Dennis Broe writes about how 5G technology is designed to make the world safe for capitalist cultures of consumption, and reviews Biohackers
There seems to be no questioning the technological imperative. 5G will, when it is fully operative, increase download speeds such that general mobile phone internet activity will be 20 to 100 times faster, thus greatly enhancing watching Series TV on the go. 5G will also, its promoters claim, fulfill the promise of both Artificial Intelligence and the internet of things: interconnected smart homes, smart cars, and consumers served by smart farms and operated on by smart machines. Likewise, in genetics, the cracking of DNA and RNA codes—which may enable current COVID-19 stimulators to allow the body to suppress the virus without a dangerous ingestion of COVID—may eventually lead to promoting a generalized immunity from many diseases.
What could go wrong? Plenty, say 5G critics in France. Likewise, in the realm of genetic algorithms, the German series Biohackers equally sounds the alarm.
In the U.S. and across Asia, in particularly in China and South Korea, the answer to what can go wrong is, Nothing. In the U.S. the “debate” over 5G is only about how fast and efficient the service is. The “criticism” is that the Verizon-Apple iPhone 12 and the AT&T-Galaxy 5G rollout, even in the large cities, is only partial, four times rather than 20 times faster. China, meanwhile, leads the world in 5G patents and sees the technology as its way to climb out of the stigma of world’s low-end manufacturer, throwing off the “Made in China” labeling to be replaced by the Huawei branding of assembled technology, this time “Made in Vietnam.” In South Korea, the “debate” is on how soon 6G will arrive.
Europe is behind in the race to 5G, though one of its two telecom companies, Ericsson, has now announced it’s ready for a rollout. But not so fast. Across the continent questions are being raised about the safety, the consumerist changes, planned obsolescence and inequality the technology will effectuate, and about how 5G is part of the capitalist profit-driven productivist imperative that has so ravaged the planet. In Germany and Britain, angry citizens have pulled down towers. In France, especially with the rise of a progressive Green Party called EELV, the entire ethos of 5G is being questioned.
The opening salvo against the technology was fired by the Green Party Mayor of Grenoble, Eric Piolle, who questioned its supposed benefits. “With 5G I can watch porn in HD in my elevator and know if I still have yogurt in the refrigerator” is the way he described the new promised land that proponents claim the network will usher in. In return, the Rothschild banker-turned-President Emmanuel Macron, a prime promoter of neoliberal technology as saviour of French society, labelled the Greens “Amish” who “wanted to return to the era of the oil lamp.” His fellow right-wing confrères warned of a “Green Peril,” using the Cold War overlay of Red Peril, and branded those questioning this imperative as “Khmer Green,” likening them in the digital realm to Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge.
There is little doubt that the primary reason 5G, the star of the Christmas consumer push, is being so thoroughly trumpeted is the profits it will reap, forecast to account for 668 billion dollars globally in six years and predicted, with the gain in the sale of mobile phones, with an enhanced gaming experience and with more widespread virtual reality headsets, to account for 5 percent of global GDP this year.
5G Makes the World Safe for Consumerism
Elements of the French left, though, including François Ruffin, a legislator and director of the film Merci, Patron, or “Thanks, Boss,” a kind of French Roger and Me about France’s richest bosses mercilessly closing factories, have suggested that this technological bounty is being asked to fill the void in lives that are increasingly despairing. Ruffin notes also how this “techno-totalitarianism,” what media critic Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism,” will amplify already existing inequalities. The technology may widen the gaps between the increasingly more plugged-in cities with 5G, the periphery around those cities with 4G, and the country’s rural areas with no G, thus in France exacerbating what is termed the “territorial fracture” and what in the U.S. might be called the Red/Blue dichotomy.
Echoing Morozov, Ruffin points out this this kind of thinking leads not to, for example, regulating agribusiness to produce healthier and more eco-friendly food, but to supplying more intelligent forks. In Catholic France 5G is breathlessly talked about, Ruffin says, as the second coming of the Holy Spirit, illuminating our smart phones in the way the first coming descended on the apostles at Pentecost. In the holy light of such a miracle, the telecom industry shakes off the shackles of any sense of being a public good, and instead regulation becomes only about how market competition can be promoted.
The Miracle of Consumption in Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her
France has always been suspicious of consumer “miracles” which its leading thinkers have often seen as foisted on it by American capitalism in its drive for global hegemony. Witness Godard’s Two of Three Things I Know About Her and Weekend and the films of Jacques Tati (Playtime, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday) in their unfolding of a critique of a French society being remade from without.
The debate here is raising important questions that are given short shrift in the rest of the world. Europe is simply being asked to conform and told that if it does not it will be left out of a mainspring of the global economy, with its devices unable to catch up or be plugged into the global flow.
Studies indicate that the digital economy emits 4 percent of greenhouse gas, a number that is predicted to double in five years and which 5 and 6G will accelerate. The Green Party labels 5G an “enevore,” that is, energy gorging, noting that mobile phone use already accounts for 2 percent of electric use in France.
The introduction of this speedier technology is designed to increase costs, not only of a monthly mobile bill as more data is accessed and downloaded, but also necessitating replacing existing mobile phones with 5G-ready equipment, phones which are now already on the average replaced every 18 months to 2 years. Eventually, the technology with increased pixelation for faster and clearer viewing will be a part of computers and televisions and, like the changeover in television sets from analog to digital, will require a wholescale worldwide replacement.
