Radiation, Russians, Space Weapons, Dead Birds and WiFi

5G is not going to give you cancer or blow up your house.

You’re likely to see a lot of articles about the safety and risks of 5G, the next generation of mobile data infrastructure. I did not realize how pervasive these ideas were until my wife pointed me to a conversation on the social media site Next Door.

The whole conversation started out with a post from a member who discovered she unexpectedly had 5G at her house and hadn’t known anybody was putting up antennas for the new service. Over a couple of days, the discussion turned pretty heated as one side of the conversation tried to use evidence and reason to allay the fears and worries around the technology, and the other side alleged that hundreds of birds had already been killed by 5G and that the government (or someone) was using energy weapons to disintegrate enemies of the state.

I think it was day three when I noticed that the original poster had simply confused her 5Ghz WiFi signal with the 5G cell coverage. In her defense, they do both have a “5” in them. But they’re not the same thing.

Critical thinkers have a tendency to assume that everyone will be persuaded by evidence. This is the kind of thing that compels and convinces them, so it should work for all of us, right? Alas, this is not how humans are persuaded. If it were, then we’d have far fewer wars and more power-point presentations.

Internet fact-checking site Snopes.com used to be a simple way to rebut nonsense and web rumors, but the conspiracy-minded came up with the perfect response. They have spread the story that Snopes is a political puppet, so now sending your relatives debunking info from Snopes gets you nowhere. “They’re shills for [insert whomever here],” your angry uncle responds. “I don’t even need to look at that garbage.

Immune to facts. That’s a big problem when fighting conspiracy.

The Failure of Facts

I could tell you that 5G cell signals are not ionizing radiation. That means that the kind of radiation that they emit doesn’t have the ability to mutate your cells, which is the only known mechanism by which 5G might conceivably cause cancer. This would have zero compelling effect on a 5G conspiracist because it still has the word “radiation” in it. And like the word “chemical,” there are people who find these words trigger a startling array of emotions starting with fear.

I could point out that these same fears of new mobile technology prelude every new advancement in the mobile signal space, despite the lack of any corresponding increase in cancer rates. Sensibly, with the incredible adoption rate for mobile phones, it would seem inevitable that there would be a corresponding soaring rate of related cancers if the technologies were in fact dangerous. The absence of such evidence is seen by some as further proof of the conspiracy. Of course, they are covering it up. Whoever they is.

I could mention that bringing “smart meters” into the 5G conversation is like insisting that we talk about Star Trek: Deep Space 9 every time we discuss Star Wars. Sure, they both have space ships in them. But isn’t it possible that you’re just throwing in every fear of radiation into a giant bucket? My neighbors on “Next Door” certainly felt it was appropriate to bring these up.

Obviously, no conversation about 5G risks would be complete without addressing the alleged use of directed energy weapons during California’s Paradise fire. According to my “Next Door” neighbors, someone was using smart meters to direct energy blasts at the homes and property of California citizens for reasons, and they were using the smart meters to target them. Or something.

Evidence won’t help. Anyone who believes the government is using orbital platforms or powerful drone aircraft to launch precision energy weapon strikes against US citizens by leveraging smart meter readers for targeting purposes will not care about your evidence and logic. You can take your carefully crafted arguments and citations and graphs and whatnot and go back to your nerd treehouse because the conspiracy kids are not going to play with you.

Is Reality Dead?

Here’s some consolation: This is not new.

Conspiracy theories are as old as human culture. Nero, for example, was alleged to have set fire to Rome, to have “fiddled” while Rome burned, to have sung or performed poetry while it burned, and to have faked his own death with plans to come back later.

The theories themselves are certainly not harmless. Millions have died because of various conspiracy rumors, often with government endorsement. Unfortunately, advances in our ability to communicate with large audiences have not been conjoined with advances in our ability to differentiate reality from nonsense.

Lies can go viral around the world while the truth is still trying to get its AOL dial-up connection to work. Fact-checking, a deep-rooted regard for accuracy and plausibility, and a belief in a social structure predicated on logic and reason are the very things that make reality-based thinking the foundation of discovery and advancement — yet also hobble it in the competition with conspiracy rumors.

