Beyond 5G: fieldnotes from Finland

Screenshot from Future is Made in Finland, Episode 4: First in 6G, Business Finland https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkhZGoWkvq0&ab_channel=StudyinFinland
Advancing feminist and critically engaged considerations of atmospheric media technologies, this essay by Towards Atmospheric Care (Hanna Husberg and Agata Marzecova) provides a snapshot of their ongoing interdisciplinary investigation of 5G-based smart solutions and new electronic ecosystems emerging in Finland, a country that has positioned itself at the forefront of inventing the wireless communication of the future.

 

5G and related new technologies will change the way we do things.
5G is not just about having better technology to do things in the old way.
Actually, it provides new technology to do new things in new ways.

-Excerpt from an interview with a senior advisor for the 5G uptake,
Traficom, Finland

How can we come up with a communication paradigm which is really sustainable?
Not just sustainable from the energy perspective?

-Excerpt from interview with Prof. Marcos Katz
Centre for Wireless Communications, University of Oulu, Finland

[Ed. note: this article is part of a dossier on The Rise of 5G.]

5G, or the fifth-generation mobile communication network, is a unified air interface and global technology standard for cellular wireless communication. It was preceded by 1G, 2G, 3G, and 4G, and before that earlier modes of atmospheric communication like radio, which were developed by pioneers such as Jagadish Chandra Bose and Guglielmo Marconi, who learned how to deploy the drifts and pulls of the airwaves to transmit signals for communication. intentionally1Gabrys, Jennifer. “Atmospheres of communication.” (2010): 46-59. Different from other planetary resources, the principal use of the electromagnetic spectrum is the act of sharing information between transmitter and receiver. Indeed, starting with transatlantic radio, the electromagnetic spectrum has become the medium of the information age and one of the key conduits of global communication and the global economy. This has positioned Earth’s electromagnetosphere—a life-support system critical for the maintenance of our planetary ecosystem—as an invisible resource to be managed and regulated, colonised and exploited, initially for military purposes, state-control and policing, and increasingly for commercial profit.2Melillo, Edward D. “Spectral Frequencies: Neoliberal Enclosures of the Electromagnetic Commons.” Radical History Review 2012, no. 112 (2012): 147-161. Today, the atmospheric capacity to carry information is a key premise for the development of smart-economies and information societies around the world. For most, 5G is simply understood as a new fast and reliable mobile communication tool aimed to aid hyperconnected lives in increasingly smart cities, where everything is connected (personal and professional networks, work and leisure, e-health, e-commerce, e-banking), blending real life with the metaverse. Yet, for the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector as well as for some nations, 5G (and the projected 6G technology) is much more than an updated communication tool. Indeed, projected as a solution for optimising societal organisation, achieving social inclusion and ecological sustainability, 5G is conceived as a technological paradigm for changing today’s reality and paving the way for the future. Nonetheless, technologically complex wireless communication technologies and emerging smart digital ecosystems are to a large extent imperceptible to human senses and deemed inaccessible for most people. As a result, society relies on technoscientific expertise not solely to design novel technology, but also to envision what role technologies, such as wireless, play in creating a common future. Once, such engineered invisibility might have been seen as an inevitable price to pay for technological progress. However, as the launch of various smart and artificial intelligence (AI) solutions has now proven: treating technology as a universal tool and separating it from the wider public and sociopolitical contexts ultimately leads to exclusion and inequality, undermining the emancipatory potential that smart technologies aspire to have. In contrast, feminist technoscience scholars have long argued for a situated and relational model of technology, which highlights that technology is historical and always shaped by and shaping our environments and social fabric.3See, for example, Weber, Jutta. “From science and technology to feminist technoscience.” In Women, Science, and Technology, pp. 543-556. Routledge, 2013.

