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How the future looks to Snowden

...and to others, at FutureFest in London

Anthony Gardner | March 17th 2015

How will we celebrate New Year 2050? With blueberry champagne, apparently—and the microbes it contains will be so healthy that the government will introduce Champagne Mondays to promote it. This was one of the many predictions at last weekend’s FutureFest, a two-day jamboree of talks and demonstrations about the shape of things to come held at the Vinopolis complex by London Bridge.

Wandering along the purple-lit passages, I felt at first as if I were travelling back in time, to the Science Museum of my childhood: although I was surrounded by adults of all ages (and, it seemed, nationalities), there was the same unifying sense of wonder. We gazed at a robot with a holographic face, a model of an “emotive city” designed around feelings, and people wearing virtual-reality headsets being whirled around in an electronic chair for a simulated thrill ride. If there was a slightly makeshift, Professor Branestawm-ish quality to it all, that only added to the enjoyment.

The main attraction, though, was the talks programme. I was intrigued by the idea of Country X, a nation defined by principles rather than borders, dreamed up by the musician Matthew Herbert; but while he spoke passionately about what was wrong with the status quo—from the banking system to chemicals in the food chain—he was disappointingly vague about the alternative. His Department of the Imagination and Minister for Saying Yes sounded promising, but his plan to recruit a million citizens and then crowd-source a constitution was less than convincing.

Vivienne Westwood, too, was passionate but disappointing as she inveighed against “vulture capitalism”. She looked wonderful (of course) in a baggy gold-and-black tunic and knickerbockers, and her claims about climate change may well have been true, but she didn’t add anything new to the debate—except to suggest that it would be great to have the Scottish National Party calling the shots in Westminster, as a way of shaking up the political establishment.

Much more impressive was Ije Nwokorie, CEO of the brand consultants Wolff Olins, on the future of creativity. In the next 50 years, he predicted, automation will be applied to everything it possibly can be, but instead of lamenting mass redundancies, we should welcome this as a chance to give everyone a job which is “purposeful, creative and human”. Companies should be restructured to realise the talents of their most junior employees; the person selling ice-creams in a cinema should also be helping to decide the programme.

But the speaker everyone wanted to hear was Edward Snowden—and there he was on a giant screen, video-linked from Moscow. Remembering a description of him huddling under a blanket to hide his keystrokes from surveillance cameras, I was expecting a nervous geek; but the reality was very different. He proved to be eloquent, balanced, modest and well-informed—so much so that you wished he was making his case to an American court.

How, he was asked, could trust be rebuilt between the public and their snooping governments? Snowden felt that accountability was the first step: the authorities need to tell us exactly what powers they’re claiming in our name. Next, the individual’s right to privacy should be enforced by demanding end-to-end encryption from internet service providers; government agencies would still be able to target terrorists and criminals if they obtained a warrant, but could no longer watch “all the people all the time just in case”.

He added that he had no wish to suggest that the NSA was full of evil people trying to build a dystopian society—“But if you stand up against it, you will be destroyed.” He warned that unless we insist on our rights, we face a mass-surveillance future in which we will be spied upon not just by our own rulers, but by foreign governments, corporations and criminals.

The final question was about his own future. “Weirdly,” he said, “I don’t think about it much any more. I used to plan holidays and so on, but now I find I’m thinking more about today. It’s an unexpected liberation, and I like it very much.”

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