In a locked-down world society has become atomized.
For those that can work remotely, the household has become the workplace. Rather than congregate in large and central locations, our working environments are now small clusters of individuals – the “node size” of the workplace has shrunk. At the same time, the workforce has become dispersed. Each of us is highly reliant on connectivity: we can only perform the tasks at hand properly when able to digitally communicate with others, both with our colleagues and to access resources on the internet.
The 5G debate has also shed light on the problems of centralized control. Huawei has been barred from building critical communications infrastructure across NATO countries because of a growing recognition of the subterranean warfare raging between West- and East-aligned powers. As counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen remarks, whilst the West is restrained in its ability to wage war on multiple fronts by Congress, international law, and the European Convention on Human Rights, non-Western powers can engage in multifaceted conflict through technological, informational, cultural and economic avenues (2020). Thus, although China does not pose a violent threat to occidental interests, the issues with a China that controls not only Western electronics but also the very networks that underpin advanced society are becoming increasingly apparent.
There are inherent flaws with production methods that rely on a single manufacturer, whether foreign or domestic. When that manufacturer – the central “node” – is infiltrated, the whole system becomes vulnerable. Indeed, one of the recent proposals to address 5G security issues is to make the hardware and software open source. This would make the schematics for the infrastructure components freely accessible, and thus open them up to the scrutiny of the entire development community. The Open Air Interface describes itself as a ‘5G software alliance for democratizing wireless innovation’. With the backing of hundred-billion-dollar corporations like Qualcomm and Facebook, along with prestigious educational institutions across the world, the decentralized development of 5G that the group advocates for seems very likely.
There are inherent flaws with production methods that rely on a single manufacturer, whether foreign or domestic.
Decentralization is something that can benefit all of us, even if the atomization we experience during lockdown can be painful. By creating a freer digital experience, we may be able to address economic and social inequalities. A system in which each device is equally capable of producing as well as consuming, of giving as well as taking, claws back power from multinational entities and befits a kind of independence that the current system lacks. This could help bring us closer to the kind of meritocracy that the American patriots first envisioned, rather than the warped and inverted kind that proliferates.
On the face of it, centralization in a purely physical sense confers the major benefit of efficiencies of scale, with multiplicative effects on productivity and innovation. Scientific and technological discoveries are disproportionately clustered in big, developed cities. The tight and densely interwoven network structures of metropolitan areas produce more than the sum of their parts: a whole host of experts with deep knowledge on esoteric, specialist topics can congregate, collaborate, and learn from each other actively, to produce bold ideas.
However, the basic virtue of cities is not their central nature, but the high density of good quality links between people that it affords. Urban individuals can directly communicate with millions of others. As direct in-person contact is superior to the technologically enabled kind, the countless opportunities for direct contact with others mean that urban areas become sites for innovation.
The advantages of face to face encounters are twofold, and both can be replicated with technology. Firstly, when communicating in person, much greater volumes of information are transmitted than through digital at present. A great deal of what we say is conveyed through subtle body language, gestures, intonation, and prosody. If we can capture this lost information, we can make digital rendezvous both more satisfying and more effective. The second benefit of real-life communication is that it possesses spontaneity. Accidents, chance encounters, and close contact with strangers are much rarer online. These occurrences allow information to flow between people in a fluid, ever-changing, and unpredictable way.
Many an outlandish, improbable idea and discovery can be attributed to accident. Philosopher Paul Thagard, writing on the process of scientific innovation, says that ‘serendipity may provide a surprising or curiosity-inducing event that inspires questioning, as when Newton’s perception of the fall of an apple moved him to wonder who objects fall toward the earth’s center…[and] when a search is underway, serendipity may provide a representation or operator that was not part of the original problem place, as when Goodyear discovered vulcanization’ (1998). Digital communications today suffer from a failure to represent indirect signaling, and a lack of unintentional interaction. There are some exceptions, like the virtual bar x, which has become popular in lockdown Ukraine. However, although you are afforded one type of contact with online strangers, you are not given the opportunity to spill your drink on them, unintentionally dance with their girlfriend, or pick a bloody fight. On a serious note, we really do need digital interaction to improve, to replicate chance and randomness, and non-literal communication, if we are to expect it to live up to its real-life counterpart.
The advantages of face to face encounters are twofold, and both can be replicated with technology.
The ability to have fully-fleshed interactions with others, through a digital system that democratizes the relations between producer and consumer, would revolutionize modern society. Lockdowns like this would be a lot more bearable. But also, it may fundamentally reshape the way that we organize ourselves. Humans are social animals, and communications – whether personal or professional – are the lynchpin of our existence. But the models of electronic communication we have today are not designed to maximize the benefits we can reap from them. Decentralized communications will require a radical rethink of how networks are built, and user experiences are designed. Nonetheless, the payoffs will be immense.