How Do We Navigate Consent, Uncertainty and Risk with New Technologies?

A deeper look at the 5G resistance

5G is on the horizon, and it’s set to be a game-changer. The word on the street is that the next generation of mobile wireless technology will be capable of supporting smart cities, driverless cars, virtual reality, and an ever-growing Internet of things. How futuristic.

Whilst a large scale UK launch isn’t expected until sometime next year, testbeds are now live in various parts of the country. A future resembling even the most fantastical sci-fi movie is therefore just around the corner… but the resistance has begun.

So what is 5G and why should you care? In a nutshell, it’s the fifth generation of mobile wireless connectivity — the technology that allows our phones or tablets to make calls, send texts, and go online without a wi-fi connection.

5G is set to make data transfer speeds significantly faster than what we have now — like 10 times (or even 100 times) faster than 4G. This generation will also have much lower latency (reduced load-times), and greater capacity to support the ever-increasing number of connected devices.

But 5G means more than an increase in your smartphone’s performance. A robust 5G network will be capable of (and necessary to) supporting more sophisticated forms of technology, from virtual and augmented reality applications to self-driving cars and remote robot-assisted surgeries. What’s not to love?

Despite its transformational potential, there’s been resistance to the 5G rollout since the get-go. Certain residents of Shoreditch, London — one of the first 5G testbeds — expressed deep concern about what they felt was an “experiment on their health”. They cited uncertainty about the safety of 5G, and research pointing to potential risks for cancer and damage to brain health.

And they’re not alone.

In 2015, 215 scientists from 40 countries published an appeal detailing their concerns about the adverse health effects of non-ionising electromagnetic fields (EMFs) to the UN and its sub-agencies. It noted an increased cancer risk, cellular stress, genetic damage, and neurological disorders, to name but a few effects. In light of existing research, the scientists called for “greater precautionary measures to be taken to reduce or eliminate EMF exposure”, which is generated by things such as wi-fi, and cellular phones and their base stations. In August 2017, these scientists issued another statement addressing 5G specifically, concerned by its use of much higher millimeter range frequencies.

Assessing the validity of these concerns is no simple task as there’s no definitive conclusion about effects of EMFs and millimeter waves on human health. On one hand, the World Health Organisation has identified EMFs as produced by mobile phones as possibly carcinogenic to humans. It’s a controversial topic, but there’s also research suggesting risks for cancer, other diseases, and antibiotic resistance. With millimeter waves, there are additional concerns about how these frequencies might be absorbed by skin.

But at the same time, research about the safety of earlier generations of mobile phones has been generally optimistic — despite similar fears about their safety. However, questions remain about the long-term effects of 5G (and EMFs in general), and the use of higher frequency millimeter waves. Ultimately, the apparent safety of earlier generations of this technology might not be enough to ensure the safety of new developments — which lack thorough testing. It’s also worth noting that the debate around mobile phone safety is ongoing, as is the question of whether the media and telecoms industries are complicit in obstructing full understanding of the science involved.

In short, it’s complicated — and hard to navigate as an average citizen with limited information.

In the year since I first started looking into 5G resistance, a wider movement has blossomed, with more and more groups campaigning around the country. I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a lot of apocalyptic fear-mongering out there, but there’s also a lot of concerned citizens taking appropriate steps to exercise their rights to protest against exposure in their local areas.

Unsurprisingly, the news media has equated any anti-5G sentiment to tin foil hat-wearing conspiracy. Reports this morning indicate that the government are planning to issue an order to local councils forbidding them from stopping 5G trials on the grounds of what it sees as unfounded safety concerns. (Probably not the most democratic idea in the world). It is thought that it will follow with a public information campaign to assuage fears, but I can only imagine that this will be more of the same — i.e. there is some cause to be optimistic, but undeniable uncertainty about long-term effects remains.

In the defense of the so-called resistniks, it’s worth remembering that we’re living in an information age where we’re all much more aware of technological side effects, past and present. Dismissing health concerns outright as crackpot luddism fails to appreciate what might represent a new culture pushing for responsible technology —which we very much need. To make this happen requires balance and open dialogues, rather than shaming and ridicule.

How do we maintain technological progress without falling victim to the ‘Collingridge Dilemma’? This is the idea that the risks of a technology aren’t always apparent early on, and by the time they are known, the technology is too built into society to easily do anything about it.

In the face of uncertainty, the EMF scientists and others call for a precautionary principle, which exists to mitigate risks where scientific understanding may be incomplete.

UNESCO provides a working definition of the Precautionary Principle as such:

“When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.

Morally unacceptable harm refers to harm to humans or the environment that is threatening to human life or health, or; serious and effectively irreversible, or; inequitable to present or future generations, or imposed without adequate consideration of the human rights of those affected.”

Sound pretty sensible, right? Given that 5G is expected to be widespread — the government has been clear in its intention to ensure that the UK is at the forefront of 5G — the potential for harm is so high that a precautionary approach might seem warranted. And yet the latest update on the government’s 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme makes no reference to concerns about human health.

And who is responsible for ensuring the safety of this new technology, or invoking a precautionary approach, anyway? When EE were asked about safety testing for their Shoreditch testbed, they forwarded reporters to Ofcom, who sell the bandwidths but state that safety of EMF exposure is beyond their remit. So should we look to infrastructure providers? The government? International organisations? It’s not clear.

Questions of 5G safety aside, the citizen protests raise another interesting question about new technologies. Residents are not being consulted about 5G exposure — to their persons, or on their private property. Should they be? As uncertainty exists surrounding the safety of EMFs, do we have any recourse to protect ourselves from exposure in the absence an overarching precautionary approach on our behalf?

To look at invisible wireless technologies is interesting, as an individual’s desire to ‘opt out’ isn’t a straightforward option. One can chose not to use a mobile phone, but we have very little control over whether we’re exposed to EMF radiation. As 5G — and other wireless technologies — are inherently without boundaries, and soon to be built into our infrastructure, there appears to be no real option to withdraw.

For many of us, we wouldn’t give it a second thought, but on the extreme end of the spectrum are those suffering from Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity. This is a controversial and poorly understood medical condition in which those affected purportedly experience a host of physical symptoms when exposed to electromagnetic fields. Whilst the reality of this medical condition is up for debate, their predicament remains an interesting reminder of how technology is becoming inescapable.

So how do we protect the needs (or preferences) of the few against the needs of the many? Do we open a more transparent dialogue between scientists and the public to address concerns about wireless technologies? Do we establish wireless ‘quiet zones’ for those resolute in their desire to opt out? Given that wireless technology lacks clear boundaries, how practical would that be?

And, regardless of the validity of health concerns, is ‘opting out’ something we should have a right to anyway?

Ultimately, questions surrounding precaution and consent make 5G a more complex issue that it might appear on the surface, as does uncertainty about where responsibility for safety lies.

Does concern about safety make you a conspiracy theorist? Does not wanting to be a guinea pig make you a luddite? In our hi-tech society, it seems that standing in the way of a new technology is an unpopular move. But, for better or worse, this right now is the moment to be asking the difficult questions — before 5G is built into the fabric of our society.

I’m no expert; I’m just a social scientist who’s spent some time digging into the subject of 5G safety. What I’ve found is an absence of information that would convince me one way or the other, and for that reason I would probably object to a 5G mast on my roof.

Writer. Filmmaker. Entrepreneur. Overthinker. Honest talk about technology, modern culture, startup life, and the human mind

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