5G: towards ever more digital dependence?

If you check your phone less than 48 times a day according to a RescueTime study; then you are doing better than the average user. To believe the Screen Time feature of my iPhone introduced by Apple in 2018 to cope with the chronic addiction of its users, I, for my part, activated it on average 118 times a day last month. Besides breathing, there are few actions that I repeat as often, and above all, as mechanically.

Not far from being an isolated phenomenon, a large part of us is addicted to digital. In different proportions, for different uses. However, digital addiction has today become a subject of public health. Among the main harmful effects, there is the drop in concentration: by consulting my phone 118 times a day, how many unnecessary interruptions?

Some studies also point to serious risks to the development of basic skills for children, and even impacts on the mental health of adolescents. Especially since the time spent on screens continues to increase, driven by the development of social networks, streaming and allowed by the generalization of unlimited mobile subscriptions. And it is not ready to stop with the arrival of 5G, the new Eldorado promised by operators. 10 times more speed, the possibility of connecting 1,000 times more terminals at the same time and above all a latency 10 to 100 times better which allows us to imagine a plethora of new immersive services. Figures that make you dizzy.

A big question arises: should we welcome 5G with open arms? What impacts can we really expect on our digital consumption? Is 5G likely to further accelerate our already worrying digital addiction?

The first obvious impacts that can be expected from 5G are the overuse of today’s most common connected services: video streaming, video calls or network games for example. The equation is simple: more available flow = better experience = more consumption. And yet: while 3 million South Koreans have already subscribed to a 5G offer, it is difficult, after a few months already, to detect a real impact on screen time.

Why? These first users are mainly early adopters, technophiles, already very connected and the life-size test in South Korea is far from the theoretical promises of the technology: not standalone (it relies on the 4G LTE network), it is not not unlimited and remains confined to certain areas of Seoul and the latency disappoints.

But it would be a mistake to reduce the impact of 5G to simply increasing throughput. Because it is unlikely that being able to download a film in a second instead of a few minutes really increases my desire to see one more. To estimate the impact of 5G on our digital consumption, we must therefore take into account the two other improvements that this standard promises: very low latency, and the possibility of connecting a large number of terminals.

First of all, very low latency combined with improved throughput promises a real media revolution. No more Netflix , no more Instagramyes, but 5G will above all support the emergence of new services and uses, with an impact both on how to consume the media (in augmented reality, in virtual reality), and on the types of content (more numerous, more varied, better resolution, more interactive and personalized). Better distributed, and more attractive, the media will thus probably take an increasing part of our attention. Video games, already the first cultural good consumed by the French, also promise to take full advantage of 5G: virtual reality games without latency, but especially cloud gaming, which offers the possibility of being fully mobile and able to play all over.

But while network bandwidth will be increased tenfold with 5G, our attention bandwidth remains limited. Not all departments will be able to increase their share of available brain time. Watch out for overheating! Therefore, it is likely that we will see social networks compete with each other for their brain time available through gaming and virtual reality. Unless social networks also consume themselves in virtual reality? Difficult to predict which media will be the winners of the advent of 5G. The only certainty: the battle for our attention risks becoming more intense, and the tools deployed to capture it, always more addictive.

Thus, more than a simple increase in our digital time, we risk moving towards a more immersive, more interactive digital consumption.

That said, this media revolution is not for tomorrow. The considerable investment costs that operators have to bear, and especially the uncertainties linked to the 5G business model, postpone a massive deployment of 5G for several years, in any case, outside the major urban centers. This therefore offers us the most precious thing in a digital world that is racing at top speed: time. So, before giving in to the technological messianism of 5G, and gargling in front of the fantastic use cases it offers, let’s take the time to think about the impacts they will have on our digital addiction, and on their real necessity.

The necessary step back and responsibility does not rest only on the regulator and the operators, but it is also up to us, developers, designers and service operators, to design and having in mind the negative externalities of an addictive user experience and hyperconnected. The good news in all of this? The sobriety of use often rhymes with energetic sobriety. So, chick! Let’s bet today to take into account digital sobriety as a fundamental principle. 

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Murtaza Ali

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