(Originally published in Spanish at Ctxt.es. Translated by Amelia Burke / Fabricants de Futur and Steven Johnson, and reviewed by the author.)
Given the excellent articles written by Jorge Riechmann and Antonio Aretxabala in recent months about 5G, there is nothing I would wish to add concerning the environmental costs and social consequences of this technology. The waste of resources and pollution caused by mining which Aretxabala describes, as well as the acceleration of the dynamics of collapse, social control, alienation, and risk to human health which Riechmann talks about, have already been explained very well.
I would only like to add one more idea: 5G could actually impede development of the kind of technology that we really need.
Communication is a basic necessity, sometimes just as important as food. For this reason, when a communication channel becomes an established reference point, it also turns into a monopoly. If 5G technology manages to become the communication standard, nobody will be able to do without it.
In previous decades we have lived through various waves of programmed obsolescence and forced upgrading of computer equipment. However, it is difficult not to realise that the days of carefree consumerism of the 20th Century have ended.
The Covid crisis has shown us that the most essential things for our lives (healthcare, food, caring for others, education, social interaction) are anything but guaranteed. So is this really the best time for a massive new obsolescence? For example, in the coming years public services will have to choose between upgrading their communication systems or employing health workers, transport workers or teachers. Can’t we think of anything better to do with billions of dollars than to connect our television, our fridge, or our robotic vacuum cleaner to the Internet of Things precisely when we are on the edge of climate catastrophe?
The evolution of technology is usually presented to us as the natural course of events, as if it were taking us along a natural incline towards the satisfaction of shoppers’ needs in the most efficient and cost effective manner. But I do not think it really works that way. There are institutions which fund research within the public universities, and they decide which sectors are a priority. In the USA, for example, the institution which funds more investigation than any other is the military. In some years they have provided more than 50% of the funding.
In 1998, when I was a doctorate student, I had an interesting conversation with some American researchers whom I met during a robotics conference. Those engineers assured me that the prioritised line of research in their departments at that time was self-driving vehicles, although they had the feeling that they were quite pointless. They themselves, just like the others who took part in that conversation, thought that there were thousands of more useful things to study, and we laughed at the idea of who would be the first volunteer to take a ride in one of those cars. Nevertheless, the American researchers assured us that practically all of the R&D funding in their sector at that time was for two things: self-driving vehicles and nanotechnology.
So 30 years ago there was already someone in an American institution directing research towards communication systems similar to what we now call 5G, because they are the technology behind self-driving vehicles. It is evident that the technology for self-driven vehicles did not emerge at that time in response to the needs of the consumer. Neither then nor now do we feel that having a car which drives itself to be one of our most pressing needs.
There are dreams of the future which are directing the development of technology and of society but without us knowing from whom they originate. These ideas, which are occasionally foolish, sometimes have a strange obstinacy, and manage to attract enormous public funding even when all the evidence demonstrates that they are stupid. In Spain we have a good example of this. With the Spanish high speed train, at a cost of millions, we have seen how difficult it has been to change the dream of progress and modernity, even decades after the figures have proven that it was a ruinous investment.
If the directions of research had been guided by people like ‘Dana’ Meadows and Masanobu Fukuoka, instead of the anonymous characters who opted for self-driven vehicles, then our technology today would be completely different. Instead of selling us the Internet of Things, industry would be selling us the latest model of zero-emissions housing, the most advanced permaculture management of agricultural soil, and industrial products with a percentage of recycled material close to 100%. If the dream of the future in the minds of those who were directing technology in the 80s had been about sustainable technology, then right now humanity would not be facing the terrible problems of climate disaster, the energy crisis, and ecosystem collapse which are threatening our children’s future.
However, the truth is that it would have been difficult for these distinguished figures in ecology to direct technological development within the capitalist economy. The reason is that sustainable technologies have one great defect: they don’t sell a lot of things.
Agroecology, for example, combines very advanced scientific knowledge about soils and ecosystems–much more than agriculture based on chemical inputs–but it is a technology based on letting nature do the work. For this reason, it does not require many tractors, or fertilizers, or drones, or vertical greenhouses, or genetic engineering. What it needs is something quite different: well trained farmers.
Nor do bio-climatic architecture or sustainable mobility sell a lot, because what they need are architects and builders who know how to work in a different way, and urban planners who know how to design cities in which cars are not necessary.
To be sure, the transition to a lower-energy world requires technologies which capture and store renewable energy. But above all, it needs people who know how to live, produce, and offer services without using much energy. And we ought not to forget that the technology which we need most is taking care of people and handling human relationships. These are completely indispensable tasks if we are to avoid descending into chaos and/or authoritarianism during this difficult transition.
The technologies which we really need in the energy transition —the ones which really combat climate change, and the only ones which can enable us to address ecosocial collapse successfully— do not need many devices, and they certainly do not need 5G. What they really need are good professionals —in other words, people who are well-trained, well-paid, and able to deal creatively with the enormous challenges of our century.
But the senseless tendency of capitalism is to steer technological development far away from these technologies which are materially simple but humanly sophisticated. And so they just sell us devices that keep getting more sophisticated, less useful, and ever less sustainable.