2020: Antennas Aflame: Cybernetics, Conspiracies and 5G

This article digs into the 5G conspiracy in the time of coronavirus, looking to take it seriously, not on a factual level – as plainly there are many false components – but rather to see how the incredible spread of such conspiracies is bound up with our strange and terrible historic moment and what this means more generally. This article is was published first in print in Arena in issue 4, 2020, which you can see a PDF of here. Thereafter, it was published on Arena’s website too.

Colonies of increasingly sophisticated antennas have been spreading across host societies, reorganising the ways people live their lives through encoded electromagnetic radiation. Positioned atop cellular towers, parasitically grafted onto older structures or raised on high natural formations, these antennas occupy a contradictory place in the high-tech societies they invisibly enmesh. Considering their prominent positions in and around cities, they are like magico-religious symbols. The newest ones are strikingly blank, long white boxes that protect and conceal apparatuses that transmit directional microwaves with sector-shaped radiation patterns. Plugged into fibre-optic cables and thus the global infrastructure of the internet, these logistical nodes are tended by a priesthood of techno-scientists, governed by regimes of protocol, operating through specific privatised wavelengths. All up, they enable cybernetic communion within and between networked computing-machines—the ‘magic’ of information communication technologies. These antennas are hidden in plain sight, just another very poorly understood part of the background of twenty-first-century life. So long as they allow for communion with and through the cybernetic gods, they remain part of an ambient backdrop. These highly visible and simultaneously invisible devices are products of abstract intellectual labour, and thus highly unintelligible to most people.

Beginning as simple pieces of wire in the nineteenth century, antenna technologies have underpinned radio, broadcast television, mobile-phone coverage and wireless internet connectivity. Wireless transmission intensified with the coming of the cybernetic era, seemingly increasing exponentially with the rise of mobile cellular computing-machines. Rolled out in the 1980s, the first commercial automated cellular network enabled voice calls between mobile devices. Later called 1G, this analogue technology was replaced by the digitised 2G network in the 1990s, which brought text messages with it. Then, in the 2000s 3G opened up the transmission of data and thus smartphones, and in the 2010s, 4G was further optimised for streaming video.

At the dawn of the 2020s, 5G takes this development further, allowing far higher speeds of data transmission, extremely low latency and greater network capacity. In terms of data transfer, if one gigabyte of data takes around 11 minutes to download on 3G, and 40 seconds on 4G, it takes 3.2 seconds on 5G. This technological infrastructure is seen as the necessary underpinning that will allow for a rapidly expanding ‘Internet of Things’—complex apparatuses like self-driving cars, increased machine-to-machine communication, and the proliferation of blockchain technologies. These emergent technologies are sure to create major ‘disruptions’ that will further entrench the abstracting power of cybernetic capitalism, with a pitched geopolitical struggle over the dominant form this takes. Australia has obediently followed the United States in escalating tensions with China by banning Huawei from making hardware for Australia’s 5G network, citing suspicions that Beijing may have control over the company. While this correctly recognises the power of infrastructure and surveillance, it applies extreme double standards with respect to the power the Pentagon has over the US-based tech industry.

5G requires three kinds of antenna to operate simultaneously and in parallel, with computers determining the optimal combination of signals and sources to ensure the highest data-transmission rate vis-à-vis the device and the network. Owing to its very limited signal range, the network requires far more nodes to be built, installed, powered and maintained, as well as entirely new sets of compatible machines, thus speeding up the slide of present technology towards its built-in obsolescence. Also, as the 5G nodes need to transmit far more intense electromagnetic frequencies, as well as doing the automated calculations to make the system work, such transmission requires significantly more electricity, both for the cell towers and for the receiving devices. Beyond mobile batteries being flattened faster, this also means that far more electricity will have to be generated and transmitted. We are already on track for the communication-technology sector to consume more than half of all electricity generated on earth by 2030. One fact captures this nicely: streaming one hour of high-definition video consumes the same amount of energy as running a refrigerator for two weeks. Considering the vast amount of on-demand audiovisual data being streamed, this has shocking ecological implications.

