The fifth generation of mobile telecommunications is rushing toward us with promises of speeds somewhere between 3 and 200 times faster than the previous generation. 5G will meet our “vast needs” for transmission capability, so that we can connect everything from our toaster oven to our pet’s collar to the Internet.
We are in a flat-out sprint to … where?
Here’s a fable that is probably familiar to many. The surprise is how fresh the story feels.
Running is no use. You need to set off with care. The hare and the tortoise bear witness to this.
Let’s wager, said the tortoise, that you will not reach the finish line before me.
Before you? Have you given this a thought? The light-footed animal continued: My friend, you need to purge this insanity with four seeds of hellebore.
Sane or not, I renew my bet.
So, the wager was on. And prizes for each were put at the finish line. It’s not important what the reward consisted of, nor who the judges were.
Our hare had no more than four steps to take in the race. (From what I’ve heard, when our hare needs to, he can outstrip the dogs with ease; leave them back in the dark ages to wander the fields.)
With, as I’ve said, time to nibble the grasses, sleep, and even listen for the wind’s source; the hare let the tortoise take off at her senatorial pace.
She started. She strived. She made slow haste.
Meanwhile, the hare disdained an easy victory, saw little glory in his opponent. It was a matter of honour for the hare to start late. He grazed. He napped. He amused himself with any number of pastimes, except the progress of the tortoise.
Near the end, when the hare saw that his opponent was almost touching the finish line, he took off in a flash. But his momentum was in vain. The tortoise arrived first.
Well then, cried the tortoise, wasn’t I right? Of what use is your speed? I win! And how would you do if you were carrying a house?
Moore’s Law (named after Gordon Moore, one of the co-founders of Intel and originally proposed in a 1965 article) predicted that computing power will double every two years. This largely held true until about 2015, but by 2016 articles (like this one in the MIT Technology Review) started pronouncing Moore’s Law dead. No matter. The number of transistors that can be squeezed into a chip (think clowns into a Volkswagen bug) may not be doubling quite as quickly, but the extravagant predictions around 5G suggest that we won’t be taking our foot off the connectivity-accelerator anytime soon.
Yes, there will be some useful outcomes of all this 5G hare-ing around. Life-saving applications, as a diabetic woman explained to me in the Apple store while we waited for our respective geniuses. But let’s set those noble uses of 5G aside. For the significant majority of people, what are the benefits of all this speed? Two examples that are mentioned repeatedly are—super fast movie downloads to our phones and a quantum difference in online shopping capacity.
Ah, la dolce vita. The sweet life is the instant gratification of our need to distract ourselves. And what are we distracting ourselves from? From our minds. From the big questions that float up in our consciousness, if we give them half a chance—when will I die? Does my life have meaning? Why am I lonely? Why don’t I feel free? Sure, an existential therapist (yes, that’s a thing now, and a thing that sounds pretty cool) can help with these questions. We need to make the time for the appointment. Then again, we should have loads of extra time, once 5G arrives.
But we all know that’s not how high-speed works.
Our momentum is in vain. Instead of delivering us over the finish line and into the sweet victory of a better life, a life of ease and comfort with our own selves and our place in the vastness of the universe, we find that we’ve grazed on a million movies and tv shows we barely enjoyed. We’ve nap-shopped and amused ourselves until our bellies ache with a glut of fun-fun-fun-is-this-fun? Movies and shopping (as much as I love both) are not the reason the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution on “the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet,” which condemns countries that intentionally disrupt their citizens access. 5G goes way beyond any protected rights and feels more like a lot of hyper churn in our lives.
A friend told me about a man he met in India who had no answer when he asked his name. The man had renounced his identity. I am not ready to renounce my identity, yet I know that a lot more distance from my thrill-a-millisecond-seeking ego would bring more of the ease and comfort I mentioned earlier.
The fabled tortoise is a sore winner, with all his gloating, but his question is real and urgent: Of what use is your speed?
If a movie takes minutes to download, enjoy the time to stream a daydream. If a shopping website takes seconds to load images of all the new possessions you want-need, use the pre-paid time for reverie.
Let us make more slow haste in our lives.
[*Hellebore is flowering plant which causes vomiting and was once used as a remedy for poisoning]
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