The American Internet

Pro Tip: Don’t set up a Google Alert for ‘5G’.

Not because you shouldn’t learn about the infrastructure that underpins our modern  communication system or because you shouldn’t engage in current events. Indeed, you should be an engaged citizen of this technological world.

But a Google Alert for 5G right now because it will bring you down a wormhole of geopolitical debates and parlays on economic nationalism that showcase deep uncertainty about America’s future.  

Because the race to 5G is touted as our modern day Space Race; an ‘us versus them’ scenario (mostly US versus China) in which the winner rules the modern technological universe.

Now, 5G is a political lightning rod for good reason. By changing radio wave standards, we will be able to increase download speeds, extend coverage, and expand the number of devices entrenched in the ever-growing concept of our connected world. In theory, it will make the Internet more ‘free’ and ideas, commerce, and communication more accessible. Laying fiber optics cables isn’t just about bragging rights – it’s about access to the precious and ever-more essential resources of the Internet.

Talk about 5G can easily divulge into debates about trade wars, educational standards, labor laws, and nationalist rhetoric that underpin this debate (also things I wouldn’t recommend setting up a Google Alert for). But we miss the point of this powerful technology if we just frame it as a winner-take-all race. We will implement 5G in this country. At the moment, however, we don’t have the resources to implement it well.

Unless we start thinking about societal actions that will indeed make 5G accessible to all, it will not live up to its promise. While we await the arrival of 5G, will we as a country have the political and economic courage to make this mobile technology accessible in rural areas? Will we lead the charge in making health and financial technologies opportunity drivers for all? Will we have the foresight to know the difference between ‘fast data’ and ‘good data’?

It is one thing to win the race and it is quite another to define the rules of the race. America’s potential has always been its willingness to ideate and build. Which is why the Internet is the ultimate reflection of the American Experiment. Both – when functioning at their best – are iterative and open sourced, because we know good ideas can be developed anywhere and by anyone. Both are defined by each individual, and both can be seen as tools for freedom or repression. Both are an ever-expanding network. To really ‘win’ the race to 5G, we should be thinking critically about what we want a completely technologically-connected world to look like. We will have to determine what digital freedom and justice for all will mean. And that, I believe, is something that American can take the lead in.

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