Suffice to say, 5G will undoubtably mean that far more data will be moved around, hence far more energy will be burned, far more pollutants released, far more technologies fabricated in toxic and exploitative conditions, far more rare-earth mining undertaken and far more e-waste exported to the poorest corners of the world. With grim irony, we live in a moment where there have never been more compelling arguments to consume less, to lead less energy-intensive lives, yet here we are, at the beginning of a vastly expanded energy usage.

Amid collapsing ecosystems, roiling social decay and fragmented consciousness, the captains of industry maintain that the long march towards a glorious future must progress. This ‘inevitable’ course of development is championed by the one-dimensional cheers of techno-utopians, be they free marketeers, techno-fascists, academic celebrants of posthumanism, or ‘fully automated luxury communists’. They all envision lifestyles of increasing technological mastery, infinite on-demand consumption and disembodied integration, all promoted through the mantras of ‘efficiency’, ‘convenience’ and ‘connectivity’, each term increasingly separated from any kind of social or ecological grounding.

Yet, while some of the most powerful actors on the planet push for these kinds of futures, not everyone is thrilled.

A burning antenna is a striking image: flames engulfing a 5G antenna spewing foul smoke, dripping melting plastics, shooting high-voltage sparks, burning away at the infrastructural basis of cybernetic capitalism. The image is more striking still when the antenna is immolated by politically motivated arsonists acting on conspiracy theories. In just one month, arsonists in the United Kingdom burnt seventy-seven 5G antenna towers, and many other towers were incinerated across Europe, while the US Department of Homeland Security has issued warnings to its telecom industry advising it to take steps to prevent such attacks. The plot thickens when it turns out that the attackers were motivated by a conviction that the communication towers are bound up with the coronavirus pandemic. There are variations on the 5G conspiracy, as discussed below, but the main claims are that 5G either causes or intensifies COVID or that the virus is being used by elites as a way to tighten control via biotech surveillance.

Much of mainstream liberal commentary on the 5G conspiracy consists of snide dismissals that blame credulous individuals for inaccurate beliefs. Yet, given how widespread the 5G conspiracies have become, it is not enough to dismiss them; likewise, myth busting and fact checking aren’t an adequate response. This approach is ill-suited to understanding the nature of the problem and formulating a political response to it, and it seems ineffective at changing minds. While conspiracies might be various shades of false, knowledge has a variety of social functions and is not reducible to a purely rationalistic logic. Perhaps it is more fruitful to examine the conspiracies that drive actions such as 5G-tower burning and to speculate about what they mean as a reflection of our present historical conjuncture. This doesn’t mean agreeing with all the claims of conspiracists, but it does suggest a need to interpret them in their relation to the deeper structural crises that afflict our world.

Conspiracists connect COVID-19 and 5G in a number of ways, each offering a different glimpse of the societies in which these conspiracies have found fertile ground. They can in part be understood as representative of different factions, sometimes in competition with one another for adherents, and sometimes able to be bundled together. 5G conspiracies are also bound up with sprawling networks of other conspiracies that cover an extraordinarily large range of preoccupations: the knights templar, 9/11 truthers, chemtrails, anti-vax, Creationism, fluoride mind control, ‘white genocide’, Elvis lives, Roko’s Basilisk, and flat earthers. From the benign to the vile, mixing elements of the occult, the paranoid, the plausible and the actual, they are stitched together often with heroic levels of cognitive dissonance, yet sometimes containing important kernels of truth. Conspiratorial beliefs seem to thrive in the fringes, yet they are decidedly not limited to such outliers. The conspiratorial claim that climate change is a hoax has been thoroughly accepted by many of the most powerful states and corporations on the planet, with planet-burning consequences. Conspiracy theories seem to require a degree of plausibility, and this may well reflect the increasingly large void that separates everyday experience and what might count as real or true from our techno-scientifically reorganised world. People intuitively disturbed by these developments may find the explanatory power of the 5G conspiracies a way to make sense of our chaotic world.