Critically, a feminist approach is not anti-technological. Rather, it highlights that looking at the materiality and historical specificity of wireless networks, at their environmental preconditions, and at noise, errors and leaks is a critical part in the effort of broadening the discussion on what technoecological networks and digital ecologies we need to address communal concerns in the ongoing ecological and social crisis.4See, for example, Mattern, Shannon. “Networked Dream Worlds: Is 5G solving real, pressing problems or merely creating new ones?”, Real Life, 8 Jul 2019 Hoping to contribute to feminist and critically engaged considerations of atmospheric media technologies, this essay provides a snapshot of our ongoing interdisciplinary investigation of 5G-based smart solutions and new electronic ecosystems emerging in Finland, a country which has self-positioned itself at the forefront of inventing the wireless communication of the future.  Developed by two concerned non-specialists, this text is not directed at providing expert analysis of the pros and cons of 5G technology. Rather, it hopes to cultivate points of access that could contribute to more interdisciplinary and open-ended dialogue about the invisible yet omnipresent technoecologies that structure our lives and common futures. In order to understand the broader histories, geographies and specificities of  5G (and 6G) projects in Finland, we have interviewed a series of experts on telecommunication, atmospheric physics, and governance as well as critics whose insights inform this text. While this process has brought up a wide range of material, political and practical considerations, one of the most poignant insights which emerged was the significance of broader sociotechnical and infrastructural imaginaries in shaping new communication technologies. Importantly, developing advanced wireless communications and complex technological (eco)systems is much more than a deterministic process of assembling parts that are already there. As our fieldwork has shown, visions, hopes and imaginaries about national (and also broader) sustainable futures shape and are shaped through emerging technological innovations.

Screenshot from Future is Made in Finland, Episode 4: First in 6G, Business Finland
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkhZGoWkvq0&ab_channel=StudyinFinland

Evolution of Gs

Mobile telecom­munications have advanced in technological steps, that is generations (Gs), of internationally agreed standards of performance including agreed allocations of electromagnetic wave frequencies. Following early attempts in Japan, the USA, and the Nordic countries, the first generation (1G) offered analog voice communication, mostly for business. 2G made the speech digital and allowed for sending short text messages. Developed in Europe, and brought to market by Finnish Nokia in 1991, it made possible digital communication on the go. 3G appeared in Europe, China, and Japan in 2001 and enabled the potential for data transfer and connectivity. It was the first version of somehow trying to put the internet with applications in our pockets. However, it was still quite slow. 4G took off in 2009. It brought speed and facilitated a broad public engagement with social media. It made the internet wireless, portable, and “available to everyone, everywhere.” In 2019, 5G technologies enabled utilising very high frequencies of the spectrum, the so-called millimetre waves, for extremely high speed and low latency, promising to connect not just everyone, but everything through machine-to-machine communication. Whereas the current Internet has been deemed as unproductive and made for consumers, the ICT sector’s effort to bring 5G to the physical industry is seen as an important step in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) integrating automation, artificial intelligence (AI), internet-of-things (IoT) and quantum computing.5Lim, Jamilah. “5G Will Revolutionize the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Tech Wire Asia, June 23, 2021. With 5G, everything in the world can be interconnected: person to person, person to machines, machines to machines. Hence, in its application, 5G wireless technology is much more than fast communication. According to the ICT sector, 5G will change business and pave the way for the digitalisation and transformation of key industry sectors like transportation, logistics, commerce, manufacturing, health, mining, smart cities, and public safety. It is set to change the way people and companies cooperate, profoundly impacting and altering the structure and dynamics of society. And yet, despite all the unprecedented advances, 5G is not the horizon for an ideal mobile communication but perhaps an inflection point in the process of harnessing the spectrum further. 6G, which is projected for 2030 onwards, is envisaged by the ICT research community to enable the connection of human worlds with physical worlds and digital realms. Harnessing terahertz frequencies, 6G is set to achieve unheard-of sensing capability, for example, to do what cameras cannot do and see around a corner. There will be holographic communication: using ubiquitous intelligence, physical and biological models will be transportable to the real world. The first global 6G research program, 6G Flagship, was initiated in 2018 in Finland at the Oulu University as part of the Finnish government’s national research spearhead programme with the aim to foster “a data-driven, sustainable future society enabled by near-instant and unlimited wireless connectivity.”6Main Page – 6G Flagship“. 2022. 6G Flagship. Similarly to the 5G paradigm, which is still being shaped, 6G does not exist yet. Different experts in wireless communication all agree on one point: no one knows what 6G will be. It still needs to be imagined.

