Alexa, Is Democracy Dead?

Five generations ago, in 1879, Thomas Edison introduced a technological innovation – the electric light bulb – that would change the world. At the time, few believed that anything could reliably replace gas-powered light, and in an October interview that year the New York Times illuminated the public concerns by questioning Mr. Edison about the cost, safety, and sustainability of his device. Fast forward to 2019 and a similar debate is raging over another generation-defining invention.

In a human lifespan, one generation lasts about 28 years. In the field of mobile communications, a generation lasts just under a decade. The first-generation (1G) cell phone is seared into the minds of many Americans through the image of actor Michael Douglas’s iconic character, Gordon Gekko, holding a Motorola Dynatac 8000x in the 1987 film Wall Street. Gekko’s phone was the size of a 16-ounce water bottle, weighed 2.5 pounds, and cost about $4,000. Perhaps most notably, it could do only two things: make and receive phone calls. In 1993, the smaller and lighter handheld devices of the second generation (2G) arrived with expanded functionality, including voice and data. The glacial speed of data (14.4 Kbps), however, imposed significant limitations on users, who would be restricted to having conversations on the move and sending primitive SMS messages.

With the new millennium came the birth of the third generation (3G) in mobile technology with faster speeds, GPS, and internet browsing. From grainy cameras on a Blackberry Pearl to the ability to play music on a Sony Walkman phone, digital broadband began to both raise the functional ceiling of mobile technology and in the process change social norms, making our phones the focal point of interaction instead of each other. Circa 1999, in any restaurant you would find patrons happily eating and chatting away with someone across the table. The ringtone of some thoughtless boor who failed to silence his or her phone before sitting down to eat could shatter the lively atmosphere instantly. Fellow diners would respond with eye-rolls and audible gasps of disapproval as the inconsiderate patron uttered “Hello, can you hear me now?”

By the dawn of the fourth generation (4G), our technology and our society had changed. With the advent of 4G in 2009, billions of people around the world could be found on their Apple or Android devices using the high speed leap to 100Mbps (from 3Mbps in the 3G) to download apps, watch movies, stream music, and have video calls with their friends. The fourth generation emerged with great promise for society because of its ability to connect people and provide access to education and economic resources that had been previously out of reach. We learned very quickly, however, that all of this power in the palm of our hands was no panacea. Indeed, the unintended consequences of the 4G evolution included job losses through automation and the erosion of civility in public discourse. Rather than bolstering it, 4G created avenues to undermine democracy.


The transition from 4G to 5G – which has already begun – will be unlike the more gradual evolutions we’ve seen to date in mobile technology. It will be a revolution that will shock the system. The fifth generation has the potential to redefine every aspect of our lives for the next decade and beyond. As we examine the impact of 5G on our economy, our media consumption habits, and our national security, it will ultimately be up to us to determine whether democracy is strong enough and resilient enough to survive it.

Utopia or Dystopia: The Anatomy of a 5G World

Throughout the generations of mobile technology, each upgrade unlocked new possibilities built upon the innovations that preceded it. From a technical perspective, that remains true of the introduction of 5G, but from an architectural perspective, it is not. The new infrastructure is unique due to the fact that it is not an upgrade of the existing 4G network; instead it will make the 4G network infrastructure obsolete. The ubiquitous cell towers that dot urban and rural landscapes around the world will soon be replaced with a 5G infrastructure that relies on smaller and more densely packed sites. They will be all around us connecting with our cars, our phones, and our appliances at home. Faster speeds and greater capacity mean an increased concentration of transmitters, which will be a natural fit for cities, but a challenge in sparsely populated regions. While the increase in speed will accelerate web surfing and reduce the time it takes to download a movie from minutes to seconds, this quantum leap, known as “near zero latency” (a reduction in the time between command and action to nearly zero), will transform our world. Before exploring the knock-on effects of life at this speed, it is important to note that how the 5G infrastructure is built, and by whom, will define the economic and geopolitical trajectory for rest of this century.

The United States, Finland, Japan, South Korea, and variety of their telecom companies led the first four generations of mobile technology. These four countries implemented a common set of values including free speech, transparency, and privacy that were among the founding principles of cyberspace. In this fifth generation, the most cost-effective route to building the new infrastructure goes through Beijing. Companies such as ZTE and Huawei find themselves in the enviable position of being able to provide the equipment and expertise to wire the world at a fraction of the cost of Western competitors. As a result, countries in Europe and North America have sounded the alarm, and in some cases, taken legal and public policy action to blunt China’s efforts to dominate this space, fearing that Beijing will use its access to this network to create leverage to further its political objectives. This is the cloud that hovers over the issues discussed in the pages ahead.