The ecological question also involves not only the global waste in disposing of the used devices which is estimated to reach 2 million tons, but also in their creation with 70 kilos or 154 pounds of raw materials, including rare metals, necessary for the assembling of one of these super devices. These rare metals, which emit radiation, are strip-mined in the south of China where production is still largely private and loosely regulated. Elsewhere, 80 percent of the cobalt and tantalum needed for assembly comes from the east of the Republic of Congo, a war-torn area where 40,000 children work in the mining zones.
Consumer enhancement, of course, with the tech companies goes hand in hand with consumer surveillance, and 5G increases the drive to a global data centre where billions of data packages will be available to publicity and advertising agencies for use in instantaneously molding and soliciting user taste depending on the content of individual cell phones and the store any consumer passes or, more creepily, any impulses they have. By 2025 it is predicted that 75 billion objects will be interconnected, all transmitting user data so that the refrigerator that is telling you to buy more yogurt is also spying on you. The internet highway becomes a spyway.
The implementation of 5G is also wasteful. Huawei is clearly the global leader in cheap and efficient 5G construction. A mobile phone is made up of a complex of 250,000 inventions and patents. In 2020 the Chinese lead the world with 34 cell phone patents, followed by South Korea and Europe with the U.S. a distant fourth. Yet, in labeling the Chinese company a security risk—when in fact the real threat is that it is a more skilful competitor—and forcing its allies to boycott the company as well, installation of 5G will be more costly with companies required to duplicate already established efforts.
Finally, there is the question of safety. There has been no comprehensive government study on the effects of the increased sonic waves on the human body. Private corporate studies, which are not required to be made public, all negate this possibility, while public studies suggest there may be some danger. The U.S. National Toxicology Program found evidence of cancer tumors in rats exposed to high frequencies, and in Italy the Ramazzini Institute warned there were potential carcinogens in radio frequencies. The French government has commissioned a thoroughgoing study, the results to be reported in Spring 2021. The newspaper of record Le Monde and 70 legislators have asked for a moratorium until the findings are revealed, but Macron’s Minister of Finance Bruno Le Maire wants to hasten 5G installation, warning that a delay would contribute to France losing its digital sovereignty.
The corporate sector sees 5G as simply an economic issue with the question being when and how, not why. The Greens and the French left see 5G, in the way it will change French life, perhaps increasing what the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze called “societies of control,” as a social and ecological issue and a place where the overwhelming drive to more and faster which has so devastated the planet must be questioned. On the continental, national and individual level, to not have 5G means to drop out of the digital flow, with capital arguing, as Theodor Adorno warned in the mid-20th century, that the worst of all conditions is to be left behind. What a bleak future indeed without porn on our elevators and without knowing if we need another yogurt in our refrigerator!
Are you ready for more genetic engineering?
Genetic Mind Games on Biohackers
A series which similarly questions how technological prowess is being implemented and controlled, this time in the area of genomes and the human body, is the German show Biohackers. The series is financed by German government and Bavarian Television funds, and shot in the same studio as another German series, Dark, both available on Netflix. The simplicity of Biohackers, which begins with a highly dramatic bio attack on a train and then flashes back to explain how the young female student Mia got there and why she is not susceptible to the attack, works in its favour, as opposed to the laboured three-era, almost impenetrable flashbacks of Dark.
The action takes place on the Bavarian campus of the University of Freiburg, the German centre of all kinds of genetic engineering experimentation. The students at the school, a band of renegades working on their own socially uplifting mutations, are part of a do-it-yourself biology known as the biotechnological social movement or as bio- or wetware hacking, similar to the early rough and tumble cyberpunks of the internet. Mia’s roommates—botanist Chen Lu, monied beauty queen Lotta, and nerd seed experimenter Ole—form an international group of scientific Scooby Doos who come to her rescue as she is first taken under the wing of the university’s star biologist Dr. Tanya Lorenz and then threatened by her, as Mia and her friends expose the ruthlessness of their professor’s experiments to perfect a subject immune to disease.
Mia’s futon and her rumpled student quarters are contrasted to the corporate-funded Dr. Lorenz’s elaborate multi-storied, impeccably furnished and ordered home in the Bavarian forest, complete with lab in the basement. As with 5G, Dr. Lorenz issues a warning that Germany, which has lost out and is behind in digital mastery, must conquer the realm of biotechnology to compensate.
The Scoobys in Scooby Doo
Dr. Lorenz, though, is revealed to be experimenting on human subjects, leaving a murderous trail behind her and recalling earlier experiments by the Nazis who also claimed to be benefiting humanity. She is Dr. Mengele in a pants suit. This contemporary version of the former ethos features Lorenz, as Mia points out, marking her subjects with a bar code, as the Nazis burnt prison numbers into their subjects’ flesh.
We are reminded that the Bavarian countryside and its dark forests hatched Hitler in his first coup attempt and that Freiburg University was the place the philosopher Martin Heidegger, in his moment of embracing National Socialism, accepted an appointment as head of the university until his gradual disgust with the movement resulted in his resignation.
Biohackers, renewed for a second season when the conspiracy to hide the experimentation reaches a national level, does not shy away from the subject of chemical and biological warfare. However, instead of the hackneyed usual and usually insane “terrorist,” the terror here is far better organized and financed not by rogue fanatics but by a corporate-medical ethos which values profit above human life.
Dennis Broe is a television, film and culture critic whose latest works are Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure and the detective novel Left of Eden. He taught in the Master’s Programme in Film and Television Studies at the Sorbonne. His criticism appears in the Morning Star, on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the US, on Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris, People’s World, and Crime Time. He is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.
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