5G, big data, artificial intelligence, governmental surveillance; it is as if someone was narrating a story from the future, a series of events from another reality, occurring perhaps in some parallel universe light years away from our planet. Few would have thought that our lives, decision-making and society’s organization would depend so greatly, and perhaps even so gravely, on technology.
As our societies constantly progress, we are thrust viciously in the sphere of a technological revolution and we unconsciously become integral members or a massive process of change. The recent pandemic affected the course of global developments and called into question the status quo. But this digital revolution that has already engulfed our existence is here to put into perspective matters of international security, human rights and individuality.
Is individual freedom the price to pay for national security? How much more should our current connection abilities expand to cater for our needs? Will the management of large pools of data be the key to restoring global stability?
Questions like these have remained unanswered for quite some time, with analysts and researchers hunched over their notes, desperately seeking for an inexistent answer. Despite the uncertainty that revolves around such issues, there is no doubt that these are times of change. Profound, large and unprecedented change. But our societies are undergoing a redefinition of their current social, cultural and economic makeup and will eventually emerge from this process significantly altered. But let us address these issues one by one.
One of the biggest debates in technology at the moment is the introduction of 5G networks into the current telecommunications system. This recently developed and up to date generation of mobile networks will widen the prospects of a more connected world; one in which instantaneous connections to innumerable services will be possible, without national limitations or physical restraints. The higher speed, lower latency and better wireless services compared to its predecessor make the possibility of 5G an irresistible one. At the end of the day, progress is always good, isn’t it?
The majority, in this case, begs to differ. Despite the still unobserved and hard to measure benefits of the new generation of telecommunications, the health and environmental implications seem to have curbed the enthusiasm around the introduction of this new medium into our societies. The management of large amounts of data and more wireless – connected devices is viewed with scepticism by scientists, who point out the health risks of the energy transmitted by the faster 5G radiofrequency (RF). The US Federal Communications Commission may have made the transition into 5G a priority, but not everybody else is on board. As a matter of fact, a 2017 survey conducted by the University of Wollongong in Australia, showed that 40% of the 2,450 respondents coming from six EU countries concerned about new technologies and their impact on the environment. Interestingly enough, 12% of the respondents described themselves as “enduringly concerned”, as they were frequently thinking and talking about exposure to electromagnetic fields and high RFs.
Despite the recent studies and surveys aiming to prove that, perhaps, the risks of a 5G introduction may not be as dire as some imagine, and despite the numerous surveys proving that the environment won’t be heavily affected, much scepticism remains. A 2019 review of environmental levels of RF signals didn’t find an increase in the overall levels since 2012, despite the massive increase in the use of wireless telecommunications. As we approach times of crisis, however, these systems may be the salvation of our societies, currently compromised by the violent COVID-19 pandemic.
For years, the fields of decision-making and technology were seen as separate. Many falsely claimed that the politically driven and philosophically motivated fields of government could never have aligned with the technocratic schools of thought that relied on practical and precise activities. However, now more than ever, we have come to value evidence-based politics and the contribution of scientific research to political decision making. The introduction of fields such as big data analytics became a necessity the faster our societies grew. The more facts there were to understand and decipher, the more practical tools were needed. The harder political analysts strived to find precise figures to justify their decisions, the greater became the need to welcome researchers into the governmental spectrum.
Let us visualise the following scenario: suppose that the severity of the current health crisis wasn’t clearly and accurately observed during the last months of 2019. Suppose that data analysts hadn’t noticed a peak in the number of reported cases and the staggering number of daily deaths. And suppose that, despite governments recording the daily victims to the invisible enemy, decisions were based only on health and political experts. The result? Chaos.
Data is not only numbers and figures, increases or falls that can be translated into graphs and curves. It is individuals, politicians and the economy all combined into one. Its analysis is translated into the variables that compose a society in the 21st century. Though few are those who understand its value, and even fewer are those who can correctly underline its significance, the interpretation of massive amounts of data can pave the way to our future. The interpretation of such data can contribute to accurate decisions in the health sector, specifically designed public policies and financial strategies that might ensure the sidestepping of economic landmines. Across the globe, advisors of presidents and prime ministers now belong to the “technocratic” side, rather than the much too theoretical, vague and ideologically driven political world. The emergence of the data-oriented sector doesn’t come without its costs, though.
In a time of global instability and during an era when we are all called to redefine our identities, the introduction of deeply technocratic means in societies that were previously lacking any such component may be unsettling to some. Most experts shine the light on the hottest issue at this moment: privacy.
Concerns on the violations of personal liberty are emerging at a gruelling pace. The more governments need to rely on personal data to design policies, the more concerned individuals become about their privacy and individuality. Those who ask themselves “how far should the government be allowed to go?” soon realise they have hit a dead-end: once the decision makers become dependent on data interpreters and technocrats, there is no going back. And the lengths to which they are willing to go are better left undescribed.
Currently, domestic monitoring of civilians is considered as one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. Knowing the when, where, why and how of individual meetings will ensure a slower transmission of the serious viral disease. But is personal freedom the price to pay to ensure general prosperity? Some governments think so and act accordingly, as in the cases of China, Russia, Israel and Iran.
Some can’t shake the thought of the “big brother” prying into their lives, reporting their every move, restricting their sense of individuality and subsequently their independence. Others recognize the importance of such measures and are willing to sacrifice the natural rights of freedom and independence for the general good. But is there a middle ground? Surely, the situation cannot be that bad? As in everything, some truth lies behind the veil of statements and declarations that governments always make in a hurry, leaving their audience with several question marks behind their eyes.
The discussion about the use of data location sets is a forerunner of the discussions on civil liberties and personal freedom during surveillance. Surely, anonymity is ensured, and personal information remains classified, but how much should individuals freely give in order to ensure the future of their society? As in any stable structure, one cannot tear down the walls of individuality and personal liberties in order to secure the greater prosperity of all. These boundaries are, however, called into question by the dire international destabilization which decision-makers are called to address.
It soon becomes crystal clear that our societies are evolving in unprecedented ways. Issues like privacy, individuality and security as seen from the perspective of technocratic approaches has never been laid on the discussion board before. For the first time in the 21st century, one observes the meticulous efforts of decision-makers to incorporate new, much-needed tools in their policy design in order to prevent the collapse of their entire social constructs. The cohabitation of scientific tools in the field of decision-making will become undeniably stronger.