Monday, 13 April 2020

Even Masts Must Burn: Telecommunications In The Era of Covid 19

Lockdown in London is insane, the centre of the city is densely populated so there’s people everywhere taking their allowed daily exercise or shopping for essential goods. Lots are still walking around like zombies looking at their smartphones rather than at where they’re going. There are fewer cars on the roads so those still about travel much faster than normal. Cyclists and joggers are everywhere, as are the busybodies shouting at anyone they perceive to be infringing lockdown rules, taking photographs of those they berate and making malicious reports to the police. The pettiness of those acting as amateur cops and trying to enforce their own version of lockdown - which is inevitably more draconian than the already draconian new laws - is unbelievable. And while the cops are equally clueless about the limits of their new powers and appear to be mutating into cut-price versions of the The Sith from Star Wars, they too seem incapable of practising social distancing since it goes against everything they’ve been taught about protecting themselves and intimidating others.

The fact that so many are completely incapable of keeping a safe distance from strangers - and this extends well beyond the cops and amateur cops -  illustrates how alienated people are. Half the population seem to have no awareness of their own bodies or whose in the street or supermarket with them. Meanwhile, the homeless and mad are becoming ever more desperate and have either given up on begging and can be seen huddled together in encampments on Tottenham Court Road and elsewhere, or else have become much more aggressive in their quest for money to buy food and alcohol. The homeless are supposed to be in shelters but most still seem to be roaming around, presumably preferring the relatively greater freedom of the streets to being locked up under lockdown. There’s a shortage of many street drugs but the government recognise booze as an essential and so London’s off-licences (liquor stores) are open. Anyone hoping to sleep on the streets probably needs a drink or two in order to nod off, while the rest of the population are also living out the insane nightmare that is late-capitalism and dependence on alcohol is one way of dealing with it.

Covid 19 has brought out the best in many people and the worst in others. There are wonderful community mutual aid groups doing shopping for the vulnerable and delivering presents to children. Meanwhile hysterical media coverage links burning telecommunications masts and infrastructure to ridiculous conspiracy theories about 5G causing Covid 19. At least one of the fires the press was wringing its hands over recently and blaming on anti-5G activists turned out to have been due to faulty equipment and not suspicious. The papers call those who oppose 5G idiots because the equipment that was maliciously targeted is largely 3G and 4G. Since no one has yet been charged with - let alone convicted - of these acts of arson against phone masts, the fact that it isn’t 5G equipment that was torched might well imply those involved in the vandalism aren’t opposed to 5G and had other motives. The links made in the press between this arson and anti-5G activism are at best speculative.

There are many reasons for setting telecommunications infrastructure alight but even when it’s just teens doing it for kicks it doesn't follow that we shouldn't be thrilled by film and photos of the resultant fires. Baudrillard said more than 50 years ago: “Something in all (wo)men profoundly rejoices at seeing a car burn..” This rings true because cars are a symbol of possessive individualism and have wrought untold destruction on our planet. Given the negative social impact of smartphones - including but not limited to surveillance and an intensification of work - today nothing is more beautiful than a burning phone mast. Technology isn’t neutral, it shapes societies and human relations, and so the health and wellness concerns of anti-5G activists aren’t the reason I get a buzz when I see burning telecommunications infrastructure. Nonetheless media hysteria about torched masts and Covid 19 conspiracy theories mean it’s now nearly impossible to have a nuanced conversation about the joys and broader political dimensions of such vandalism, why everyone should get rid of their smartphone or what’s actually bad about 3G, 4G and 5G.

Under lockdown I like to run around the streets for an hour a day, since it’s quite a kick to see most of the shops and all the restaurants in central London closed, and knowing that even if they were open I wouldn’t be using most of them. I don’t even miss the record and book stores I did sometimes visit before Covid 19. I totally dig jogging through Soho and Covent Garden to visit the places I went as a teen 40 and more years ago and to revel in the fact that the London I knew then has entirely disappeared, just as the hyper-capitalist London of the current millennium is about to disappear. A different and better world is not only possible, it is also very necessary….

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