This is a blog about technology and business process improvement, and figuring out what to do about conspiracy theories as a whole is far, far outside of our expertise. I can point you to a few good books on the topic though:

A Culture of Conspiracy by Michael Barkun

Escaping the Rabbit Hole by Mick West

The Skeptics Guide to the Universe by the hosts of the affiliated podcast

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

But let’s get back to the topic that we can cover here with some degree of certitude…

Will 5G Survive the Conspiracies?

Despite the many fears being drummed up by conspiracy theorists and certain media outlets that I won’t bother naming, I think 5G will arrive intact. Here’s why:

The current standard for cell data is 4G. While 4G has theoretical maximum speeds in excess of 25Mbps, the real world max tends to be between 5 and 15 Mbps.

Meanwhile, 5G has an expected low-end speed of 50Mbps. Yes, the LOW end of 5G is supposed to be exponentially faster than the high end of 4G.

Potentially, this means that network video game lag would become a thing of the past. Pixellated low-res YouTube videos could all be instant 1080P high-res. Video conferencing, VR gaming, streaming, basically anything that requires high bandwidth to function would suddenly become better.

It’s going to take a lot more than imaginary energy weapons attacks and hysterical misattributed “bird deaths” to overcome the benefits that this kind of speed will offer.

Tell My WiFi Lover

So how did things turn out with my “Next Door” neighbor and her mysterious 5G signal? That remains to be seen. I explained the difference between 5G cell technology and 5Ghz WiFi signal, but that message sits beneath a waterfall of angry pro-vs-con 5G cell conspiracy posts. Will she be relieved? Will she find out who upgraded her router? Will she cancel her mobile service and move into a Faraday Cage? I don’t know, but I hope her fears are put to rest and she’s able to find other things to worry about.

As for the 5G? The irony of seeing people outside in the sunlight protesting the non-ionizing radiation from 5G mobile technology will stay with me a long time.

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Fear of Change

Fear of 5G is probably rooted in a lot of different anxieties. Sometimes fears are founded on real dangers, but when it comes to new technologies fear of change is often the biggest underlying challenge to adoption. General angst about the risks of cell phone radiation is far more common than the fear of energy weapons being turned on citizens by THEM. Neither risk seems to bear up under scrutiny, but that doesn’t stop fear. That’s not how fear works.

Fear is a primal emotion. Animals with limited emotional range and tiny brains still manage to express fear. Humans brains have this huge wrinkled neocortex that allows us to do all kinds of advanced planning, modeling, and abstract contemplation. However, underneath that amazing computing power, we share a primitive engine of emotional decision making, the amygdala.

When people are comfortable with the status quo, threatening to change that — even to ostensibly make things better — is likely to trigger fear responses in at least some of the population. This is one of the hidden hurdles businesses face every day. You can’t make things better without change, and you can’t change things without dealing with the associated fear. The teams that are bringing the change will be dealing with fear and anxiety throughout the project. The people receiving the change (whether that’s a reorganization, a software rollout, or even a new product line) will often be faced with accepting sudden change with which they had no voice.

Being on the receiving end of a transformative change in which you have no voice can be terrifying and frustrating. If you’re on the development side of such change, giving a voice to those concerned parties is one of the easiest ways to alleviate fear.

At Apex, we are an Agile development group and we give the customers a voice in the process all the way through from beginning to end. As we develop solutions for our clients, they get constant updates and are able to voice concern and we adjust as we go. Fears are addressed, not dismissed.

I’m sure that customer worry is somewhere on the list of things the big carriers are concerned about as they develop their 5G infrastructure, but clearly, that message is not getting out to the concerned and frightened citizens who have taken up conspiracy theories around the technology. You can’t stop the tin-foil hat brigade with informative leaflets, but the wireless industry does need to address this small but noisy contingent of the population to ensure that America gets network infrastructure that can keep us competitive with the rest of the modern world.