Everything you missed at SXSW day four: Greenwald, Snowden, the Biebs, and more



It’s day four at SXSW and the exhaustion is setting in.

Daylight savings time didn’t help matters much, giving tuckered attendees one less hour of sleep last night. The music portion of the festival starts tomorrow, and a radically different crowd has already started taking over the streets. Google Glass is getting swapped out for lumberjack shirts and pink sunglasses.

Security and surveillance played heavily in the speaker lineup today and both Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald made appearances by video conferencing.

Snowden’s talk was generally better received than Julian Assange’s from Saturday. He asked the technology community to develop new encryption tools to protect communication from government spying. Snowden opened with a rather strange analogy: “[The NSA is] setting fire to the future of the Internet… and you guys are all the firefighters.” For more on the whistleblower’s words you can check out Cale Weissman’s post here.

Greenwald’s conversation, later in the day, was largely softball generic stuff. It’s not surprising given that the person interviewing him, Micah Sifry, has close ties to the Omidyar network. He made that clear in the first two minutes of the presentation.

“I believe in transparency,” Sifry said. Then he rattled off a list of all the ways Omidyar has funded him and his life’s work, at Personal Democracy Media, The Sunlight Foundation, and The Democracy Fund.

Then he paused and smirked at the audience. “Hopefully that’s enough for PandoDaily.”

Once Greenwald called in on Skype, Sifry asked him his thoughts on Assange’s SXSW proclamation that national security reporters are a new type of refugee. “I don’t think I would use those words because they’re a bit melodramatic,” Greenwald says. “I do agree with the core point he was making though.” Greenwald and his fellow Intercept co-editor Laura Poitras have both left the United States to continue their reporting work unfettered by the US government.

“I think it’s very easy in general to dismiss civil liberties when you don’t personally feel threatened,” Greenwald told Sifry. He argued that’s the reason democrats were terrified of the NSA when Bush was in power, but some of them love it when Obama is in power.

“How will you know when you’re succeeding [with First Look]?” Sifry asked Greenwald.

“I think the purpose of journalism is to shine a light and expose that which the world’s most powerful corporate and political factions are trying to conceal that the public ought to know,” Greenwald said. He went on to explain he’s not thinking of success in business or financial terms — he’s hired other people to think about those kinds of things. ”My focus is going to be on the journalism,” Greenwald said.

Sifry treated Greenwald with kid gloves, and there was no discussion of some of the conflict-of-interest issues Pando has raised regarding First Look and the Omidyar Network.

Greenwald told Sifry that many of the most shocking and significant stories from the Snowden files have yet to be reported. Because they’re more complex, the journalists working on them at First Look and other outlets are taking their time.

“What’s it like to work with Pierre Omidyar?” Sifry asked. Greenwald admitted that prior to September, he didn’t know Omidyar at all. But once they met, they quickly realized they had similar visions about preserving independence in journalism. “Ever since, he has completely adhered to that commitment,” Greenwald said.

Throughout the call, the audio cut in and out making chunks of the interview incomprehensible.

The keynote of the day had refreshingly little to do with surveillance or wearables or any other SXSW trends. It was an interview with Adam Savage, cohost of MythBusters. He talked about his creative process and the intersection of science and art. Arguing that science is an inherently artistic endeavor, he earned a round of applause from the audience when he said, “It’s not STEM, it’s STEAM. I add the A for art.”

There was nothing remarkably groundbreaking about the talk, but Savage was a warm and funny interviewee. He regaled the crowd with tales of his teenage sons and their parkour habits and porn addictions. He reiterated the age old aphorism that failure is crucial to success, saying that the most important scientific moments come from mistakes.

He used that theme to ponder imposter syndrome. (“Frankly getting notoriety only accentuates your feeling of being a fraud. Because you know how stupid you are, how lazy you are, how vain you are.”) Then he moved on to contemplating how new media like Buzzfeed is starting to place importance on reporting the truth. (“That’s new media understanding the oldest lesson of old media by trial and error. What could be better?”)

Out on the town there’s not much new to report. Someone withdrew $ 3,000 in cash from the bitcoin ATM at the convention center. Using the machine is apparently a lengthy 15-minute process that requires a phone number, government ID, and a palm scan.

The best pedicab rider I spotted today was an old man with white hair, no shirt, wearing overalls and blasting country music.

Day four’s marketing gimmick award goes to Subway, which had people playing a game called “Eatovations” with mind control. No really. Attendees are strapping a wearable to their head that reads their electrode activity. The harder they focus at the Subway flatbread on the screen in front of them, the more points they earn. It’s a game built for the anti-ADHD among us.

Last night Snoop played the PayPal party, where the line for VIP stretched far down the block and general admission attendees slipped inside without waiting at all. It’s only at SXSW there’s so many “important people” they have to queue for the honor of being important, while the normals walk right through the door.

Justin Bieber made a surprise appearance at Banger’s Sausage House and serenaded the crowd and Selena Gomez with his hits “Boyfriend” and “As Long as You Love Me.” Festival-goers’ sentiment about the moment is captured in this excellent selfie by Twitter user María Núñez.

Tonight’s the last night in town for the Interactive crowd. Based on everyone’s weary eyes and bedraggled looks, I doubt it will be much of a rager. SXSW has done its damage for the year.