WiFi: The new moral panic

21 05 2007

It’s a quiet monday night and as good a time for a rant as any. I’m watching TV at the moment and there’s some half-baked documentary about how wireless internet is bad for our kids and how we’re all going to get cancer.

Dancing back and forth between various scientific studies is a tedious game with this sort of thing. Spurious correlative studies are not good science, but they do make for good headlines in the less reputable press.

This moral panic is just starting to come to the mainstream, so I’ll just say the following things.

1. The power of wi-fi signals is ludicrously low. We build houses under pylons, we broadcast radio and television from massive towers over our cities, we bombard the skies with radar telescopes so powerful that standing close to them would almost certainly kill you. And yet here we are, mysteriously all still alive. At the same time, most wi-fi routers give out a signal about the electrical strength of a light bulb.

2. Did we all go blind from sitting too close to the TV? Did we all go deaf and walk in front of cars when we started wearing Walkmans? Did we get tumours from our mobile phones? Psychotic from our video games? Every new technology gets its moral panic, and it seems we never learn the tediousness of it all. There’s a wider question about the perception of science in the public eye here but the point is that we as a public don’t seem to be able to even use the benefit of our own memory.

3. Even if there was a potential health risk from wi-fi, even if there is a level of health risk, it’s insignificant next to the massive benefit to our society that these technologies will bring us. The power of what the internet can do for our world, the full scale of what a revolution it represents for knowledge, for democracy, for society is something that we probably don’t even recognise ourselves and will probably manifest itself with the benefit of our grandchildren’s historical perspective. Put that against these health risk claims and it puts them in their tiny questionable place.

As the newspapers get their hold on this, expect the usual cries about how we have to ‘protect the children’. Wi-fi gives them freedom to learn and explore, to be part of a generation with more access to learning to ourselves, to do more and be more. Taking it away harms our children way more than a little low background radiation ever could.

* Turns out it was Panorama actually. How low has that fallen?