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the real-life design reader


Andrea Bagnato and Elisa Giuliano on 5G in Matera.


Viale Carlo Levi runs along the southern edge of Matera, southern Italy, in a part of the city tourists rarely visit. On one side, the road flanks housing blocks built in the 1960s for residents who were displaced from the ancient city centre, called Sassi (‘stones’). On the other, the horizon opens onto the Bradano river valley below and the Pollino mountains further away. The road is named after the anti-fascist intellectual who, because of his political convictions, was exiled to a small village in the region. His classic 1945 memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli revealed the conditions of Matera to postwar Italy. Levi wrote of the city as an open-air inferno where cave-dwelling children died of malaria by the dozen. Little did it matter that the Sassi had evolved over hundreds of years into a unique, complex urban system, and that Matera had become impoverished only very recently; Levi’s portrayal struck a chord with a country eager to stand comparison to the rest of Western Europe, and in 1952 the Italian parliament passed a ‘special law’ forcing all the Sassi inhabitants to move into new public housing.

It was on Levi’s namesake road that on March 5, 2018, the first 5G base station was switched on, as part of a national plan to test the new mobile technology. Matera was chosen by the Italian government on the grounds that it was to be the next European Capital of Culture (the other test cities were Milan, Prato and Bari, selected for their geographical location, and L’Aquila, destroyed by an earthquake in 2009 and only partially rebuilt). An inconspicuous object – a one-metre-long grey box, bolted onto a crowded telecommunications mast – the Huawei-built 5G base station stood out for being the first in Italy, and one of the first in Europe. While we tend to think of mobile base stations as giant visible structures, the majority are concealed under various architectural details: inside fake chimneys, or behind billboards. Operating on the 3.7–3.8 GHz frequency bands, as opposed to the 800–1900 Mhz bands used by mobile phones all the way up to 4G, 5G networks promise much faster connections. But there is a trade-off: higher frequency means shorter wavelength, and thus reduced range. Increased speed comes at the price of a much higher density of base stations.

When 5G arrived in Matera, there was no question, in the eyes of the national government, local politicians or the telecommunications companies, that more speed was a desirable goal. From 2017 the local paper, La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno, ran near-daily stories on the benefits 5G could bring to the city: the faster network would encourage new businesses to move in, helping to develop rural areas. It could assist healthcare, by allowing for remote diagnosis; cultural institutions, by enabling VR and AR interfaces; and police forces, by facilitating drone surveillance and facial recognition. It could even help the local utility company reduce water leaks. In one of the articles, Matera’s mayor expressed a vision in which the Capital of Culture designation, 5G technology and special economic zones could attract investment that would redeem not just the city but the entire Italian South. At a conference in Matera on May 22, local civil servants and entrepreneurs spoke of a ‘fourth industrial revolution’ and of data being ‘the new oil’.

It was a surprise to many, then, that a year after the base station was installed, a local MP tabled a question in parliament about the possible health risks of 5G technology. From then on, the tone of newspaper coverage gradually shifted, with alarm taking the place of techno-optimism. The arguments echoed those of 5G opponents worldwide: that the effects of the ‘new’ wavelength (which is, in fact, close to domestic Wi-Fi) on the human body are under-researched, and more base stations would mean increased exposure to radio-frequency (RF) radiation.

Scepticism mounted until, on May 13, 2019, the first of many public demonstrations took place in Matera’s main square, asking for the 5G base station to be switched off. A Stop 5G coalition developed and, on July 23, the mayor of neighbouring Scanzano Jonico issued an official order prohibiting the installation of 5G equipment within the boundaries of his municipality. By the end of 2019, over thirty cities – all along the peninsula – followed the example set by Scanzano Jonico, issuing anti-5G orders. In early 2020, conspiracy theories that associated 5G networks with Covid-19 transmission started spreading worldwide. As a result, the number of Italian mayors banning 5G rose to nearly 500, representing such large cities as Udine and Siracusa. This form of opposition contrasts curiously with that in northern Europe, where countries like the UK and France have witnessed dozens of arson attacks against 5G masts.

In Matera, the anti-5G constituency is a heterogeneous bunch. Spearheaded by Salvatore De Bonis, both a populist MP and a landlord for whom the stakes appear to be a mix of political consensus and entrepreneurial self-interest, it includes individuals but also parents’ associations and environmentalist groups. Over the past year, the positions of the Comitato Stop 5G Matera seem to have shifted from a moderate distrust of corporate interests to flat-out conspiracy theory.

But what of the evidence? The question whether 5G can pose a danger to human health is a textbook example of socially disputed science. The scientific community broadly accepts that RF radiation is at once potentially harmful – which is why there are national and supranationally mandated limits – but safe at normal use levels, even if what constitutes ‘normal use’ is a point of contention. It doesn’t help that up-to-date, independent scientific evidence is particularly hard to come by.

In 2011, a working group of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO) classified RF radiation as ‘possibly carcinogenic’, based on ‘limited evidence’ of carcinogenicity in humans: ‘Positive associations’, the resulting 2013 report notes, ‘have been observed between exposure to radiofrequency radiation from wireless phones and glioma, and acoustic neuroma.’ It is quite striking that, as 5G opponents like to point out, the main scientific study the IARC judgement relies on, called Interphone, was undertaken in the early 2000s and funded in large part by the telecommunications industry. Since then, while RF exposure has undoubtedly increased, no other study of comparable scope has been commissioned.

In a 2014 fact sheet, the latest available, the WHO contradictorily states that ‘to date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use’ – the emphasis being on the absence of proof of causation rather than simple correlation; it goes on to note that mobile phones have not been around long enough to study all types of cancer. An updated WHO health risk assessment, initially scheduled for publication in 2016, has now been pushed back to 2022. In 2018, the US National Institutes of Health published the results of a ten-year study on the effects of 2G and 3G RF radiation on rats and mice, finding ‘clear evidence’ of heart, brain and other tumours, but noting that emission levels studied were higher than those experienced by humans, and that 5G might be less dangerous owing to its shorter wavelength.

The paradox of this story is that mobile phones are perhaps the single most used piece of technology today. Like much of the world, Italians are addicted to their smartphones, and this may well hold true for 5G opponents too. Not only that; Italy stands out as one of the earliest mobile phone adopters. According to World Bank: Data, in 2001, 90 percent of people in Italy had a mobile phone contract the highest rate in the world – contrasting with 78 percent in the UK and 45 percent in the United States.

A valuable insight comes from Leopoldina Fortunati, one of Italy’s most prominent feminists. In the early 70s, she joined the Marxist feminist organisation Lotta Femminista, and together with Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Silvia Federici and Selma James, went on to establish the International Wages for Housework Campaign. In her subsequent research as a sociologist, Fortunati studied mobile phone use around the year 2000, just as it was becoming ubiquitous. Having conducted extensive surveys in the late 90s, she found that the mobile’s success in Italy was not due to the stereotypical ‘communicative’ propensity of the population, but precisely the opposite – a general distrust of strangers. Italians loved mobile phones because their device made it easier to speak to people they weren’t familiar with.

Crucially, Fortunati goes on to argue that mobile phone use in Italy, at least in its early years, was less related to productive work (as was the case in other countries) than to the realm of free time and personal relationships. It was, she asserts, a tool of ‘re-productive work’, which she defines in her 2002 chapter ‘Italy: Stereotypes, True and False’ as all the work that ‘serves to recreate every day the energy consumed by people in the workplace’. This definition is interesting because it expands on Fortunati’s earlier understanding of reproductive labour as simply the domestic and care work performed by women. Now it accounted for all forms of social life. Italy in the 90s was quick to liberalise its labour market by introducing flexible, fixed-term contracts and abolish wage indexing. Work under these precarious conditions required more energy – hours were longer and securing a regular salary was harder. So more effort was required on the part of workers to maintain the lifestyles they enjoyed in the 70s and 80s, following four decades of economic growth and unprecedented improvements in living conditions. They sought to make up this deficit in part by socialising and taking up activities outside of work; here the mobile phone played a key role.

As easy as it is to label 5G opponents Luddites and conspiracy theorists, it may be the case that these activists have put their finger on some crucial aspects of contemporary society. Since 2000, two more decades of liberalisation have further eroded wages and working conditions. This is truer in marginal territories such as southern Europe, where the median monthly salary is less than 1,000 euros. In the same period, mobile phone technology has improved and uptake increased. As much as we like to link this uptake with a narrative of increased productivity, progress and innovation, Fortunati’s research shows clearly that behind Italy’s rampant mobile phone use lurks insecurity.

When the context and history of a place like Matera are considered, an even more complex picture emerges – one that could explain the opposition. The politicians’ narrative to advance 5G was the same used to promote the Capital of Culture: the city once labelled the ‘shame of Italy’, whose inhabitants lived in ‘prehistoric’ caves, was now getting ready to attract global attention, investment and tourists. Yet despite all the optimism about the transformative power of 5G mobile phone technology, public investment remains at record lows, with schools crumbling and hospitals closing. The mayor’s original promises remain unfulfilled.

The Basilicata region has historically been a place of experimentation imposed by external actors, from land reform in the 50s to the urban redevelopment of Matera involving famous architects like Ludovico Quaroni and Giancarlo De Carlo. It is understandable that the deployment of 5G in 2018 was seen as yet another attempt to exploit an area relatively untouched by contemporary capitalism, a still-fertile soil for multinational corporations. It is important to keep in mind that there has never been a question of 5G replacing the existing 4G network. It was always presented as an opportunity for specific business sectors, rather than for the general population.

And if one looks again at the types of businesses involved in the project from the beginning – logistics, biotechnology and state surveillance – it is hard not to notice that these are the very sectors currently gaining ascendancy, and standing to benefit the most from further data extraction. With this in mind, it may be natural to assimilate 5G to other histories of extraction. The twentieth century is littered with new technologies that had lethal effects on populations around the world – think of nuclear power plants, asbestos or oil – and it is precisely the most marginal territories that have always paid the harshest price in terms of shortened life expectancy and a degraded ecology.

Scanzano Jonico, for example, has a deep-rooted history of environmental activism. In 2003 its inhabitants organised protests against a proposed nuclear waste dump along the Ionian coast. And the nearby Agri valley is the site of one of the biggest oilfields in continental Europe, controlled by the Eni and Total companies, with untold environmental and human consequences as operations keep expanding. The mayor’s banning order against 5G, derided by the national press for its unsound scientific basis, could instead be read in the context of a territory disrupted and exploited by such interventions.

Furthermore, Basilicata is a region where medicine, until the mid-twentieth century, relied on localised practices grounded in the local ecology and coexisting with plants and animals. Treating diseases and ailments was a social endeavour, usually entrusted to intergenerational female knowledge. With modern biomedicine, by contrast, knowledge production and dissemination has become the province of (mostly male) experts, and the way the social context can shape perceptions of health and disease has only just begun to be taken seriously. All the while, as the case of RF radiation exemplifies, clear scientific answers are much harder to come by than we may think.

Anti-5G activism, while murky and often concealing rather ugly political agendas, brings to light real gaps in modern science, as well as in political representation and accountability. In Matera as elsewhere, the local population was never consulted about the expansion of mobile phone networks, which was simply presented as the natural course of things. A recurring motif in all pro-5G discourse is the sheer lack of a subject. Things happen by themselves, as if effected by a superior force. Data ‘flows’, innovation ‘happens’, regions ‘develop’. But who innovates, or who produces data, are never questions on the table.

Recent developments suggest that city-wide 5G bans, such as in Scanzano Jonico, may have touched a nerve. In June 2020, the Italian government used a post-Covid recovery decree to seize control of telecommunications infrastructure away from municipal governments. Mobile companies, such as Vodafone and the Hong-Kong-owned Wind Tre, have started suing the municipalities, and there are at the time of writing 60 pending lawsuits. And, according to an article in La Repubblica, in 2021 industry leaders and MPs alike asked the government to increase RF emission limits tenfold so as to ‘aid economic recovery’. Seen in this context, 5G opposition can be understood as an attempt to reintroduce the subject into the equation, to claim agency in a context where almost all possibilities of agency have been lost. This is all the more true in those regions that have found themselves on the wrong side of neoliberalism, watching distant metropolitan centres entice their populations and capital.

No longer a responsibility of the family, the community or the state, health today is presented as the outcome of individual choices, one of the few realms of life over which we can still have control. We are encouraged to be healthy by improving our diet and exercise regimes, and enacting a commodified idea of self-care. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising that health is the ground for this clash, as well as the source of so much anxiety.