The crudest version of the 5G conspiracy—that electromagnetic frequencies emitted from 5G antennas directly cause the virus—is a belief that departs from any possible basis in scientific knowledge of the material universe, both the knowledge of the physicist and that of the physician. Perhaps this understanding of the conspiracy rests, at least in part, on the fact that 5G and SARS-CoV-2 are both new, frightening and poorly understood outside of specialist knowledges. Curiously, here and elsewhere, some conspiracy theorists seek to make their anti-scientific argument using pseudo-scientific terms. An example of this is the various maps circulating online that plot the density of 5G towers over the number of COVID-19 cases—a geospatial data analysis—and assert that there is a causal relation between the two (as opposed to seeing both as proxies for population density). Despite the cherry picking and logical fallacy at the heart of this, the conspiracy here adopts elements of a scientific discourse to make claims that run counter to the mainstream scientific explanation, drawing on empirical data and plotting it in abstract projections to create what looks like truth. When conspiracists couch their claims in pseudo-scientific terminology it suggests both the hegemonic social power of science—where even its enemies must argue at least superficially in its terms—as well as a profound weakness: how scientific discourse is so abstracted from many people’s experience of the world and how fundamentally political today’s scientific enterprise is.

Building on the claim that 5G causes coronavirus, the social effects of the pandemic are seen as a giant cover-up—a ‘plandemic’—with its adherents preferring to believe that it is a manufactured product of mass propaganda and systemic corruption rather than the health crisis explained by epidemiology and virology. While claims that the pandemic was ‘planned’ are impossible to substantiate in any meaningful way, claims of mass propaganda and systemic corruption are harder to dismiss. It is certainly true that governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to ram through all sorts of dubious policies. For example, Australia has seen waves of deregulation to ‘cut red and green tape’, tax cuts for the rich, wage freezes, increased defence spending, university-fee restructuring and massive investments in coal-seam gas, and all this as public-interest journalism continues to collapse and endless corruption scandals corrode governments’ legitimacy.

And, while 5G didn’t cause COVID, cybernetic technologies did drastically accelerate the virus’s global spread. A mere three months separated the first recorded case of coronavirus and its spread to 114 countries and the declaration of a pandemic. Such extreme speed of transmission is unimaginable without cybernetically enabled globalisation. On far lower frequencies than 5G, older forms of radio-wave technologies such as radar have been essential to mass air travel. Today radar is automated via the fully cybernetic systems that surveil and control the world’s vast fleets of aircraft; it has been essential to the ‘everyday’ air travel of the last decades, along with the cheap oil that powered planes made by aerospace military corporations such as Airbus and Boeing and globalised production. These various factors have created a hypermobility of bodies that reaches deep into what were hitherto relatively closed societies—in short, perfect conditions for the rapid distribution of pathogens, and anxieties about them.

Other conspiracists suggest that 5G technology weakens people’s immune systems, thus making the virus more likely to spread. Again, this claim is dismissed in mainstream scientific understandings, the argument being that non-iodising radiation emitted by wireless technologies does not cause health problems. All the same, fears around this form of radiation are widespread and cannot be totally dismissed, hence granting plausibility to the claims of conspiracists, in part because of the breakneck speed at which such technologies are developed and deployed. With the changes occurring so quickly, it simply isn’t possible to study the long-term effects of such technologies until they are released from the laboratories of the techno-scientists into the public laboratory of everyday life.

This version of the conspiracy connects with the claims of those afflicted by ‘electromagnetic hypersensitivity’, a condition said to be brought on by exposure to electromagnetic frequencies that causes dermatological symptoms (burning sensations, redness, tingling) as well as neurasthenic and vegetative symptoms (concentration difficulties, digestive disturbances, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, heart palpitations, tiredness). The World Health Organization acknowledges that these symptoms are real, and that they vary widely between individuals, with the potential to cause genuine suffering and be quite disabling. However, the WHO also notes that there is no clear diagnostic criteria, nor any scientific basis to link the condition to electromagnetic frequencies, with double-blind studies showing no correlation between exposure and symptoms. While problematic and not yet understood, these radiofrequency illnesses can provisionally be seen as unaccountable suffering, yet in one sense or another an embodied reaction to the disembodying powers of cybernetic capitalism.

These health concerns congeal into what is the most widespread version of the conspiracy: the claim that the pandemic is part of a global elite strategy—personified in Bill Gates—to roll out compulsory vaccinations that contain tracking microchips that can be activated by 5G technologies. This formulation draws actuality, plausibility, distortion and falsity into a potent combination that has spread very rapidly, finding many adherents and sympathisers. It is worth taking this conspiracy seriously in order to think through its constitutive elements—medical science, inequality, surveillance and cybernetic technology—and its social context on multiple levels.

