Future Tense

Future Tense Newsletter: Passports, Please

A person's hand holds the yellow World Health Organization yellow fever immunization certificate.
An Argentinian national holds his ID card and his international certificate of vaccination after being immunized against yellow fever before traveling to Brazil in January 2008. Juan Mabromata/Getty Images

For years I held onto my fraying yellow “International Certificate of Vaccination” with the World Health Organization logo, which showed I had been inoculated against such exotic-sounding diseases as dengue, malaria, meningitis, and yellow fever. The document made me feel both worldly and like a mamma’s boy, as she was the one who’d impressed upon me the utter importance of keeping that document updated, and for eternity.

So it’s a source of some gnawing guilt that the document is with me no more, a victim of too many moves, and a sense that it is was an antique from a bygone era. The last time I recall taking the certificate anywhere was many years ago on an atypically adventurous (for me, anyways) reporting trip to Burkina Faso, after having dropped by the New York Center for Travel and Tropical Medicine for some vaccines.  My travel destinations in recent years have been far less adventurous—trips to Phoenix, California, Mexico City, and London haven’t required prep visits to Tropical Medicine centers or producing the yellow cardboardy document to border officials, and so it is lost to history.

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But the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ongoing rollout of the vaccine against the virus, means immunity passports are likely to make a big comeback. And as Jane C. Hu wrote recently for Future Tense, the digital immunity passports being developed might be needed not only to fly overseas, but possibly to return to the office, enroll in school, or go to the movie theater.

I fear the coming vaccination debates of 2021 will make the mask debates of 2020 seem tame in comparison. What will likely prove true in both cases is that the abdication of forceful public intervention—a squeamishness to compel individuals to do what’s right for the collective good out of misplaced deference to privacy, autonomy, or liberty—will have created dueling spheres of public life, with dueling narratives about medical and scientific truths.

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We have seen this already in the senseless, toxic debates over mask-wearing. The reluctance of too many public authorities to mandate mask-wearing means we must navigate two different realms, one governed by reason and expertise, the other by an exaggerated subservience to individuals’ caprice. Sadly for the health of our democracy, the latter is the public sphere; the former tends to be private domains (say a national retailer imposing its mask-wearing rule in a jurisdiction that doesn’t have one).

This danger of privatizing the exercise of common sense and science-governed public health practices becomes more acute with the vaccine rollout, as Jane’s story makes clear. Kudos to Common Pass, IBM, CLEAR, and others for developing systems that will allow us to easily prove we have been vaccinated. But it’s a shame our political culture is such that we can’t even contemplate the possibility that our government should or will assume the responsibility of mandating vaccination and creating a foolproof register that prevents the privacy violations and discriminatory practices Jane’s piece warns are inherent in a market-driven, fragmented immunity passport app market.

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Still, better the private sector than no one. But the sequencing here will be one of the trickier stories of 2021. At what point will it be reasonable or just for large swaths of the American economy to shut out the non-vaccinated?  And even if this all goes better than expected (and early indications bet against that), the vaccine debates will likely exacerbate already alarming levels of cultural and political polarization and divisiveness in our society.

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Our last Future Tense Fiction story of 2020, Paul Theroux’s “The Vastation,” posits a future in which another pandemic ravages the country and leads to a Balkanized Midwestern landscape of self-contained gated fiefdoms vying for precious resources and food. Theroux is a famed globe-trotting travel writer (has anyone been on more of the world’s trains than he has?), but this portrayal of vastation in a future U.S., delivered via a suspenseful father-son road trip, is more haunting than anywhere else you could go.

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But hopefully things won’t come to that.

Maybe we can solve all our problems in our sleep. That’s the intriguing premise of our other Future Tense Fiction story published in December, Hal Y. Zhang’s “Dream Soft, Dream Big.” The eagerness of the story’s protagonist, Katia Zahorski, to contribute her dreams to collective problem-solving provide an incisive and humorous critique of our gig economy, ephemeral celebrity culture, startup craze, and performative behavior on social media.

Now is a great time to catch up on all 12 Future Tense Fiction stories (and their response essays) published in 2020.

Here are some other stories from the recent past of Future Tense:

Wish We’d Published This

School Went Online This Year, Including MIT’s Swimming Test,” by Jem Bartholomew, Wall Street Journal

Future Tense Recommends

Ben Macintyre is a prolific writer of riveting non-fiction espionage books, and his latest, Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy, is a masterpiece of the genre. Many spy tales involve plenty of daring and clever deception on behalf of what in retrospect can seem fairly low stakes. In the case of Ursula Kuczynski, code-named Sonya, the stakes were nuclear parity between superpowers, and the well-being of her children. In 2021, it should not come as a surprise that one of the most consequential spies of the 20th century was a multitasking mother working from home, but an amusing subplot of Macintyre’s tale is the extent to which the blinding power of pervasive sexism (say, among spy catchers) worked in Sonya’s favor. For Future Tensers, the book is of particular interest for its portrayal of wireless tradecraft and as a clear primer of what was, among other things, the single most important case of industrial espionage ever: the Soviet appropriation of the IP to build the A-bomb.

What Next: TBD

Slate’s technology podcast took the last two weeks of the year off, but stay subscribed for more in 2021 about tech, power, and the future.

Upcoming Events

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• Wednesday, Jan. 13, noon Eastern: Section 230’s Fate Under the Biden Administration. One of our core preoccupations in 2020, the fate of online free speech amid the swirling crosswinds of authoritarian calls for censorship and the proliferation of toxic disinformation and abuse on social media platforms, is likely to become only more urgent in 2021. Section 230, the law shielding internet companies from liability for user-created content, is in everyone’s crosshairs. So it’s timely to kick off our 2021 online events series with a stellar group of experts discussing where we go from here in regulating our virtual public square. Visit the New America website for more information and to register.

• Wednesday, Jan. 27, noon Eastern: Afrofuturism’s Reimagined Tomorrows. In a moment defined by the growing awareness and rejection of the systemic racism highlighted by the disparate impact of the pandemic and the killings of Black citizens by law enforcement, the project of imagining a future where Black people are surviving, thriving, and leading technological and social change is more urgent than ever. Black Lives Matter, and so do Black futures—to all of our futures. Visit the New America website for more information and to register.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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