First, there was no internet.
Then there was, like a really basic version.
Then dial up came along with all its noise.
Then broadband turned the volume up.
Then wifi arrived and we were no longer wired in.
Then mobile 3G and internet access everywhere.
Then 4G — much faster internet access everywhere.
You’d be forgiven for thinking 5G is just another iteration of the last two. Faster internet, better connectivity.
Well, it is that. But it’s a hell of a lot more too.
The MIT Technology Review suggests that 5G is a:
“Technological paradigm shift, akin to the shift from the typewriter to the computer.”
That seems like a bit more than just slightly faster internet, right?
So what is 5G?
On a basic level, it’s an enormous jump in processing speed for mobile internet — potentially 20 times faster than 4G.
Why MIT and others highlight its potential cultural importance is that such rapid speeds (coupled with the effective opening up of new bandwidths/radio pathways previously unused) will allow for huge jumpstarts in almost every sector and facet of life.
We’re talking permanent connectivity way beyond checking your mobile every few minutes — it’s wearables or implants, smart cities, neural networks.
In other words, things are gonna get sci-fi freaky.
Such epochal technological developments are bound to impact the way we run and organise our societies.
We’re only just beginning to see the full implications of what the internet brings, both good and bad.
So what would a world of superfast hyperconnectivity mean for our political systems?
In this piece, we’ll analyse some of the predicted ramifications of 5G and how they will effect politics and any ethical considerations that may result.
Smart Cities and The Internet of Things
The Internet of Things is but one of many 5G fallouts.
If we have an internet network capable of being always on, we have the potential to have entire societies built into “the cloud” so to speak — to the extent that almost every device, object, surface, building, location is able to collect data and offer internet-based services and resources.
Of course, the political ramifications of such a fully connected world are huge.
Not least of all, data storage and privacy.
Imagine, you’re walking down the street in your town.
The pavement itself is tracking the speed at which you’re walking, your heart-rate, the shoes you’re wearing, the route you’re taking. All as a means to hoover up data to then pass on to whichever service suppliers or governmental organisations are willing to purchase it.
Nike will be tracking how many of their sneakers are on the move at any given time, where there’s a higher concentration of Nike wearers, the degradation or lifecycle of their products.
Google Maps is monitoring how fast you’re walking in comparison to other people of your age, gender, race to provide more accurate, personalised route timings for its users.
Tinder is checking to see if your heart-rate increased as you walked past another user you might find attractive, ready to serve up their profile to you later.
Just one aspect of what could be a city in which everything does similar things— transport networks synced perfectly to provide ample transport at the right time based on the amount of footfall through their station doors, billboards tracking how long your eyeballs rest on certain images to target adverts to exactly your preferences and tastes.
The possibilities are almost endless. And quite frankly, scary as shit.
It’s not hard to imagine this world very quickly descending into dystopia.
And so from a political perspective, there will be much legislation required, much debate and discourse around how we want our data used, where and when.
We’re already having these conversations. The GDPR legislation brought in by the EU earlier this year is a massive step away from the existing practices in place that were already becoming outmoded in a more connected world.
But in a hyperconnected 5G landscape, this type of legislation and the moral and legal debates around it will only grow in importance.
Deepfakes and Altered Reality
We already have fake news and alternative facts.
In a 5G world, these bugs in the political system could be magnified and iterated to disastrous proportions.
You may already be aware of Deepfakes. These are images or videos superimposed with subtle or not so subtle alterations, created through machine learning, so as to be near-indistinguishable from the real thing.
A pretty convincing viral concept video in which filmmaker Jordan Peele had Barack Obama saying things he never did or would, was doing the rounds earlier this year — intended as a PSA on the worrying possibilities of Deepfakes.
With 5G, such already problematic devices will seem small fry.
Let’s consider a business meeting between two CEOs of multibillion dollar fuel companies.
As is now the trend, the meeting is conducted via 3D hologram, thanks to the speed and connectivity of 5G. It’s as if the two businessmen are in the same room, when in reality they’re thousands of miles apart.
They’re discussing the prospect of a merger, that could have enormous geopolitical ramifications.