One of the ways in which this theory could spread so quickly was through its connection to the larger and deeper anti-vaccination movement, a major and growing controversy. Vaccination represents the moment when the abstract cybernetic system literally penetrates the body (much like IVF a generation ago), thus making it a more obvious frontline of social struggle. Of course, population-level vaccination, such as in the eradication of smallpox, has had a huge impact on the quality of human lives. Smallpox killed 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the entire Indigenous population of the Americas following the European conquest, and it kept on killing in the twentieth century, with more than 300 million people dying of the disease. After a massive push via the WHO beginning in 1967, it was declared officially eliminated in 1980. Yet, curiously, just as smallpox was being eliminated, two other developments were unfolding: on the one hand a growing distrust of scientific medicine, and on the other the rapid rise of biotech as a key intensification of cybernetic capitalism. Distrust in scientific medicine increased across the 1970s and was grounded in legitimate critique. Much of this drew on the very real abuse of research subjects, the mass marketing of dubious drugs, an increasing awareness of ecological degradation and toxification, the medicalisation of childbirth, and the corruption of GPs and university researchers by corporate powers. Recent research in Australia has shown how perceptions of the profit motive in medicine caused distrust in the expert systems of vaccination and are thus central to the anti-vax movement. Almost all participants in the research correctly depicted pharmaceutical companies as primarily responsible to their shareholders rather than the societies in which they operate.

These concerns cannot be easily dismissed, even if adopting an anti-vax position is problematic, particularly with respect to any prospective COVID-19 vaccine. In 2015 Andy Blunden wrote in Arena Magazine:

Vaccine hesitancy arising from distrust of institutionalised medicine is a serious problem. If this distrust continues to grow, we will eventually learn our lessons in the wake of a global pandemic. Health authorities must take the holistic health movement seriously and engage it in finding practical solutions in collaboration with the medical profession. Such collaboration was the outcome of both the Women’s Health Movement and the HIV/AIDS movement. ‘Representatives’ of the holistic health movement are not easily identifiable, but people who may be influential in localities where there is an antivaccination culture could be engaged in formal deliberative dialogue—not to persuade, but to explore solutions.

It was also in the 1980s that the biotech industry reached its fully fledged form. Developments in biology, pharmacology and bioengineering came together with a whole host of complex sensory mechanisms to bring about a significant shift in the life sciences. Building on the constitutive forces that enabled the origin of cybernetic capitalism in the military-industrial complex of the Second World War, the rise of biotech brought a tighter weave to the alliance between state-funded research, corporate power over technology, and financial capital, with the combination radically altering humanity’s relationship with the natural world. Crucially, at the same time, neoliberal forms of governance were unfolding, the two being fundamentally bound together. Neoliberalism’s emphasis on market liberalisation, privatisation, deregulation and intellectual-property rights undergirded the biotech industry as it began to reorganise ‘life as surplus’, to use Melinda Cooper’s phrase.

So, as nature was being reconstituted on the most basic sub-cellular level, the rise of neoliberal policies created the conditions for intensified capital accumulation and the beginning of a shocking rise in inequality, both within and between nations. The 5G conspiracy taps into this through its focus on Bill Gates, as an exemplary personification of vast inequality. The richest man in the world for decades, Gates currently has a personal fortune of around US$120 billion (similar to the GDP of Morocco, which is in the top third of nations). Even though he has long ceased to be the CEO of Microsoft, his wealth has tripled since the 2007–08 Global Financial Crisis, and it has grown by around $20 billion since the beginning of the pandemic. But of course, it’s not only about Gates. He is just one of the world’s 2189 billionaires, who have a combined wealth of $10.2 trillion (approximately twice the GDP of Japan, the third highest after the United States and China). This figure has ballooned by a massive 25 per cent since March 2020, at the same time as tens of millions of people have lost their jobs, been locked down and are now living in poverty.

Back in the late 1990s when Gates was at the helm of Microsoft fighting off an anti-trust case, he decided to try to shake his arch-monopolist image with a PR coup/tax-dodging effort that saw the creation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s biggest private philanthropic foundation. Holding around US$50 billion worth of endowments, his foundation’s Global Health Division has a larger budget than the World Health Organization. Long before the current pandemic, the Gateses have been champions of vaccination, often with a focus on the Global South. Melinda Gates said in 2012:

[If] we could stimulate the pharmaceutical companies through public private partnerships to…create vaccines. If we could guarantee them a market of millions of children getting this vaccine and then being paid for it in the developing world. If we could commit to a market and we knew that the demand would be there, we could incent them with the right research dollars to actually create those vaccines.

Formulated thus, a poor country’s systemic health problems are reducible to their exclusion from the circulation of high-tech commodities, hence the need for philanthropic money to artificially create demand in order to give pharmaceutical companies the incentives to supply vaccines and make profits. Considered thus, public healthcare becomes thoroughly commodified—something that is bought and sold on profit-maximising markets. This formulation dodges fundamental questions about global inequality, both in terms of wealth and decision-making power and because it downplays the crucial role of public infrastructure to provide clean water and sanitation as basic to health. Rather, high technology becomes the answer to all problems, a panacea controlled by the most powerful to apparently ‘save the world’, and make lots of money at the same time.

By coincidence, as the coronavirus began spreading in Wuhan in December 2019, a team of techno-scientists at MIT published their findings from research made possible by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funding. The team’s research described ‘quantum dots’, kinds of injectable nanocrystals that can remain invisible under the skin, releasing near-infrared light that is detectable via a specially equipped smartphone. The research succeeded in making the crystals glow in the bodies of rats and the team envisioned their technology being used to record who had been vaccinated and with what in the Global South—a kind of biometric medical record. Their work, and its connection with the Gateses, became a key element in the 5G-COVID conspiracy. The scientists were perplexed by this, saying that ‘there’s no microchips at all’, that their quantum dots don’t connect to 5G, and that they were designed to help the poor receive adequate health treatments. Gates himself dismisses the conspiracies as ‘so stupid’, and mainstream commentary follows suit. Notwithstanding the distinction between a 5G-enabled tracking-microchip implant and injected quantum dots that emit smartphone-readable infrared light—and hence the fact that this part of the conspiracy is plainly false at an empirical level—it does correctly characterise some key aspects of the present conjuncture: a billionaire representative of cybernetic capitalism funding privatised research to develop techno-scientific tools that can better surveil the bodies of the poor. That is accurate in ways that liberal commentators struggle to understand.

One unreflective limitation of the conspiracy theory is the uncomfortable fact that one doesn’t need to invent a fictional injectable microchip to have a full-blown surveillance society—we’re already there: the ‘smart’ technologies that increasingly enmesh our lives achieve this without having to pierce our skin. Networked computing-machines and the whole cybernetic apparatus of real-time GPS location awareness, voice recognition, sentiment-analysis algorithms, targeted advertising, biometric identification, predictive policing and much more are a powerful material foundation for totalising surveillance. These developments are part of a long history of the powerful using scientific forces to view the world from above in order to project control upon it, with its abstracting power qualitatively altering humanity’s relationship with itself and the natural world.

What is curious is that on some level those drawn to the 5G conspiracy seem to reject such logics of control, seemingly being alienated by cybernetic surveillance, the techno-scientific recoding of life and instrumental rationality, as well as spiralling inequalities. But ironically, the anti-5G movement is also deeply enframed and empowered by cybernetics: the rapid spread of the movement is unthinkable without the automated surveillance and manipulations of the tech-titans. How many people were drawn into anti-5G thinking while engaging with material brought to them courtesy of 5G technology? Or thanks to one ‘friend’s’ sharing a story that, once engaged with, triggers feedback loops of automated propaganda: auto-play, filter bubbles, echo chambers, targeted advertising, customised truth. Such ironies point to the contradictions out of which they are emerging.