It’s the Economy, Human

Like the industrial revolution and the digital revolution before, 5G has the capacity to change the economic prospects for billions around the world. As with the previous disruptions, there will be winners and losers, but one thing is certain: things will never be the same.

One of the most significant disruptions will be for workers. Fueled by 5G, autonomous vehicles will be a godsend for those who will benefit from faster and safer commutes in urban areas, but according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics the rollout of 5G could herald the end of 1.8 million trucking jobs, which pay an average of $40,000 per year, and may eliminate the livelihoods of more than 230,000 taxi drivers. In the retail sector, between online grocery sales and Amazon’s move into automated cashiers in its new brick and mortar stores, an additional loss of 3.4 million jobs is projected. Smart cities and advanced infrastructure networks will reduce the friction in the movement of goods around the world, but that, too, comes at a human cost of about 200,000 jobs in warehouses alone.1 Job loss due to 5G will likely push many of these workers into the gig economy, which means not only lower pay but a decrease or elimination of benefits altogether.

But to be fair, it’s not all doom and gloom; it’s just mostly doom and gloom. Someone will have to develop new applications, software, and hardware that will guide the 5G network toward its full potential, so jobs in software engineering, and in building and maintaining this new infrastructure, should be plentiful. Some estimates suggest that up to 22 million jobs will be created around the world toward that end. But will the grocery store cashier who was replaced by a self-checkout kiosk be able to find a job repairing that kiosk? Contemporary history has shown us that this automation revolution is fraught with challenges. From the vacant factories in the Midwest to the coal mines of West Virginia, you don’t need to wander too far to hear tales about technological advances sweeping aside stable and dependable jobs. Ask a long-haul truck driver if he cares about estimates of a $533 billion increase in the U.S. GDP resulting from the full implementation of a 5G network.2 Though there are success stories of coal miners who have become coders and truck drivers becoming software developers, there are economic, psychological, geographical, and policy barriers that make such a transition an exception rather than the rule. Looking at big macro indicators at the expense of individual workers is not just an economic problem; it is a deeply political one. We’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t have a happy ending.


Spin the globe and pick a country at random and you’ll find a common theme in 2019: economic uncertainty and inequality have created a disgruntled electorate prepared to burn it all down. From the election of Donald Trump in the United States to Brexit in the United Kingdom, the Five Star Movement in Italy to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, disaffected voters are hungry for anyone who they believe will put the people’s well-being first. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, global democracy has been in decline for the past 13 years. We cannot discount the fact that this decline has occurred in the context of major advances in 3G and 4G technology. These innovations brought people more information, which came with a greater understanding of their relative economic position in society. It also created a variety of social media platforms that connected those left behind and amplified their power to persuade and organize. And as we saw most prominently in the American presidential election in 2016, new technology opened the door to malign actors aiming to stoke division. Imagine these enemies of democracy with more agile and faster tools, and you’ll have a window into what the political landscape in a 5G world may look like.

Look at Me… But Not Too Closely

The 4G network powered the explosion in social media and was the driving force behind the new “me generation.” Those who once ascribed that moniker to the notoriously self-absorbed Baby Boomers who obsessed over all things frivolous and material in the late 1970s and 80s, would be chastened by the behavior of young people online in recent years. YouTube and Instagram “celebrities” have launched lucrative careers with nothing more than a cell phone and a wi-fi connection. Privacy, in some quarters has become passé, which has exposed users to those with benign and malign intent. Americans in particular appear willing to turn over every imaginable data point about themselves without giving a second thought to how that information might be used. There is a common adage in the internet age that “if you’re not the customer, then you’re the product.” As processing speeds spike and usage costs continue to fall, consumption patterns will change again.

But it’s not just what you do on your phone or tablet that will shape the new environment. The 5G network will bring the Internet of Things (IoT) to life. There will be sensors transmitting data everywhere you turn, from your car to your refrigerator, and your HVAC system to your washing machine, infinitely expanding the universe of information. 5G will be in the air we breathe. This is great for operating your wired world most efficiently, but it also comes with the benefits and consequences inherent in an expanded data pool collected about each and every user. There is no question that sensitivities regarding privacy and control over one’s data vary among countries. The United States on one end of the Western spectrum has a citizenry that is generally content to provide companies and others unfettered access to their data. At the other end of the spectrum is the European Union, whose member states are decidedly more protective over their citizens’ personal information. The 5G-enabled IoT environment presents potential problems for both.

Americans will be subjected to more and more microanalysis for, among other things, advertising and political targeting. Europeans will have to figure out how to modernize their regulations, going beyond the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, to keep pace with a technology that continues to outstrip legislation.

In digital era politics, data is king. The more you have, the more you can tailor messaging and activity to yield a desired impact. A politician running a campaign can micro-target bespoke messages to individual voters: The environmentalists’ Facebook feeds, for example, will be filled with the candidate’s proposal on renewable energy, while climate change sceptics might receive messaging about the same candidate’s efforts to preserve jobs in the coal industry. These tactics were already common in the 4G environment, but they will supersize echo chambers in the 5G ecosystem, which has more data, greater streaming power for video, and new avenues for reaching the voter beyond the mobile phone. The accelerated speed will also provide an added tool for unscrupulous political actors who will operationalize deep fakes (doctored images and video content) and the next iteration of bot activity online.

In recent years, questioning facts has emerged as a disturbing trend around the world. Is there a place in democratic societies for “alternative facts”? Although the introduction of high-speed mobile networks didn’t create this challenge to truth, it has certainly exacerbated it. Political “dirty tricks” thrived for decades in an analog era which eroded faith in individuals, but not necessarily in institutions. But what we see today is more pernicious as our media, judiciary, and other democratic pillars, once the arbiters of truth, are being questioned. To avoid a fully post-truth political playing field, there are choices that we can make as we transition to 5G that can preserve rather than undermine global democracy. That fate rests, in large part, on which country leads the fifth generation.

Our Way or Huawei

The construction of 5G infrastructure is no small task. It is expensive and requires high-level expertise and manpower to deliver. The race is on among private companies, state-owned enterprises, and governments around the world to determine who will supply the architecture and components upon which the next generation economy and society will be built.

2019 02 Wire-the-World-700x560
2019 02 Wire-the-World-700x560

While on the surface this race appears to be an economic competition, at its core it is one of geopolitics, values, and norms. Well ahead of the pack in terms of investment in research and development, and the ability to deliver a 5G network at a competitive cost, are the Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE. Other players in the field, like Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia, can compete on technical performance, but they represent a vastly more expensive option than their Chinese counterparts. In fairness, it should be noted that both Chinese companies have been accused of stealing Western intellectual property, and that they manage to keep their costs down due to the inextricable link between the private companies and the Chinese government through subsidies and state direction of the economy. In addition to concerns about the skewed playing field, security experts in North America, Australia, Europe, and elsewhere have cited the potential security risk connected with having a Chinese firm build the new 5G information highway.

In 2017, the Chinese government passed a National Intelligence Law that requires Chinese organizations and citizens to “support, assist, and cooperate with the state intelligence work.”3 As a practical matter, it means that, if asked, Huawei would have to turn over any information that may have passed through its network. Obviously, this prospect has been met with consternation in Western capitals whose leaders are trying to figure out if they can establish sufficient protections to allow Huawei to spearhead the construction of 5G in their country, or if the risk is simply too great. The fact that there has never been a single case of Huawei’s equipment (which is already ubiquitous throughout Europe and the U.S.) being used by Chinese intelligence for malign purposes has not assuaged the fear of potential host governments. One major challenge is that these partners do not have a uniform approach of how best to combat this perceived security threat. Australia has already banned Chinese tech from its networks despite economic retaliation by the Chinese government. Germany appears to be more concerned about the economic impact (i.e., cost savings and Sino-German trade relations) of this transaction than the security one. The UK has reverse-engineered Huawei products in search of backdoors that the Chinese government could exploit to breach security, and have found no cause for concern to date. Meanwhile, the United States passed a measure as part of its National Defense Authorization Act in 2018, prohibiting recipients of federal funding from using telecommunications equipment made by Huawei or ZTE. In response, universities in the University of California system, among others, have been dismantling their networks, ripping out Chinese-made components, to comply.

Going forward, a disjointed approach to dealing with a Chinese-led 5G network has the potential to cause significant security problems for the transatlantic alliance. For example, if the United States and its NATO allies lack confidence in the security of their communications infrastructure, interoperability, which is critical to a functioning military deterrent, will be severely weakened. The same risk holds true for the American Five Eyes intelligence-sharing relationship with Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK. This cooperation is contingent upon having uniformly reliable channels of communications. The possibility of any member allowing the Chinese government backdoor access to that network is a non-starter which could compromise joint efforts to counter terrorism and other threats around the globe.

Beyond the geopolitical and security risks associated with a Chinese-led fifth generation network is the question of which norms and values should govern this new communication superhighway. Should it be the values of transparency, rule of law, and respect for privacy, or should the new ecosystem be defined by the tenets of an authoritarian and illiberal system in the Orwellian mold? Some might counter that the current U.S.-driven information infrastructure has also led to serious breaches in security, trust, and privacy. There is no disputing that. I suppose how one answers this question should be a calculus of net positives versus net negatives.

Ukrainians, as a cautionary tale, can attest that reliance on an illiberal actor (in their case Russia) for any necessity (in their case gas) presents an existential and unacceptable risk. Leaving Moscow with the ability to turn the heat on or off in Kiev all winter, for example, places the entire country in peril. In the Chinese case, one could imagine Beijing asking Huawei to turn over British or American intelligence assessments or even use these networks to torpedo competing economies. According to Chinese law, in these hypotheticals Huawei would have to comply. Putting the power of global telecommunications – and its impact on economic, social, and political outcomes – in the hands of a strategic competitor that could use it as a cudgel, would seem to be problematic at best, disastrous at worst, not just for security but for democracy as well.

A Doomed Generation?

As the fifth generation of mobile technology is now within sight, this is the proper moment to take stock of what we’ve learned and how to minimize the potential disruptions inherent in seismic technological shifts. If it was ever in doubt, we now know that democracy is fragile. It needs to be nurtured and protected if it is to survive. There are those who argue that technology per se is neither good nor evil; it all depends on the user. While 4G technology introduced a level of access, accountability, and transparency that boosted good governance, the negative consequences of the digital era have more than offset the gains. Technology and automation, alongside globalization, has fostered a volatile labor market that has created anxiety among the electorate, making them susceptible to the promises of populist politicians who tell them that he or she can turn back the clock and make their country great again. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been leveraged by bad actors at home and abroad to undermine faith in democratic institutions and to sow the seeds of division in society.

State-sponsored cyberattacks have crippled key infrastructure, stolen sensitive intelligence, and raised the question of whether governments were ever capable of protecting the safety, security, and privacy of their citizens. This is the record of politics in the 4G era. With speed, capacity, and new devices on the way with 5G, governments and citizens must be proactive, lest they repeat the mistakes of commission and omission that defined the past decade.

As a starting point, legislators need to get up to speed. They are in charge of regulating a telecommunications sector that few of them understand. Though we’ve come a long way since George W. Bush talking about looking up maps on “the Google” or Angela Merkel declaring the internet as “neuland” or “uncharted territory” in 2013, there is still work to be done. Embedding private sector experts with legislators would be a good first step. Only regular exposure to these complex issues will allow lawmakers to be conversant and capable of sensible action. It would also be beneficial to have policymakers actually use the products and services they’re charged with regulating. On the potential security and geopolitical threats posed by Huawei, cool heads and coordinated initiatives among countries with shared values must prevail. It is prudent for countries to conduct their own risk assessments of Chinese-made components in the 5G network, but this process should not simply be an opportunity for China-bashing in order to score cheap political points at home. Huawei, to its credit, has offered to make the source code for its equipment available to potential European partners in the hope that it will alleviate their concerns. Europeans should avail themselves of that opportunity, but do so with clear eyes and a healthy dose of skepticism. Lastly, governments must start thinking long-term about how to reskill displaced workers, and compensate those who will be 5G employment casualties. Many European countries, with Germany leading the way, have developed comprehensive programs for retraining workers whose jobs have become redundant. Pilot programs experimenting with a Universal Basic Income have shown some promise, though it remains to be seen if such a program can be scaled up.

At the end of the day, failure to adequately address these important transformations in the economic, consumption, and security environments will have political consequences. Winston Churchill’s famous quote about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others is being put to the test in 2019. In the 4G universe, many democratic societies saw increased political polarization and greater inequality. The upgrade to 5G will put additional pressure on systems that are already near the breaking point. If we prepare for the immense challenges that lie ahead, we might be able to reverse this disturbing trend. If not, you’ll soon be riding hands-free in your self-driving car, asking Alexa if democracy is dead.


Anthony T. Silberfeld

Director, Transatlantic Relations
Bertelsmann Foundation