Europe has become a technological colony

over 500 Municipalities in Italy have taken measures against the installation of 5G antennasdespite the assurances of the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, which spoke of an unmotivated psychosis, and of the European Commission. This wave of protest is not foreign to other European countries, where the No5G or Stop5G groups proliferate, fueled by unfounded fears of the relationship between 5G and the coronavirus, and sometimes also characterized by violent actions against the antennas. In addition to this social theme, 5G has to deal with the conflict between the United States and China. While the process of extradition of Huawei’s financial director Meng Wanzhou continues in Canada, Washington’s pressure towards the European Union and Great Britain does not ease, due to the decisions on the Chinese company’s involvement in their networks. A game that, as is now evident, is not only economic, but has a strategic value.

What is the overall meaning of these events? They teach us that the 5G revolution is not automatic. In recent years, consultancy companies have brought up amazing data on its impact, but have forgotten a decisive point: every digital transformation is subject to social and geopolitical constraints, which lead to slowdowns, accelerations, contracts between governments for reasons of foreign policy. This point is valid even when the importance of 5G is accentuated by the new digital pervasiveness of our lives, which really puts pressure on existing networks. Geopolitical choices, but also cultural skills, always accompany technological needs. Precisely the cultural point of view is underlined by the European Commission’s latest Desi (Digital Economy and Society Index) report, in which Italy is in a good position in terms of preparation for 5G, but confirms large delays on the capacity of capital human and on the digitization of businesses. In my opinion, in the future States will compete more and more precisely on digital culture and on the ability to spread innovation, beyond urban ecosystems: also in the United States, during the pandemic, an important debate has developed on the huge digital gaps between cities and countryside.

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The new technology could revolutionize entire economic systems. But it brings with it a thousand problems: from the intrusiveness of the Chinese multinationals to the European rifts. Without forgetting the various conspiracy theories, often fomented by those with political interests

If we turn our gaze towards the Pacific, we run into a futuristic scenario: acceleration on 6G. The work on telecommunication standards never stops, and recently South Korea has announced its desire to excel in 6G thanks to the commitment of Samsung (a global technology giant that is often underestimated) and LG Electronics. Japan wants to use 6G to recover ground on the international telecommunications infrastructure markets. The United States, which has learned some lessons from Huawei’s rise, can look to 6G for a counterattack against China, according to a track Martijn Rasser exposed on Lawfare. In a recent interview Eric Schmidt, former head of Google and today at the head of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Board, admitted that he had underestimated Chinese capabilities for too long, following a stereotyped idea of ​​their industries, considered capable of only to copy. To compete seriously, according to Schmidt, the strength of the Chinese strategy must be recognized, and the veil of hypocrisy on the essential role of governments in supporting research must be overcome. In the Chinese race, a leading role is played by the penetration into the global bodies that deal with standards: not surprisingly, the new Chinese technology plan is called Standards 2035, and aims to strengthen Beijing’s role in the little-known places in which rules are developed, such as the International Telecommunication Union, the organization created in 1865 to manage the first telegraph networks and today led by the Chinese Houlin Zhao.

In this scenario, what is the challenge before Europe?
The problems that Naomi Klein has placed on the Espresso should not be underestimated. In order not to be naive, we must not practice Luddism without a construct, but at the same time we must always think of technology in relation to power. The propaganda idea that large digital companies move in hyperuranium, in the name of their supposed “goodness” and not of profits, or the inevitable force of “connectivity” has already been widely denied. Enough with fairy tales. These are actors inserted in global conflicts between political capitalisms, and who are in relationship with their belonging powers.

We don’t remember that enough ten years ago, apart from Evgeny Morozov, few doubted that any tweet would root “democracy” in the Middle East. The elements of technology surveillance, and its political and social effects, must be seriously considered, as the market power accumulated by some digital conglomerates deserves attention, a democratic issue that has raised a new debate on antitrust. There is another essential point: digital technology is not ethereal, but has a fundamental physical dimension, of material infrastructure, which we have foolishly forgotten. Especially in Europe and Italy, despite the warnings of some voices shouting in the desert, such as that of Juan Carlos De Martin, co-director of the Centro Nexa at the Polytechnic of Turin.

We have been talking about the risk for Europe of becoming a “technological colony” for at least thirty years: just read the interesting books of the 90s by Konrad Seitz, German ambassador to Italy and China, which sounded an alarm to which it is never adequate action was paid on key issues such as semiconductors (at the center of the competition between Beijing and Washington), submarine cables, the cloud today dominated by giants such as Amazon and Microsoft. The distance between ads and results is always measured on these aspects. Already in 2017 Macron proposed in bombastic speeches the establishment of a European Darpa, an innovation agency capable of rivaling the Pentagon. Vast program, ended on a dead track. In the near future, it will be important to understand the role of the European Defense Agency in promoting innovation, also in the relationship with the European aerospace industries, and strengthen a proactive logic of technology transfer. In Europe there are also distributed cloud projects, also advanced by promising startups, such as the Bolognese Cubbit, and the promises of the Gaia-X project, the European platform on data infrastructure launched on a Franco-German initiative, must be verified on the ground. The latter is an area where astronomical investments are now needed. Digital giants also continue their march in logistics.

There is an urgent need to bring out an industrial and cultural strategy, accompanied by the ability to act, amid the multiple needs of the pandemic. Otherwise, Europeans will continue to be dependent and subordinate. If “technological sovereignty” is relegated to the speeches of the leaders, Europeans will only have the – relative – freedom to take sides among the giants.

Alessandro Aresu is the author of the book “The powers of political capitalism. United States and China “, published by The ship of Theseus