Such cybernetic feedback loops have been given attention lately to try to explain, in part, the rise of another, far darker conspiracy theory: QAnon. Beginning at the time of Trump’s 2016 election campaign, the conspiracy flourished in several extremist internet forums, notably the same places that played a crucial role in the Christchurch murderer’s online strategy of marketing fascism through massacre. After years steeped in this troll-haunted, ‘alt-right’ soup, QAnon broke into the mainstream. Considering its origins, it has resonated in strange places, for instance, in Australia’s online wellness community, where it spreads—cleansed of its most obvious racist and fascist elements—thanks to reposts from social-media influencers who are trusted for giving advice on lifestyle, fitness and mindfulness. Importantly, the conspiracy explicitly attempts to defend the disastrous Trump regime. The extreme lengths that the conspiracy needs to go to in order to make this highly partisan defence is revealing of just how bad things are: QAnon imagines that Trump is somehow secretly combating a host of celebrity cannibalistic paedophiles engaged literally in devouring and violating children. In its raw form, it draws on hideously violent fantasies—such as George Soros wearing a dismembered child’s face as a mask in a baby rape dungeon—to present the liberal elite as utterly debauched and irredeemably corrupt. The formulation draws on a long history of highly reactionary conspiracies, such as the Nazis’ anti-Jewish conspiracies of the ‘blood libel’ through to the satanic scares of the 1980s.

In the same stroke as the liberal elite is plunged into satanic depths, Trump is elevated to the position of Great Redeemer, defender of the weak. The spray-tanned real-estate agent turned president is of course pleased to encourage such conspiracies, in much the same way that he encourages the increasingly common view among evangelicals that he was personally anointed by God to rule (a belief held by 50 per cent of Americans who attend church once a week). Followers of QAnon are organised in hierarchal structures of ‘truth seekers’ who all have a duty to follow the ‘light’ and to awaken the ‘sheeple’. In so doing it provides its followers with a sense of belonging, if to a disembodied community; a noble purpose of helping the weak through clicktivism; and hope for a better future, one that is free from cannibal rapists. QAnon invents a neat Good-versus-Evil narrative: the satanic paedophiles must be defeated and the children saved, and Trump’s the man to do it. For all its horror, this fabrication is weirdly reassuring—the actuality is far worse: there are no such rape dungeons, nor any anointed redeemer; rather, we are faced with a looming multidimensional crisis of truly world-historic proportions. Ravaged social relations, abstract systems of techno-control, collapsing ecosystems and entrenched corruption—not the kind of dark fairy-tale corruption of QAnon, but rather the structural corruption of financial capital, monopolistic corporations, distant state bureaucracies and military might, and their imbrication with techno-science.

While often grouped together by reporters, the 5G and QAnon conspiracies pull in very different directions. While each contains empirical falsehoods—there are no injectable microchips, nor satanic cannibals—their critiques and political consequences are very different. QAnon is reactionary in the extreme; with its roots in resurgent fascism, it is a political dead end in more ways than one. In contrast, the 5G conspiracy is more interesting. As the above exploration shows, among the spurious claims and distortions there is decidedly a critique of cybernetic capitalism. Indeed, in a number of ways it gets to a point of critique that much mainstream commentary fails to do. Its vision of a vastly unequal society in which techno-surveillance makes people sick as it seeks to project infinitely increasing control is surprisingly accurate. Seen in this light, it should be engaged with as part of a growing movement against big tech specifically and cybernetic capitalism more broadly. Such movements are sure to intensify as the years roll on; perhaps the burning antenna can be seen as an omen of struggles to come.

If radical political movements put 5G conspiracists simply into Hillary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’, this is not only a refusal to grapple with the concerns of the many excluded from high-tech society; it also cedes massive ground to the political Right. The attraction of conspiracy is likely to grow as more jobs are lost to high technology, more of everyday life is colonised by surveilling entertainment media, critical education and journalism continue to be suffocated, and inequality increases. These pressures will likely increase the gap between those comfortable with abstracted life and those disturbed by its extreme ungrounding. Sneering at people’s inaccurate beliefs comes from a misplaced sense of superiority, social and intellectual, focusing erroneously on the content of conspiracy claims while ignoring the social form that has set them on their course. The political impasse today demands engagement with those drawn to subversive conspiracies to push them further in their critique and understanding, and to organise resistance. This should be done through asking fundamentally social questions such as: how do capitalism and the techno-sciences shape one another? How do they undo older forms of life and consciousness? How can we move towards a less wasteful and fairer set of relations than the present planet-burning catastrophe? The answers to these will not be found in conspiracies, but rather must be worked out through multidimensional critique and struggles to radically remake society in more cooperative ways.