Bendy phones aside, the star of Mobile World Congress next week will be anything that comes with a 5 and a G.
Phone makers and telecommunications companies will descend on Europe’s biggest technology trade show, boasting about the lightning speed of the next generation of mobile communications. This will set the stage for years of hype about the Next Big Thing.
Yet, when 5G does arrive, we will almost certainly find ourselves fundamentally unprepared – because the most important changes it brings won’t be technological, but political.
The tension between the US and China over Huawei’s role in the construction of 5G infrastructure is just the start.
Here are 20 predictions about the political impact of 5G:
1. 5G is a network technology, so its main effect will be on networks and networked entities. To borrow Anne-Marie Slaughter’s metaphor, this is about webs, not chessboards.
2. This will be important to remember in the early days of 5G, when the dominant narrative will be about the nation-state “race” to build it. Trust me: ten years later, no-one will remember who won.
3. 5G provides lightning-fast upload and download speeds, so at first its main effect will be to speed up existing political communications. Imagine our current situation, only faster.
4. This is worth repeating: 5G will speed up the news cycle. Even if it did nothing else, this alone would be terrifying.
5. 5G is also more reliable than 4G, so it’ll make internet access more pervasive. On the plus side, this means fewer mobile dead spots. On the downside, there will be literally no escape. If you feel suffocated now, imagine the air getting a whole lot thinner.
6. As time goes on, 5G will enable new technological industries. We can guess they’ll be augmented reality and the internet of things. Guessing exactly how that’ll happen is impossible.
7. But to guess anyway – imagine 5G allows genuinely accessible virtual reality. If it does, then an utterly all-encompassing media will be marketed to poor people as a substitute for reality. Much later, we’ll realise this was a recipe for radicalisation on a mass scale.
8. The point is, everything has political effects. Remember, the alt-right grew out of a row about political correctness among video game players.
9. However they arrive, one of these breakthroughs will produce a new tech giant. This will be used to argue that the market was working, because Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook were vulnerable to competition all along. In fact, adding one monopoly will not make the other monopolies any less exploitative.
10. The difference between the new giant and the old giants will be size. With 5G, we will be online constantly. When its potential market is all the time of all the people in the world, the new giant could easily be 100 times bigger than Facebook.
11. One day, we’ll look back at the late 2010s and laugh at how easy it would have been to tackle the puny tech giants of that time. This will be good, because we’ll be alive to laugh. Probably.
12. Whatever the new giant does, its business model will be surveillance.
13. Many people won’t realise how important this is, because it will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable individuals in society.
14. Surveillance changes the balance of power in society: when you can watch people all the time, you don’t need to make their lives better. Think of every object you can see, connected and spewing out data. That’s what 5G makes possible, and fast.
15. Unless we’re careful, 5G is part of the darkest timeline.
16. Really, though – because 5G will make it possible to build factories full of connected machines, and offices full of connected chairs and doors. The decline of labour compared to capital will accelerate. As much as the internet, 5G is an engine of inequality.
17. Every revolution has its counterrevolution, so 5G will also encourage decentralising movements. Maybe one of these will actually be successful – you never know, it could even be blockchain.
18. With a billion connected devices coming online, hacks will become a feature of everyday life. They’ll be big and, occasionally, very scary.
19. One day, a major hack will come directly from a nation state. That will be even scarier.
20. Most of the biggest political changes brought about by 5G aren’t on this list, because they’re too unpredictable. Will older people be given a new lease of life by driverless pods? Will young people stop having sex, inhibited by their connected mattresses?
We won’t know till we get there. But, whatever anyone says, nothing is inevitable. Especially not technology.