The Green Pass and the Prison of the Future
In August 2021 Italy introduced a law requiring the use of a digital vaccination certificate called Green Pass.1 The measure was initially devised by the European Commission and similar versions were approved outside the union, but very few were as strict as Italy in its implementation.
The certificate was required to:
Go to work
Take buses, trains, planes, ferries
Eat in restaurants and bars (indoor, as most are2)
Visit hospitals and retirement homes
Enter gyms, cinemas, clubs, museums, swimming pools
For quite some time, the only significant location people could enter without having their Green Pass scanned was pretty much the grocery store, where they bought food and other items necessary for their survival.
Digital Gates Everywhere
The adoption of this technological layer marked a deep change, an unprecedented one, in all human history. What effectively happened was that in the blink of an eye countless gates were installed at the entrances of almost all places where people could go, including those where they could earn a living. These gates were virtual, they didn’t exist in a material sense, but they had the potential to limit access just as much or even more than those made of metal, because there was no key that people could have to open them.
In practice, opening the gates seemed simple. All you had to do was get your certificate — the Green Pass. At the time, in Italy, it meant getting injected with a vaccine, or prove that you had recovered from the virus in the preceding 6 months. Alternatively, you could also get tested every 2 days, and pay for it each time, but that was not a viable option for anyone, especially in the long term. Getting injected was the best option you had, if you wanted to keep paying your bills.
That wasn’t much to ask, after all, and so tens of millions of people hurried to get their Green Pass. They did what they had to do, and as promised, they earned the liberty to do most of the things they could do before, in 2018. The gates weren’t much of a problem because they had the key to open them, and it was free too!
The truth is, though, that what they had wasn’t a key, not even in a metaphorical sense. It was half a key, at best. Because instead of using it to open the gates by themselves, they used it to ask the gates to be opened, and who answered was the government. If the response was positive, they were allowed to pass.
In technical terms, their certificate was scanned by an app developed by the government which verified its validity according to the parameters that had been set, one of which was the expiration date. Initially, there wasn’t much to seriously worry about there, but as we all know, apps can be updated at any time, and they don’t always get better.
No matter what you did to get it, the Green Pass was never an object you could keep in your pocket that reassured you that you were free to enter, because whether or not you were allowed was assessed every time you tried to. Therefore, its purpose was not to certify that you did what you had to do, but that you were still doing what you had to do.
All the power, just for a little while
The power those gates could yield was not omniscience — knowing at all times where people were and what they were doing — that was already possible through other means. Instead, their potential was much greater: choosing where they could go and keep being, with precision, and remotely.
No one had ever had that kind of power before, and no one in history who had similar powers has ever been willing to give them up, when asked. They kept finding other reasons to use them. (Maybe this time is different?)
Most people didn’t seem worried by that scenario because they believed that the gates were only a temporary solution to the problem of the current virus. When everyone got vaccinated for it, they would be removed. But there weren’t many good reasons to think that this was the case. The virus didn’t seem to go away, and the protection provided by the vaccines was only temporary. Plus, there was always the danger of a new variant or an entirely new virus, and governments agreed in saying that they didn’t want to find themselves unprepared again — ”The New Normal” was the slogan everyone heard many times.
Other people instead believed that it was exclusively about viruses and vaccinations, so the gates wouldn’t be used for other purposes. That was a question regarding the future, and no one could seriously claim to be able to predict it. And in truth, when we try to, we all tend to be too pessimistic about it. But one had to be overly optimistic to believe that governments won’t take advantage of any Big Crisis to expand the perimeter of their playground. And in the case of the crisis they were in, anyone who had been paying attention could acknowledge that things had not been dealt in a coherent and honest manner. The Italian government itself did not shy away from saying that the reasoning behind the introduction of the certificate was to “gently force” people to get vaccinated — without doing so openly and take full legal responsibility for it.
The one thing we all agree on
Technology changes everything but it’s impossible to anticipate how, without accidentally writing additional chapters for the Unabomber Manifesto.