One of the CEOs holograms has been compromised. Altered with a deepfake by a malicous actor, a terrorist organisation perhaps, to agree to a deal the CEO and his board are not yet sure of.
Yes this sound like something out of a bad sci-fi movie, but that’s genuinely the direction we could be headed with this kind of tech.
Fraud, misrepresentation, bad faith, all with the potential to be magnified by a technology that could create a plausible alternate-reality.
How do you legislate for such an eventuality, or others like it?
There would have to be a strong move towards some kind of blockchain-esque authentication with things like unfakeable watermarks and decentralised multi-lateral trust agreements between governments, citizens and businesses.
It could all get very complicated.
Healthcare and Biohacking
There is a potential society that results in a 5G world whereby we go beyond our existing biological paradigm.
In other words, a post or transhuman reality — modified, monitored and measured biological and health aspects of life constantly linked to an online network.
Think pacemakers or heart monitors but ones consistently personalised and altered based on the data fed back from the user.
Microcameras and PH readers inside our gut to monitor our digestive biodome.
Second-by-second blood readings, brain scans, chemical detections.
Real-time updates sent to our phone (or whatever device we have by then) and that of our doctor’s, so that any irregularity can be immediately addressed.
All of this is not only possible but probable in a 5G world.
But what of the ethical ramifications?
For a start, such a system assumes that everyone will have access to it.
Based on the current global state of healthcare access, that’s a big assumption.
Cost, more than anything else, could prove prohibitive to swathes of the populace.
And so what happens in that scenario — you have the haves and the have nots. Those with biohacked bodies and those without. Those who have the potential for near immortality, and those who don’t.
Gross inequality akin to anything ever known in human history, to the extent we’d be almost separate species.
This doesn’t sound like a very good idea, does it?
One option to address the potential for cost implications and lack of access would be to offer some kind of universal healthcare system, that raised the operating capital through data harvesting and selling. Pharmacutical companies and others would happily foot the bill for detection software and hardware if they could pocket the resulting income from treatments.
Of course, we then head back towards the problems of large-scale data handling and the potential for misuse or abuse.
Realistically, the only way this sort of technology could ever be implemented on a universal scale, without risking all of the above issues, would be to first implement some kind of massive global wealth redistribution effort, so that everyone could afford the technology off their own backs.
That’s not going to happen though, is it.
Universal Internet and Developing Economies
It would be incorrect to suggest that the main thing that distinguishes the world’s top economies and developing ones is internet access for citizens, but there is some clear correlation.
As of 2016, the “developed” world saw around 81% of its citizens having access to the internet, whilst in the “developing” world this dropped to just 40%
5G could legitimately see both figures near 100%.
The faster the internet, the cheaper it is per byte (to be extremely rudimentary about things). But also, coverage in areas where current service is poor, will be much better.
What will an entirely online world mean for geopolitics?
For a country like India, where only 29% of its populace has access to the internet, the implications could be staggering. A 1 billion-plus population with all the advantages and disadvantages that internet access brings. That immediately turns the world economy on its head. Suddenly you have a seventh of the world’s population outside of the previously developed world with as much internet capital as the whole of the US and Europe combined.
Will that immediately translate into financial development? No, but it will make a huge contribution towards somewhat levelling the playing field.
Of the top 35 countries by percentage of internet access, 22 are in the top 35 of countries by average wage.
Of course there are myriad other factors at play, but internet access and increased individual wealth certainly share at least a correlation.
And so in some ways, 5G internet could be both an egalitarian dream and a sci-fi nightmare.
The direction it goes is down to us.
The rich and powerful will almost certainly find ways to exploit it for their own personal gain.
If we aren’t careful, all of the ethical problems highlighted in this piece could begin to manifest, and if left in the hands of the current elite, there will be no appetite to find solutions.
We must take the opportunity that 5G could provide us, as a means to re-democratise the internet, redistributing the cultural, informational and financial wealth it offers.
If we don’t, we might have the fastest of fast internet, but very little freedom to use it how we want.
Jackson Rawlings is a political philosopher, writer and thinker with some big ideas about how we can change the world for the better. You can read some of these here: