Technology will make you work less and have more time for what matters in life. How many times have you heard this promise?
The idea that machines would do the hard work for us is an old one, but it took off especially after the Industrial Revolution.
For instance, the pioneer of electric power generation Lucien Nunn once claimed electricity, which revolutionized his coal mine in Colorado, would provide his workers time and resources to take care of themselves, their families, and their country.
Another well-known example came from the influential economist John Maynard Keynes, who envisioned a future with workweeks of just 15 hours. The increase in productivity provided by new technologies, according to him, would be sufficient to meet all human needs. We would have plenty of free time for leisure.
It is obvious that none of this happened. We continue to work at least 40 hours a week and will continue to do so, at least those who still have jobs. On average, life has improved over the last decades, but the private gains from the waves of increased productivity have flowed into the pockets of a few.
The current revolutionary promise is 5G technology. Nobody talks anymore of less work and more leisure. Instead, the allure now comes from an appeal to a Jetsons-like future, encompassing smart cities, autonomous cars, robots talking to each other in factories, and refrigerators ordering food automatically from the supermarket. Work motivation can finally increase, as super connected houses will make the daily commute redundant. A glorious future.
Of course, there are many potential benefits associated with 5G. However, it has a dirty secret few people are talking about: it will produce an enormous carbon footprint. In other words, in a world already plagued by climate chaos, the technology will make greenhouse gas emissions skyrocket.
There is no free lunch in the planet. 5G will generate an astounding additional demand for electricity, which will be met mostly by fossil fuels, at least up to 2050. The rapid spread of renewable sources, such as solar and wind, will not be sufficient to quench this thirst.
The industry, of course, will sell a different narrative. They will claim 5G is associated with more efficient cell stations (true) and argue that technology can help in reducing CO2 emissions in “smart” cities (debatable).
Nevertheless, this narrative hides two inconvenient truths. The first one is that 5G, in its full version, requires much more antennas per mast — 10 to 30 times more. And it requires a lot more of these structures — a mast for every 100 or 200 meters. The overall structure, in sum, will consume much more electricity than the current system.
The second inconvenient truth — and the most important one — is the tsunami of data the technology will bring about. As billions of equipment, gadgets and trinkets start embedding chips that talk to each other, this “chatter” will require a lot of additional energy for processing and transmission. Some analysts expect an increase of up to 1,000% in the share of required energy for digital data management.
There is yet an important question mark deriving from the expected growth in cellphone antennas and masts. European scientists have warned of the leap in the dark we are taking with the increase in radiation levels in our living environments. Clearly, there is a lot of haste to move the business ahead, but little precaution.
The game has changed
We owe a lot to technology, which transformed human experience on Earth. In the long scale of planetary time, it was in the blink of an eye that we moved from living in small cities to inventing agriculture, the press, producing the Industrial Revolution, inventing the telephone, mainframes, personal computers, Internet, and, finally, smartphones. Now we are staring at another paradigm shift, which includes, in addition to 5G, artificial intelligence.
These leaps, as the reader may deduce, have been made in an increasingly accelerated pace, fitting a clear pattern of super exponential growth.
To use a metaphor, over the centuries we moved from walking barefoot to running on a treadmill, which keeps getting faster and faster thanks to an endless flow of new technologies. Ironically, sensing the machine is getting hotter but ignoring its inner workings, we still chase any possible improvements in its speed while also developing a blind faith in (guess what?) a technological “solution” to prevent its breakdown.
Unfortunately, an inevitable consequence of the acceleration in human pace is precisely collapse.
Another unfortunate consequence is our collective difficulty of realizing that the rules of the game have changed. Humankind keeps playing checkers in a world that has become a burning chessboard.
However, I am optimistic. I think this decade will mark a turnaround in social perception, reflecting the increasingly dramatic events caused by climate change. Hopefully we’ll realize that virtually any public or private policy, like 5G, has clear links to the damage we’re doing on the planet.
Perhaps we will also learn to be more skeptical of Utopian promises.