We live in a society that is connected everywhere and always. We continuously surf the internet via WiFi, 4G and other networks and communicate with each other via social media and apps. In this era of fake news and troll armies, more and more questions are being asked about its social and societal consequences. What it is much less about, however, is physical health. What do all those signals in the air mean for our health? In ‘Ubiquity’, the Dutch documentary maker Bregtje van der Haak examines the mysterious condition ‘electromagnetic hypersensitivity’ (EHS).
People who claim to be suffering from EHS experience beeps in their heads, which prevent them from functioning properly in everyday life. These beeps are said to be caused by electrical signals, for example from computers and ovens. The symptoms are so severe that it is best for people to avoid these signals completely. In the internet age, these signals via WiFi and 4G networks have expanded enormously. So people with EHS can do nothing but retreat to remote areas where there are no devices or cell towers.
Van der Haak follows several EHS patients in widely divergent countries. They are all completely paralyzed by their affection, which rules their entire lives. There is the Swedish engineer Per Segerback, who was ironically involved in the introduction of the smartphone at Ericsson and who is now forced to live in a forest. To interview him, the documentary makers have to use an old-fashioned, hand-cranked camera. The Japanese Asaka and Dutch Anouk have decided not to let it sit and are campaigning towards the government to reduce radiation networks and not to place transmission towers in residential areas.
Van der Haak opens up the world of EHS patients through intimate close-ups and piercing noises. Provided the sound at home or in the cinema is of a bit of good quality, you will feel the discomfort yourself due to the relentless noise and beep tones in some scenes. The world is turning into a no man’s land of digital signals, spread by the ignorant masses with their smartphones. Meanwhile, EHS is not recognized and Per, Asaka and Anouk fight against skepticism from unwilling governments and tech giants.
There is immediately a major weakness in the documentary. Indeed, there is no scientific evidence for EHS. The World Health Organization states that research has not found a link between electromagnetic signals and the symptoms of EHS victims. Although every documentary is free to choose its own angle, it is a shortcoming that ‘Ubiquity’ almost completely ignores this scientific discussion. As a result, EHS is presented as an undisputed fact, which does not do justice to reality. The symptoms do not lie, but whether there is a link with WiFi, 4G and other radiation is still the question.
Despite this taint, ‘Ubiquity’ remains a fascinating portrait of three haunted individuals and their relentless struggle against their mysterious affliction. What also becomes clear is how far the digitization of society is already – whoever wants to withdraw from it for whatever reason, has almost nowhere to go. It begs the question: is there a right to be offline?