What can help is focusing on what’s undeniably true today following how it’s being affected by what’s already available. Sometimes it’s just a matter of one plus one. But the problem with thinking about viruses and vaccinations is that they evoke too many emotions to be analyzed objectively, so the best thing to do is set them aside and instead start with what almost everyone agrees on. And that is that governments should do all they can to stop Bad People from doing Bad Things.
In fact, while there are many who aren’t comfortable with the idea of excluding people from society on the basis of their health choices, hardly anyone disagrees on whether or not the government should have the power to decide what level of freedom Bad People should have.
Prisons are being updated
If the government decides it’s the right thing to do, they lock someone up in a small room within a big room called Prison.
They do this so much that prisons always end up being full of people, but for some reason, solving this issue doesn’t seem possible. Italy has some of the most overcrowded prisons in Europe,3 but building more of them isn’t even discussed, as if it required some mineral that can only be mined on Mars.
The reasons to explain this vary worldwide, but usually it’s because people are incarcerated for small crimes and for too long. Another is that politicians and their sponsors are aware there’s a good chance they will end up in one, so they like to keep them as they are, too packed to fit them too.
But objectively speaking, prisons just aren’t a good solution to the problem of crime, since the vast majority of prisoners don’t learn any lesson from being locked up, they return to doing the same things right after they come out. Then there’s the whole matter of human rights, but no one cares about that stuff when it comes to Bad People. Italy currently violates the European Human Rights Conventions with their treatment of Mafia prisoners,4 and no one ever organized a protest about it.
This is a very old problem, but there’s a clear trend that shows where things are headed. The alternative House Arrest has been used since the times of Galileo (a Bad Guy at the time), and you don’t need to exercise your imagination to see how technology can increase its use. In fact, a simple gadget like the electronic bracelet already allows governments to limit someone’s freedom without locking them up in prison.
No one loves violence
The other big problem with the current prison system is that it requires brute force. I’ve never been to one, but I’m pretty sure that forcing someone to be in the same empty room every single day isn’t a matter of using kind words. At times, I imagine that threats are required, and when push comes to shove, violence. In practical terms: using weapons to inflict physical and psychological pain with the intention of submitting the prisoner, beyond that continuously inflicted through isolation from the world.
This isn’t pretty, and especially not very futuristic. You don’t see scenes like these in Apple commercials.
People are less and less comfortable with the idea of letting government authorities use any kind of violence. There are now countless videos showing how it can be used improperly, because being a blunt tool, using it often results in big mistakes. Everyone agrees that it shouldn’t be used, unless strictly necessary.
There is a policeman in all our hands
While some people are less and less approving of everyday government authorities like the Police, others seem to be more and more inclined to act as subsidiary ones, like many, less athletic, much less wealthy Batmen (and Catwomen). It’s another strange, dark trend that’s being fueled by technology.
This phenomenon is particularly evident on social media, the place where more and more people decide to spend most of their time. The most glaring example is the so-called Woke Police, a mostly unorganized and anonymous group of either bored or fanatical individuals who seem to think that one of their civic duties is to spend time looking for people that have committed no real crime but are guilty of having broken taboos, like using Bad Words. In this case, who acts as judge are the Media, that when alerted almost immediately proceed to amplify their cries, often resulting in them getting first publicly shamed, then fired from their jobs.
Governments either ignore this type of behavior — one more responsibility off their shoulders? — or openly encourage it, as in the case of the Texas abortion law, which allowed people to report anyone they believed had violated it and eventually reap a reward.
But another, more relevant example comes from Italy. Because beyond forcing businesses to check the Green Pass of all their clients and suggesting they check their ID if things looked suspicious, the government also explicitly allowed citizens to ask taxi drivers and other workers to hand it over and refuse their services if what they saw didn’t please them.5
What do you need freedom for?
The clearest thing the lockdowns have shown is that governments, thanks to technology, can force everyone to stay at home for months. In the past, people simply had no way to work from home while texting their friends while shopping for shoes while watching a show while ordering lunch.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to brumale to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.