In this blog post, I want to take a symbolic look at a new phenomenon, namely that of people burning down cell phone towers. This has been happening during the Covid-19 crisis as various conspiracy theories blame 5G technology for the virus 1.
I will look at this phenomenon in a way that is similar to Jonathan Pageau’s approach in his video “The Symbolism of Conspiracy Theory” 2. First, I will show that it is symbolically accurate to lay some of the blame for Covid on cell phone towers, and that we can understand why some people would even burn them. Second, I will explain why this arson is a prime example of our modern inability to see the different layers of reality. It exemplifies our frenetic attempts to reduce everything down to the physical.
Cell phone towers are of course partly responsible for the Covid crisis. But the physical layer of 5G radiation is not the right place to look. It is at the psychological and social levels that the impact of cell phone towers is palpable.
Let’s start by looking at the disease itself. The virus spread so quickly around the world precisely because the world is so globally connected. In part thanks to cell phones and internet technology, we can easily travel and do business in other countries, all while spreading pathogens.
On the government level, cell phone technology has allowed authorities to exert unprecedented control on the population during the crisis. The authorities can track the progression of the virus and can then create and disseminate legislation more quickly than ever before. Cell phones can even be used to track individuals and see whether they disobey the social distancing legislation.
On the psychological level, cell phone technology helps keep people docile. With so much entertainment available at our fingertips, people are much more willing to comply with the government’s order to stay inside. At a time when families and friend networks are smaller and people are already isolated, government mandated social isolation does not seem like such a big deal. Cell phones also helped fuel a widespread social media panic surrounding the crisis, which made a lot of people want to hide even without explicit government regulation to that effect.
We can thus see that cell phone towers really did play a role in bringing about the disease, the government regulations around the disease, and the widespread submission of citizens to said regulations. We have physical artefacts, namely cell towers made of metals and plastics, that participate at the personal and social levels of the Covid crisis. Hence, cell towers are powerful symbols of the crisis. They mediate between its layers.
It is no surprise that people would intuit this, and that some would even want to set cell towers on fire. Doing so is an active symbolic participation against the negative psychological and social impacts of cell phone technology and technology in general, as displayed during the Covid crisis. Just as the ancient Israelites periodically became aware of their idolatry and physically burned down their idols, which caused social and even cosmic problems, some modern people notice, however dimly, their idolatry of technology, symbolized by cell phone towers, and physically set them on fire in a desperate attempt to stop their negative psychological and social effects.
That said, because the arsonists are blind to this symbolism and insist on casting the problem in terms of 5G electromagnetic waves, they cannot properly analyze the situation. They cannot see the positive aspects of cell towers, or take adequate measures. It is great that cell towers allow people to communicate cheaply and effectively while physically apart. They helped warn us when the virus first erupted in China. They are even helping us now, through this blog post for instance, to collectively understand the phenomena. Overall, we’re dealing with a complex psychological and social phenomenon, with positives and negatives. Burning down towers to stop 5G radiation won’t suddenly make things right. Indeed, these destructive actions only further divide us.
When the ancient Israelites burned down their idols, they also repented and sought to reunite with God. They knew they were dealing with social and cosmic level phenomena. But our modern arsonists burn their idols in confusion, and while they are certain of stopping a physical problem, they are blind to the social ones, only causing more fragmentation.
This brings me to the second point I wanted to bring up in this post. Why are we blind to this symbolism? Why do the arsonists and conspiracy theorists insist on blaming 5G electromagnetic waves for the virus? Aren’t the aforementioned personal and social problems already enough?
I think this is simply another exemplification of our general modern blindness to patterns and symbols, of our insistence on quantifying and reducing everything down to the physical. If we can’t measure something in a lab, we’re skeptical of its existence. And for that reason, we’re definitely skeptical of personal and social level phenomena. There’s a reason why fields such as psychology and sociology are called “soft” sciences. If you can’t measure and be mathematically precise like physicists, you are not studying something that is ultimately real.
And there’s also the fact that when we can’t bring something down to the physical level, we also don’t have much power over it. Cell towers emitting deadly radiation are a lot simpler to deal with than the breakdown of social cohesion. More generally, it is always very tempting to try to reduce things to their physical layer in order to better wield them.
But as I argued in my last post 3, this tide is slowly turning. In the last decades, more and more philosophers and scientists have been coming around to the idea that there are real patterns to be found even outside of physical science. It is more fruitful to see the world that way. I hope that this post has helped demonstrate this by explaining the psychological and social patterns surrounding cell tower arson. If we do not take psychological and social patterns seriously, it is very difficult to really explain why people would go so far as to burn down cell towers.
Let me conclude by stating that while we moderns are almost all blind to this symbolism, it would have been obvious in more traditional societies that still saw the world symbolically and granted realness to psychological and social patterns. Erecting a tower that reaches as high as the village church would have been obviously suspicious to medieval Christians or to the ancient Israelites. The ensuing psychological and social ramifications would have been clear.
The highest point in cities and villages used to be the church, where people gathered to worship and form close bonds. In the 20th century, the highest point became skyscrapers, where people gather to work. Now, some of the highest points in cities are increasingly cell phone towers, which contribute to physically distancing people. While churches were a symbol of God and participated in uniting people together, cell towers are a symbol of technology that physically isolates us. And by “symbols”, I’m not just talking about metaphors or images. Cell towers really do participate in physically distancing us, and churches really do participate in physically uniting us.
Here’s a video recording of this post if you’d rather listen:
- Chan, Kelvin; Dupuy, Beatrice and Lajka, Arijeta. Conspiracy Theorists Burn 5G Towers Claiming Link to Virus, CTV News, April, 2020
- Pageau, Jonathan. “The Symbolism of Conspiracy Theory | Alex Jones on Joe Rogan”. Youtube, March, 2019
- Marceau, Jean-Philippe. “Rediscovering Forms”, The Symbolic World Blog, April, 2020