Screenshot from Future is Made in Finland, Episode 4: First in 6G, Business Finland
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkhZGoWkvq0&ab_channel=StudyinFinland

Finnish 5G landscapes

Thanks to its Nokia-related legacy in wireless technologies, combined with supportive legislation and a government-supported digital ecosystem of companies, research facilities, and universities, Finland and its state-supported institutions such as Fintraffic, position themselves at the forefront of 5G initiatives, competing with larger technologically advanced countries such as the US and China. Besides the widely popularised applications for smart cities, Finland’s 5G (and 6G) innovations—including smart roads and maritime routes projects (Sod5G, Aurora Snowbox, and One-Sea)—are set to reach far beyond indoor and urban applications. Envisaged as a groundbreaking communicative connection of entire landscapes and stretching from city centres to sparsely populated arctic locations, these environmental-infrastructural 5G technologies can indeed be seen as embodiments of the smartification of everything.

Screenshot from Future is Made in Finland, Episode 4: First in 6G, Business Finland
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkhZGoWkvq0&ab_channel=StudyinFinland

Examples of such landscape-oriented applications of 5G are the Sod5G test track and The Intelligent Arctic Trucks project, both located in Northern Finland and run by the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI). Sod5G is a controlled winter testing area for both Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) and 4G/5G cellular networking in Sodankylä, with a total of 11 km of test tracks. The Intelligent Arctic Trucks platoon is a fleet of twelve trucks regularly driving the 260 km road stretch between the Kevitsa mine near Sodankylä and the industrial port town Kemi. Equipped with instruments, the fleet has become a moving test laboratory and a pilot system that could potentially be introduced in open systems by recruiting local or regional buses, trucks, or postal delivery services. What role does 5G technology play here? In an interview, a senior research scientist at FMI Timo Sukuvaara told us that his background in telecommunications had been key to developing enhanced road weather and safety systems. Linking road weather information services with local information generated by sensors in cars, the system, in a sense, listens to and communicates with the vehicles to avoid accidents. Further, Sukuvaara explained, the traffic environment is changing, not least due to autonomous vehicles, and these need a massive amount of real-time information to register and react to things happening in the environment:

Autonomous vehicles are not really like us; they use equipment to see the surrounding environment and to understand what is happening. They need a lot of information. At the same time, they are very vulnerable to weather issues, much more vulnerable than  human-driven vehicles. If I’m driving my own car and it’s raining or snowing heavily, I can put my wipers on and continue driving pretty well. But when it comes to an autonomous vehicle, it cannot take any risks of making a misjudgement on any situation. We try to provide more sophisticated weather information tailored for their purposes in order to help them drive a little bit better.

5G intelligent road systems are one example of many different currently tested and implemented infrastructural projects that experiment with the deployment of 5G-based applications in the Finnish context. Arguably, intelligent traffic but also autonomous factories and harbours are not strictly oriented toward generating commercial profit; they should also provide services for advancing inclusive society, support remote communities and help achieve sustainability, and thereby represent environmental-digital communication-political projects. Tracing back to what drives this trend of wide infrastructural innovation through 5G, the ecosystem manager at Nokia and 5G Test Network Lead at Oulu University Olli Liinamaa, who acts as a Nokia liaison between industry and academic institutes, explained that the unique 6G research at Oulu University started with an open offer from the Academy of Finland. They were looking for flagships, and asked: What topics would generate the most value for Finland, in five or ten years? Thanks to such seed funding and the boost given by the Flagship status, Oulu University provides an experimental 5G test network where researchers and companies can try out their innovations “whether they are related to how to make life easier or smoother, added value for healthcare or smart cities, transportation or whatever.” Currently, tests are being done with cars, excavators, and drones, and the main university building features a smart campus with more than 400 sensors collecting environmental data.

