In response to vandals burning telecoms towers, and in a superb example of British understatement, the UK’s mobile networks have asked the public to “Please help us to make this stop.”

Not only have towers been vandalised – whether they carry 5G equipment or not – but telecoms workers have been abused in the streets for the crime of laying fibre-optic cable.

It makes you wonder why the perpetrators are scared of faster data speeds. Or whether it’s due to a general fear of the electromagnetic spectrum that also sees them turning off their TVs, shunning microwave ovens and only going out at night.

But while there’s been general shock at the timing of these events, they’re not entirely unexpected. Fear of 5G has been building for a while – coronavirus was simply the catalyst.

To understand what’s going on, it’s useful to reflect on the history of technophobia, which is by no means a new phenomenon.

A brief history of technophobia

Some technophobia has a legitimate basis. One of the most well-known groups of technophobes were the Luddites. But while their name has come to stand for people who oppose technological advancement, Luddites had a logical reason for doing so. They had a reasonable fear that powered looms would put them out of jobs and reduce their incomes.

Not all technophobia, however, is based on realistic concerns, but instead is powered by other fears.

In the 19th century, for example, everything that went faster was feared. Bicycles would cause sterility and madness (particularly in women). Trains would cause women’s uteruses to fly out of their bodies, more madness, and cows to stop producing milk. The underlying fear was of loss of control and concern about fast-paced changes that affected everyone’s lives. Women were a particular focus, because their menfolk feared technology-based emancipation. While the way the fear was manifest was completely illogical and not based on reality, the underlying fear was not unfounded because, of course, technology did revolutionise women’s lives.

But technophobia has much deeper roots than the 19th century. At any point of fundamental or fast change, there are decriers. As we have seen, this stems from the fear of loss of control, or the shifting of power from one group towards another.

According to Plato, for example, when the Egyptian god Theuth gave the gift of letters to King Thamus, Thamus wasn’t grateful but bemoaned the fact it would ruin his subjects’ memories. While Socrates (who never wrote) and Plato complained about the impact of writing, about two thousand years later in 1492 Trithemius of Sponheim stated that printed books would never be as good as handwritten manuscripts. Similar fears were expressed about writing, printing and reading because these innovations represented the dissemination of information more widely, and thus the loss of power of those who previously controlled its flow.

Fast forward a few centuries and Spectator magazine worried about the “constant diffusion of statements in snippets”, Were its writers talking about Twitter? No, about the telegraph.

While Chaplin was sceptical that movies would ever take off, there’s a rich history of technophobia in filmmaking. From 1927’s Metropolis to The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), to Terminator (1984) and I, Robot (2004) – robots are only behind Martians and Marvel Supervillains in their enthusiasm for destroying humanity and taking over the universe.

How 5G became a casualty of technophobia

5G is simply another casualty of fear of the unknown, fear of change (and its consequences), and fear of control passing to another group (of which you may not be part).

To the mobile industry, 5G may just be the latest version of a technology that has been around for decades, but that same industry has been marketing it as something entirely different and revolutionary. The motivation was to drive up demand; the side effect has been to drive up fear. Unpicking the hype and explaining that 5G is really just a faster version of 4G will assuage fears, but will also be something of a challenge. It should teach the industry a big lesson.

At least part of 5G trepidation is driven by hyped-up use cases for 5G – such as AI, robots, automation and other fear-inducing technologies. Part of this is out-and-out technophobia and fear of change; the rest is – like the Luddites before us – a legitimate fear about job losses and the detrimental effects of technology on human lives and incomes.

Fear has grown like weeds, as governments and industries openly speculate about the great advances that will benefit *them*, which has turned digital transformation into the space race of the 20s. At the same time, many people feel left behind – either because their network experience isn’t great, their knowledge of technology isn’t profound, or because they’ve been told they could easily be replaced by robots. Digital inequality is growing as fast as digital innovation. Closing the digital divide is essential, but so is  forming policies to deal with a society where humans no longer work 40 hour weeks to earn enough money for their basic needs. Where work is largely performed by technology. And where physical, as well as much intellectual labour, is no longer of any value.

Mixed in with fear of technology is a toxic dose of Sinophobia which, it has to be said, has been whipped up by US politics amid the US-China trade war. Huawei is to be feared, we were told; coronavirus started in China; China is winning the 5G race; China is to be feared. All of this messaging has combined with an unhealthy lack of technology education to deliver an illogical fear of both China and 5G.

So what’s an industry to do?

5G lessons from history

In the end when technology begins to deliver proven benefits it is accepted. Fear of mobile phones was largely overridden by their utility. Fear of social media failed to gain mass-momentum because people could see positive benefits from it – including free and wide exchange of information. The technologies that people fear are ultimately the ones they find most difficult to engage with, or where they don’t see an upside for them.

To overcome fear of 5G we therefore need to educate customers about its benefits without overhyping them. We need to talk less about job-stealing AIs and more about robot vacuumes, Alexa smart speakers and exoskeletons that prevent back injuries. By putting humans at the centre of our technology stories, and explaining how technology helps them become stronger, faster, smarter or happier, we can alleviate fear of the unknown.

Only a small proportion of the customer base is spreading false stories or vandalising equipment, but a far larger percentage is nervous and unsure about 5G. To be successful, it’s essential for the industry to address fears, inspire customers, and educate our market on the benefits of technology.

When the towers stop smouldering, the challenge for telecoms marketers will therefore be: how can they retell the story of 5G with all of the adventures, but without the scary ending.

Posted by Teresa Cottam

Teresa is the Chief Analyst at Omnisperience and has over 25 years' experience in the telecoms and technology markets. She is an expert on SME and enterprise telecoms, and has considerable vertical market expertise. Her research focus lies in helping B2B telecoms firms become more commercially successful by better understanding and meeting their customers' needs. She is a judge of the GSMA Global Mobile Awards (GloMo's) for customer experience and enterprise innovation, and for the UK Cloud awards. You can follow her on Twitter @teresacottam

2 Comments

  1. A well balanced article – there is always another side to an argument and this needs to be managed

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    1. Thanks for comment. I think it’s very interesting that there are such strong parallels with the Industrial Revolution. When the Luddites burnt down mills and smashed looms, it was because working families were enduring economic upheaval and widespread unemployment. There was an ongoing war against Napoleon which historian Frank Peel said had brought “the hard pinch of poverty” to homes “where it had hitherto been a stranger.” Food was scarce and rapidly becoming more costly. I don’t think they had toilet rolls then, but if they did you could bet they were in increasingly short supply. People were both excited by the change brought by the Industrial Revolution and scared by it. The motivation of the Luddites was to maintain their level of lifestyle and not be undercut by technology. But over time they became the poster boys of a pre-technological way of life. 5G is the focus here but ordinary people – our customers – are increasingly concerned about a wide range of things – loss of privacy, data security, robots, AI, always-on connectivity etc. The real fear beneath all of this is that they will not be net winners in the digital revolution, and that is something we need to think very deeply about.

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