Edward Snowden talked privacy, trust, and mass surveillance at London’s FutureFest this weekend. The weekend-long event showcased speakers, debates, performers, and more, themed around providing perspectives on the ideas of tomorrow.
Joining the crowd via live link from Moscow with his face projected six feet tall on a screen, the irony of Snowden’s face appearing huge before a crowd like a smiling Big Brother was not lost on Nesta CEO Geoff Mulgan, who quipped about the peculiarity while introducing Snowden.
The former NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower fielded questions about privacy, state-sponsored spying, mass surveillance, and governance.
“They’re afraid of us. The government doesn’t want us to know what they’re doing, how they’re interpreting the law, how they’re interpreting redefining their powers, and increasingly, how they’re redefining the boundaries of our rights and our liberties…without our involvement,” he said about mass surveillance.
Responding to a question about how students can engage with the issue of government spying, he asked rhetorically:
“If we can’t have an honest debate about the values of ideas in academic institutions, then where will they go?” highlighting the necessity of open discussion about the extent of state surveillance and its effectiveness in Universities.
The discussion panel included fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood, Oxford Professor of Philosophy Luciano Floridi, and President of the University of Glasgow’s student representative council Breffni O’Connor, whose institution made Mr. Snowden University Rector last year.
While the theme of the festival is all things future, much of the discussion and technology pertained to objects and ideas available now, making FutureFest at times feel quite contemporary.
Mr. Snowden was undoubtedly the headline event of the weekend, with festival-goers waiting in long queues for a chance to get a seat in the small auditorium set aside for his discussion.
The weekend also featured installations, interactive displays and discussions from various authors, artists, entrepreneurs, and academics. Funk legend George Clinton and Labour Party House of Lords member Lady Helena Kennedy were just two of the more notable names on the FutureFest schedule.
Robotic art installations, virtual reality demonstrations, and a smattering of neon lighting tried to set the tone for a futuristic experience. Even so, the event’s venue, Vinopolis in Southwark, left something to be desired. Being an older building with tight corridors and small spaces, it struggled to mesh with the futuristic theme.
The less-than-modern locale, political debate relating to privacy and the environment, interactive iPad installations, and oculus rift demos – as cool as they were – are nothing new, making FutureFest feel a lot more like ‘PresentFest’, at best.