Smart sensor installed in the lobby of Oulu University. Data captured by sensors can be viewed online at the Smart Campus website. (Photo: Hanna Husberg)

When inquiring what has driven Finland to identify its future with the expansion of wireless technologies, two factors came up. First, as different interlocutors pointed out, there is a historical path dependency. Finland used to be the country of Nokia with a huge part of the economy revolving around this one entity. However, when the company’s mobile device division collapsed in the early 2010s there was an oversupply of thousands of unemployed engineers and experts with skills in digitalization, ICT, and telecommunications.7Specifically, Oulu, often referred to as the Silicon Valley of Northern Scandinavia and also home for 6G flagship research, is a city which has fifty years of history of doing electronics, a long tradition of wireless research and was also the base of Nokia in its golden era, before its decline. Combined with a need for some kind of technological innovation—as this has been perceived as a functioning model in a country with limited resources to sell or profit from—new state investments into 5G and now 6G innovations make use of the existing brain power and aim to provide IT jobs. Secondly, the notion of sustainable futures was prominently brought up. As a chief advisor at Traficom (the Finnish transport and communications agency) stated, Finland aims at becoming a socially, economically and ecologically sustainable society in the future and the government is driving this strongly.8For example, a publication by the Ministry of Transport and Communications from 2015 describes a Governmental Programme outlining “open-minded utilisation of digitalisation in the entire society as a key to improving Finland’s competitiveness” promoting automatisation“ to improve the safety, efficiency and sustainability of transport and goods services”. https://julkaisut.valtioneuvosto.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/78339/Julkaisuja_14-2015.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y The governmental sector acts as a regulatory body but also has a goal of being forerunners of 5G by promoting innovation and facilitating testing. 5G (and 6G) are seen as a new technology to do things in new ways; in particular, to achieve the twin (green and digital) transition which, as promoted by the European Union, needs to go hand in hand.9Directorate General for Informatics, “Digital Path to Recovery and Resilience in the European Union,” March 29, 2022. However, even if the state plays a significant role in pushing 5G innovations towards adopting sustainable and society-oriented solutions, this is not a one-actor process. As Olli Liinamaa stressed, Nokia has its own sustainability-dedicated initiatives and set of strategies that focus, for example, on human rights, sustainable supply chain, and climate.10See, for example, https://www.nokia.com/about-us/sustainability/.

Sociotechnical imaginaries and the digital promise of sustainability

As we have learned from talking to experts: 5G is a way of thinking which already presupposes 6G and 7G, assuming an inscribed inevitability that novel better technology will emerge. For some, 6G’s novel technological paradigms will embody something like a sixth sense: going beyond the five senses and enabling people, networks, and devices to access information that one cannot see, feel, touch or smell by oneself. Importantly, it is not just human senses which will be enhanced, but also the surrounding environment. Such imaginative techno-utopian visions highlight that the process of generating novel wireless communication paradigms is not only a deterministic process of furthering the exploitation of planetary resources, in this case, the electromagnetic spectrum. Rather, it involves imagining what novel sociotechnical and infrastructural functions these technologies will bring and hence what future they will facilitate. Besides capturing new bandwidths, shifting from one G to another also entails critical shifts in the sociotechnical imaginaries—that is collective and institutionally stabilised visions of what futures and social orders can or should be achieved with technoscientific inventions—which underpin the making of the new technological generations.11Here, we are drawing on the concept of sociotechnical imaginaries developed by Sheila Jasanoff and her collaborators. See, for example, Jasanoff, Sheila and Sang-Hyun  Kim (Eds.), Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power, University of Chicago Press, 2015. If earlier generations of wireless communication were motivated by the imaginaries of flexibly connected individuals, at least in Finland, a significant imaginary spurring the deployment of 5G and beyond is the drive to achieve sustainable common futures. As an illustrative example, Traffic Vision 2030, a promotional video produced by Fintraffic in 2021, visualises the prominent role that the vision of a common sustainable future plays in the nation’s anticipated transport innovation project. In the video, a voice-over asserts that in 2030 Finland will have the safest, smoothest, and most environmentally friendly traffic in the world because:

Here in Finland, we have something new: a real-time status of the entire transport system – a digital twin. This digital layer has formed a platform for the growth of entirely new services and businesses. It has created a unique transport ecosystem: a network of enterprises and experts with shared goals, working towards shared success.

