The 5G story is everywhere in the American press these days, and not just the American press. You can barely turn around to scratch some needy body part without encountering another article about the wireless telecommunications technology. But the stovepiping in this coverage—the narrowing of the questions asked or answered—is acute.
Some tell a technology story, intended either to minister to the anointed guild of Silicon Valley wizards, or to self-consciously unworthy techno-naifs (like me), answering questions like: What exactly is 5G? What’s it for? And how will it change anything significant on the macrosocial or personal level?
Others tell a corporate and economic story: How much money is to be made? Who’s liable to make it? And with what lateral impact for national economies, globalized businesses and their share prices, and certain international hubs (like Singapore) that thrive by collecting pass-through rents?
Others tell a security story: How does the Chinese lead in 5G and even early research into 6G foreshadow the future of Sino-American competition in intelligence and military domains?
Still others tell a wider geopolitical story: What does the current 5G race portend for the future of the Sino-American strategic competition? How might it affect relative soft power, and the appeal of great power economic links to extant and potential allies? What does it say about broader structural questions in comparative politics and geoeconomics, like the merits of having a national industrial policy or, lacking that, an old-fashioned semi-coherent Federal research and development program? Will the winner of this race be able to shape the world not just geopolitically, but also culturally and morally?
Almost no one, as usual, tells a story—or even asks trenchant questions—about the social and cultural effects of 5G implementation and the on-ramp it portends for future IT and AI innovation. How will the recombinant social DNA effects loop back into the political and cultural foundations of our nation? And they surely will, because state-change-scale technological innovation always feeds back into fundamentals.
Above all, very nearly nobody tries to tell just one integrated story combining all of these factors, and so devise a template to guide decision-makers. Why? Because it’s hard, requires cross-disciplinary talents and experience, cannot be done in vogue short-form, and won’t attract enough sagacious readers for any sponsor or publisher to make money from it.
Just Two Observations
I’ve no intention of mounting such an effort here. I want only to make two brief observations, and to end with what may be the real question at issue.
First observation: Here in Southeast Asia, the prospect of what everyone calls “decoupling” between U.S. and Chinese trade and technological systems, with 5G standing as a connective symbol touching both points, is a cause of well-exercised consternation. Koreans refer to Korea as a shrimp among whales. Well, if we extend that metaphor, most Southeast Asian countries would be plankton squeezed between a powerful but far-off America and a China waxing strong and much closer by.
All ASEAN country leaderships therefore prefer to hedge, and they have lots of practice at it, but decoupling threatens to shrink their maneuvering space. Decoupling in terms of trade they take to mean likely diminished velocity and volume, meaning less overwash benefits for themselves. Decoupling in terms of global-reach communications and critical infrastructure management systems means choosing one system of systems to align with, to the exclusion of the other.
Faced with choices most governments do not wish to make, it’s already clear which way most are leaning: toward China. Just incidentally, this is why suggestions that the U.S. government enable American companies to license/lease Huawei technology do not address the deeper geopolitical issue posed by 5G. That might solve some problems, but it might also reify perceptions of U.S. decline and dependency, and not just in Asia.
The reasons for regional elites choosing China are simple at one level: Near-term economic stakes have vastly more political salience in contemporary Southeast Asia than longer-term security stakes. Moreover, overall U.S. technological prowess is perceived, accurately or not, as being in relative decline, dovetailing with a perception of a general U.S. retreat from its alliance obligations.
It dovetails as well with perceptions that are softer, less simple, and less obvious, but not less powerful. A rising China that is optimistic, hopeful, and future-postured reflects closely and justifiably (as far as the basic numbers go) the buoyant mood in the region; an America beset by hemorrhaging self-confidence and social trust, and mired in a “dirty white” shade of MAGA nostalgia, does not. “Dirty white” is not a popular shade in this part of the world, a place where enough people remember the relevant history even if Americans don’t. Note that Japanese and Indian elites know this too, and it must affect the characteristic provisional thinking that inhabits the backs of their minds. What happens in Southeast Asia doesn’t all stay in Southeast Asia.
Second observation: A certain amount of cognitive dissonance mists the air here. Some claim that 5G anxiety is hyped; it’s not critical, not a can’t-go-back tipping point. It helps that some of those downplaying the matter know little about the technology and its likeliest applications. They are perhaps fooling themselves, but they needn’t fool us.
5G is indeed a big deal. Note just two of several bare bones aspects. First, 5G is not just about speed but also computing power in one of those cases where differences of degree add up to a difference in kind. The 5G network concept amounts to an engine that can drive many sorts of vehicles. We don’t even know the names and functions of all those vehicles yet, but the existence of a motor liberates potential heretofore locked in a prison of improbability. A different kind of open-endedness pervades 5G that cannot be inferred from the experience of the internet.
Second, prospective 5G networks are new infrastructural elements dependent on the internet but separate from it at the same time. A 5G network has physical characteristics that require placing material assets in finite space, even as it doesn’t need to be physically connected to whatever devices it is computing with and for. This means that novel physical security issues abound for both companies and governments in ways they have not for the internet.
Finally on this second observation, just as 5G embodies open-ended functional capabilities, so new capabilities will likely goad even more powerful network capacities into existence. So we likely stand now at a future path dependency point: Whoever dominates 5G and profits from it will be in a better position to get to 6G and 7G fastest—although the possibility of a radical flip to a completely different concept to achieve similar ends cannot be ruled out. Since no U.S. company is even in the 5G running, itself a shocking and revelatory fact, the security implications are huge. Let’s parse just one of them.
