cars should not grab all the attention here either. There are many many examples of things which require 5G network capabilities in order to function at optimum level, some of them ‘smart’ versions of the things we already make use of in our everyday lives, others less likely to be visible and in some cases likely to carry sinister purpose or intent (think of police drones, for example).
The point is that existing network infrastructure does not provide the affordances which would allow these technologies to function at optimal level and on a wider scale than just a few isolated examples. Whilst the consumerist-end of 5G propaganda has largely been focussed on faster internet speeds and better performance for mobile devices, the real and seismic difference is likely to be seen in the coming decades with the rollout of network-embedded objects in our environment. In technical terms, the main upgrades being provided by the 5th generation of cellular technology, in addition to higher speeds, are: lower latency times and higher capacity for users. Whereas the advantages of a faster network are fairly self-evident (the same principle of: you can do more things quicker when your internet is fast compared to when it’s lagging, is universally true for all things connected to the web), the other two are perhaps less familiar, so we will explain them in turn.
Latency means the length of time it takes for a network to respond to a request. A lower latency rate means that the network responds to the requests being made of it much more quickly, and conversely a higher latency rate entails the opposite. You may be wondering how this differs from network speed, and in many ways you’d be correct in thinking that it is not all that different, in fact often when we talk about a network speed we are discussing many different factors all bound into a single, bloated concept. But in fact, though closely related to speed, latency is a different property and this difference is a consequential one. What we need to spell out here is that a network, though it may be understood abstractly and as an infrastructure so widely distributed that it cannot be fully apprehended in one place, is nevertheless a real thing. Whenever a person uses a smartphone to search for a location on maps, refresh their Twitter feed, send or receive a WhatsApp message, etc, they are downloading and uploading data packets from the network. The speed of a network determines the length of time it takes for those packets to reach your device, in the case of downloads, and to reach the network and ultimately the intended recipient in the case of uploads. If the network has a high latency rate, however, no matter how quickly it can send and receive information to individual nodes, will become bloated and unable to deal with the millions of requests it receives per second from a vast multitude of users. A low-traffic network can get away with being high-latency and perform relatively well if its upload and download speeds are relatively fast, but if that traffic begins to increase then whatever economy it has by virtue of its speed is severely diminished by its inability to process and respond to the number of requests being placed upon it.
You may still be left wondering here why all of this is relevant, okay so it’s not speed but it basically has the same consequences as a slower network. Again, this is not strictly wrong, but what needs to be accounted for is why this matters for the introduction of smart objects and the increasing incursion of tech into all aspects of life. Slower refresh rates on a mobile browser are perhaps annoying sometimes, but ultimately no big deal. Comparatively, lower refresh rates due to a congested network in a city built upon a foundation of smart objects could have ramifications leading to a total collapse. Imagine a train signal failure but instead of just applying to all of the trains on a single line, the extent of its effects span virtually all vital functions of a city, ranging from smart cars, smart barriers, smart waste-collection facilities and so on. In a world steadily being upgraded to the point of near total network dependence for even the most mundane of functions, the stakes of network failure are ever higher, and the need for reliable and instantaneous network responsiveness becomes far greater. In saying all of these things, it should be clear that we by no means uncritically approve of or celebrate them. This is far from the case, but, we think it serves no purpose at all and is actively unwise to deny that this is the reality we are facing in the next decade. The introduction of 5G inscribes this reality into the future; what we will try to suggest in future articles of this series are ways in which we may accept the reality of a technology— which in its formal essence is value neutral, neither good nor bad— without also accepting the reality it inscribes.
Capacity is largely speaking a similar concept: a network with larger capacity can handle a larger volume of requests. Perhaps what is notable about the specific affordances of capacity is that they provide for the technical demands of more complex and computationally expensive appliances and amenities, as well as a much higher number of devices per person. The amount of raw computation-power required for a self-driving car to successfully map its environment and use real time network data to navigate it is greater by magnitudes than what is required to refresh an Instagram feed every ten seconds. A network with greater capacity is required to facilitate these operations without itself crashing under the weight of data expectations. Moreover, a relatively lower capacity network like the existing 4G infrastructure is pretty much fine in the social scenario where the majority of people interact with the network using just one or two devices. However, the volume of requests the network has to accommodate is not a measure of how many people or users are trying to access it, but rather or the number of nodes or devices. At present, the overwhelming majority of people still use predominantly a single device to access the network at any one time. Now assume that this number increases even by one additional device per capita. Immediately, the network is being bombarded with double the volume of requests as before. What is anticipated and likely in the oncoming age of smart-objects and the ‘internet of things’, is that many people will simultaneously use several different devices, all of which access the network at any given time. What this means— and it is illustrative of the imminent and medium-term movements of consumer capital— is that the upgrade to 5G is laying the foundation for a reality in which individual subjects are ‘plugged in’ to the network at multiple points in any given moment. That rather than just having a smart-phone, the consumer of the next decade will be expected to own an entire suite of expensive smart objects all of which are connected to the network in order to fully participate in society.
It almost goes without saying that this will serve to exacerbate all kinds of social inequality meted out in terms of access and entrenched disadvantage. Those with inferior means of access will be at even further disadvantage in the world to come. Just consider the socioeconomic ramifications of unequal broadband access, and then multiply them tenfold. Here, we need to once again caution that the problem is not the network upgrade itself, or the technology behind it per se, but the interests for which it serves and the values then inscribed onto society. Problems of access and disparity are not themselves caused by upgrading a network infrastructure. It is rather the social and political world this network is to serve, the underlying logic of capitalism and the great inequality which it produces, which demands our critical attention. Technology under capitalism is not apolitical, quite the opposite, the introduction of any new technology is politically and ideologically charged. But a subtle distinction that allows us to avoid a backslide into primitivism can be made. We can differentiate between technology-in-itself, its pure potential which could act as a catalyst for other, better worlds, and technology as it presently exists, an instrument of the ruling class, entrenching their power and control over society at large.
To sum up then, the three major aspects to note about 5G in a technical sense are: speed, latency, and capacity. A convenient way of remembering these is to recall what each aspect performs. Latency is a factor of time. A network that is being used to solve practical problems and respond to practical demands in real time cannot simply respond in its own time. A lower latency is what ensures that the network responds immediately. We can think about this time concern both in constructive and critical ways. On the one hand, desire for a low-latency network reflects the dependency structures of a capitalist society built on foundations of immediate satisfaction, constant attention, and omnipresent responsiveness. This can be examined both on the social level, a ‘time is money’ ontology wherein everything seems fraught with the demand for instantaneous transaction. It can also be pathologised at the individual level: how do these temporal expectations for immediate response inflect our individual and interpersonal lives? “Why haven’t they answered my text yet?”, “how many people have seen my post?”, “I can’t afford to spend a whole hour reading that!”, etc. We may at the same time recognise untold benefits to instantaneous responses, coordinated social action, and real time participation in democratic decision making. For example, we could cut down on much of the bureaucracy we would normally expect in any imagined system of direct participation with better technology. This is something we will discuss at length in a later article of the series.
Where latency reflects time, capacity reflects volume and intensity. How much can the network handle? How many things are in motion at any one time, and what is the threshold before which that capacity begins to overflow? Just as with time/latency, there are both pathological and emancipatory factors. Speed perhaps also reflects time, but for convenience we can also imagine it here to reflect space. How much traffic can be accommodated, at what speeds, at a particular location, IP address, or node of the network? The speed of a network is obvious and needs comparatively less explanation, because it is the everyday experience of individuals vis-a-vis the network. Where the other two factors describe predominantly features intrinsic to the network’s own function, the speed factor speaks to our relationship as users to it in terms of just how much we can send and receive as individual participants through the mediation of many devices in a particular spatial location.
To conclude this first part to our series, we suggest that as part of this struggle to see the emancipatory potential of technologies such as 5G, we must also lay bare the contradictions of the technology as it currently exists. We must unflinchingly address the way in which existing forms of technology presently shape our lives— more often than not for the worse. It is only through such a nuanced appraisal that we on the left can critically distinguish ourselves from the reactionary cartels seeking power and influence by preying upon the fears of populations who increasingly feel life drift beyond all control and influence. Similarly, it is only by stealing the ground on what is actually worth being optimistic about when it comes to the development of technology that we can decisively refute the silicon-valley techno-optimism, which falsely appropriates the labour of others for mythically-infused journeys of self-enrichment falsely posing as a narrative of a general progress for humankind. We need only reflect on how little subaltern populations, be they workers or the dispossessed from all corners of the world, stand to gain from these technologies when they are exclusively used to automate the labour process or serve as the armature of vanity projects for insecure billionaires. Whether one has cause for optimism today depends entirely on where one stands; but no matter the particularities of how each of us may think and feel about these things, the goal of a radical left must always be to abolish— but not annihilate— the present state of affairs.
Glossary of Terms
Capitalist Realism: A term coined by the late theorist and Plan C comrade Mark Fisher. It describes an ideological reality in which no alternative to capitalism is considered viable or even possible.
Decentralise: To decentralise something means to distribute its ownership or control over a wider group of people, rather than consolidating it in the hands of a small number of people. In this context, our suggestion to decentralise the ownership of tech means to restore control of its use and development to ordinary people. The ways and means of doing so will be described in future articles of this series.
Hegemony: The predominance of a single political class, ideology, identity, state, etc over all others.
Liberalism: A political position which defines freedom in market participation and prioritises individualism and businesses enterprise. Note that whilst liberalism believes strongly in the individual’s freedom of choice, it has little to say about people’s capacity to make choices based on their social position or income. Therefore liberalism is synonymous with approval of the current status quo in most western countries.
Liberalism (technological): A species of liberalism which holds that free market competition is the healthiest way for society to develop and produce technology.
Neoliberalism: A version of liberalism which believes the market is fundamentally rational and should be the basis for organising society at all levels with minimum state intervention. Neoliberal ideology generally holds that the market always knows best, not people or governments.
Ontology: The philosophical study of, or an individual theory about, the nature of reality.
Reactionary: An ideological position which favours the return to a previous state of society in reaction to contemporary society (“reject modernity, embrace tradition” but unironically).
Subaltern: Populations who are excluded from the hierarchy of power. This includes on grounds of race, colonial history, class, cultural difference, and other social groupings.
Tacit Consent: The political notion of a consent which is assumed on the basis of participation rather than explicitly stated. The idea that we consent to live in a state because we don’t leave its jurisdiction or stage an insurrection.
Technocrat: A technical expert holding a position of power or authority. Usually in this context an unelected specialist not accountable to democratic oversight but nonetheless exerting considerable influence over people’s lives.
Theodicy: A theory about how evil can exist in a world created by divine power such as God. Here we mean a theory about how the world is still good despite the fact that people obviously continue to suffer.
Whiggish History: The idea that human history is always and necessarily getting better, and will always continue to do so no matter how people act in the present.