Advancing such a tight link between (market-driven) technological development “fuelled by everything being connected to everything” and collective imaginaries of sustainability, however, raises critical questions on what these technologies will create, how they will be adopted (or rejected), and how they will change social ways of interacting and ultimately the world. In other words, because imaginaries underpin how technologies (and, in extension also norms, practices, and institutions) are being conceived and designed to enable specific ways of engaging with the world and exclude others, they matter. While 5G will evolve over the decade, the technology has already been designed in a determinate way. Arguably to reach sustainability goals, sustainability needs to be encoded into technological forms from the outset. Such vision simultaneously justifies and shapes future technological development, legitimising the need for 6G and beyond. Significantly, the notion of technologically engineered sustainability was also at the locus of the critical commentaries on 5G-based development we encountered. Whether such advanced socio-techno-environmental projects are practically feasible was not really questioned. Rather, concerns about 5G were centred around the idea of sustainability through technology; whether the concept of sustainability promoted by the 5G solution is sustainable enough. For example, one critical commentator pointed out that the sustainability framework of EU policy is primarily focused on energy savings, yet ignores the politics of global supply chains that are needed for devising 5G-based ecosystems. Offering a different perspective, an expert in radiation chemistry has highlighted that the pathway to sustainability is too narrowly human-centred. As an example, the radiation risks associated with 5G emissions are evaluated on adult healthy subjects, ignoring non-standard human bodies and other-than-humans (such as bees and other insects). Or, paradoxically, as a researcher at Spatial Planning and Transportation Engineering, Aalto University Miloš Mladenović observed, the sustainability visions might not be sufficiently human-centred.12See, also, Blyth, Pascale-L., Milos N. Mladenovic, Bonnie A. Nardi, Norman M. Su, and Hamid R. Ekbia. “Driving the self-driving vehicle: Expanding the technological design Horizon.” In 2015 IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS), pp. 1-6. IEEE, 2015. As he noted, recent tests for what would need to be redesigned in the streets to accommodate autonomous vehicles showed that spaces which are safe for free movement of elderly people and children would also be good for smart vehicles. And yet, this is something the mobility field has been (unsuccessfully) arguing for from the human perspective for decades. In Mladenović’s experience, technical innovation alone does not suffice; what is most needed is for people to change lifestyle behaviours, values, and norms. Crucially, in our fieldwork, we have encountered the critique of technological sustainability not only from outside of 5G/6G research but also from within it. One example of this is the experimentation with visible light communication (VLC) by Marcos Katz, professor at Oulu University and 6G Flagship member, and his students. On the one hand, Katz and his team developed hybrid VLC-radio wireless communication making use of radiationally safe and already-available visible light from light-emitting diodes (LEDs). On the other hand, he combines this research with a radical rethinking of the materiality of technology, exploring whether we can reimagine communication technology as something that needs to be made of rare metals, for example, by shifting to printed, even biodegradable electronics, producing living surfaces (interfaces between people and the environment, surfaces for harvesting and storing energy) for a radically reduced foot-print of sensors and electronics?

Screenshots from Future is Made in Finland, Episode 4: First in 6G, Business Finland
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkhZGoWkvq0&ab_channel=StudyinFinland

Conclusion

With the 5G and 6G revolutions, our individual as well as collective entwinement with radiating technology becomes much more intimate and entangled in an advanced form of communication that is no longer limited to humans but involves machines, sensors, and whole environments. Insights from experts and critics help us understand that wireless communication technologies are not only determined by the spectral characteristics or given market needs but—at least as developed in Finnish and EU contexts—also shaped by the sociotechnical and infrastructural imaginaries of sustainable futures. This, in turn, emphasises how and by whom this collective future is imagined influences these future technologies, shaping their materiality, functionality, and role in society. If the dominant governmental and industrial visions of sustainability fail to consider richer, broader, and alternative imaginaries of sustainability, then the move forward cannot be limited to dualistic thinking in terms of arguing for more or less technology. Rather, striving for non-extractive, anti-colonial, intersectional, more-than-human sustainable futures needs to find ways of opening the technoscientific black boxes and visualising the invisible realms of atmospheric technologies in order to unsettle inherited visions and paradigms under which communication technologies operate and reimagine technological-social-environmental relations at their very core.

Notes[+]

Husberg, Hanna and Agata Marzecova, "Beyond 5G: fieldnotes from Finland," Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 3 (September 2022).
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.