From the start of the IT age, U.S. technology has dominated the global field. The National Security Agency has therefore held a significant advantage over competitors at doing the two things, and the only two things, its mandate describes: keeping proprietary U.S. information safe; and making sure that others’ information is not safe from U.S. monitoring. (Call the latter whatever you like.) If the basic technology in future is not Made-in-USA, then others may do for themselves and to us what we have been accustomed to doing to them.
If we have to choose our technological betters, we would prefer partners in places like Finland, Sweden, Germany, Japan, and South Korea—not China, whose interests and values as relates to IT/AI technology and its uses are anathema to us. That, in turn, is just one more reason why it is so unwise to alienate one’s closest allies. If the President had a clue about how to really protect and advance U.S. competitiveness in the longer run, he would not be dissing the Germans, French, Japanese, and so on.
Besides which we probably won’t get to choose. Chinese technology, and all it implies about information security, military command-and control functions, and surveillance in its broadest applications, might come to shape the world—and shape it in ways most Americans do not like but might feel compelled to follow anyway. Presently non-negotiable aspects of our political culture itself may thus be put at risk if the gap between others’ IT/AI capabilities and U.S. capabilities widens. State-change quality technological innovation always doubles back to affect social and political fundamentals, remember? Here is a plausible example to chew on.
Technological Determinism and the Absence of Its Discontents
Most of us can remember the technological optimism of a quarter century ago. Burgeoning information technology innovation would liberate us, improve community and democracy, and make everyone wealthier and happier. Those who warned of downsides were dismissed as Luddites. So where are we now?
Whatever benefits individuals, companies, and even arguably in some cases societies as a whole may have reaped from the IT tsunami, we Americans are also demonstrably more disengaged socially, lonelier, less civil, more alienated from each other and our traditional civic and cultural values, more polarized, and more fearful. IT tech immersion may not be responsible for all of this, but it would be strange if it were not involved in most of it. I’d bet on the proposition that we are in the midst of another episode of Harold Innis’s insight that “sudden extensions of communication are reflected in cultural disturbances” (The Bias of Communication, 1951).
We are terrible at off-the-cuff technological forecasting, at least when it comes to the social and social-psychological effects of step-change-scale innovation. We have always been bad at it, invariably exaggerating the up sides and discounting the rest. That’s been true whether the innovation to hand has been the internal combustion engine, the interstate highway system, the birth control pill, or mapping the human genome—just to name a few obvious examples. Anyone who claims that the IT/AI prospectus now upon us is an exception begs the burden of proof.
Since few sentient observers will argue against the evidence, it is striking how avidly we are forging ahead into the brave new world of an IT/AI future with barely the bat of an eyelash. For all our experience, our default-mode optimism has not much dimmed. Some now suggest, just to take one example, that an AI world can be more selectively moral than a human world, because humans—say, soldiers in a combat zone—will act immorally (or at least amorally) under pressure, whereas a machine can (supposedly) be programmed to do as an ideally moral person would do every time. Is it wise to delegate human moral agency to a machine under some circumstances in order to protect us from our least noble selves? Which circumstances? Who gets to choose, and how? Not simple questions. The commercial media blobosphere doesn’t feature many essays on them.
Technological optimism isn’t always easy to distinguish from technological determinism, and figuring out how the two interact is tougher still. The latter often comes down to technological fatalism if we’re honest about it, and it isn’t new. “You can’t stop progress” has long been an American mantra. That new ticky-tacky shopping center being put up for the purpose of selling mostly made-to-break junk, where beautiful rolling hills of living forests, farms, and gardens used to be? That’s just how it goes.
Note, however, that the ungainly amalgam of technological optimism/fatalism has been buttressed over the decades not just by the momentum of a too lightly regulated capitalism, but also by a series of intellectual regressions on the part of supposedly intelligent people. One set of high priests told us way back when that we have no significant free will thanks to our location with respect to the means of production (Marxists). Another set told us we have no significant free will because of our subconscious (Freudians). Still other sets have more recently told us we have no significant free will because of our genes and our circumstances of birth. Hey, some have claimed: We don’t even exist as coherent individuals: Our “narrator” is a fantasy masking our objective sectionality within.
Not everyone believes these sirens, but the better educated among us tend to believe them more than do typical Americans. So why is anyone surprised by the depth of technological fatalism, since elites have vastly more capacity to mold the national mindset than the sum of American gothics? The high achievers among us behold only technical issues when something goes wrong and seek technical answers to what are not at root technical questions. The rest suffer in confusion what they must, their intuitions drowned in pools of condescension provided courtesy of their betters.
All this goes on at a time when radical forms of individualism—the one-two punch of market fundamentalism from the right, expressive individualism from the left—have hollowed out our sense of national (and more local) community. So here is the rub: How do we square the pervasiveness of technological fatalism, embodied by the near-total absence of serious debate about 5G, with the free-will premise that inheres in radical individualism?
We’re not talking about H.G. Wells’s Time Machine Eloi here circa 1895, after all. The combination conjures a vision of tens of millions of “free” Americans pretending to forms of creative self-realization that can’t logically coexist with levels of technological fatalism as high as they have been and still are. This vision, or rather this specter, in turn raises the question: Are we, as a society, sane?
The question needs be raised, because here we go again: 5G is inevitable, then 6G and onward, and we assume it will all end up being on balance good as well as inevitable: It will make things better, easier, more convenient; we’ll be more affluent and happier, and our politics will heal and face forward again as soon as we get rid of the atavism currently blocking the door. There is no justification for such optimism in the face of the failed technology predictions of the still-recent past.
Yes, looking out, 5G bears important technological, economic, business, security, and larger geopolitical implications. As with earlier generative innovation surges, not all the news will be bad, and we might get a better feel for the mix to come if we ever manage to see the elements of a 5G reality united in a coherent picture. But while we’re at it, can we perhaps spare just a moment to look in, as well?