John Oliver gets to the crux of why the Snowden leaks matter: mass surveillance of dick pics

"I guess I never thought about putting it in the context of your junk."

John Oliver managed to pull off a Very Special Episode on Sunday evening, surprising viewers by revealing that he'd gone to Russia last week for an interview with Edward Snowden.

As part of the comedian's evolution into a neo-Edward R Murrow, his trip to Moscow had a catalyst - the upcoming 1 June deadline for renewing several crucial sections of the Patriot Act that allow mass surveillance of foreign and domestic individuals and organisations, as revealed by Snowden in his leaks. Except, as Oliver points out, nobody cares. He illustrated it by taking a camera to Time Square in New York City and asking passers-by at random if they knew who Edward Snowden is, and most people had no idea. Some even thought he had something to do with Wikileaks. It's not a scientific poll, but it's probably accurate - the discussions and debates that should have been taking place over the last two years haven't been at the centre of the American political scene.

The thing that makes Oliver's Last Week Tonight so interesting - and so influential, in such a short space of time, compared to his old home The Daily Show - is that Oliver understands what makes people care. It's kind of hard not to develop an intuitive sense of that as a comedian, but the potency of Oliver's advocacy for certain issues is that he makes dull issues into funny ones, while remaining sincerely informative. (Or, if not funny, at least amusing.) He did it best with net neutrality, but it applies just as much to his ribbing of tobacco companies or college basketball.

So, with Snowden, Oliver rightly points out that whenever he (or someone else) starts talking about how a bunch of strange government schemes with names like "Prism" and "X-Keyscore" are dangers to individual liberty, "it's like the IT guy comes into your office, and you go 'ohh, shit, oh shit, don't teach me anything, I don't want to learn, you smell like canned soup'". It's the most down-to-earth recorded interview I've ever seen Snowden be a part of:

Oliver: But, just to be clear here, we're talking two different things here. Domestic surveillance and foreign surveillance.

Snowden: Right.

O: Because domestic surveillance, Americans give some of a shit about. Foreign surveillance, they don't give any, remote shit about.

S: Well, the second question is when we talk about foreign surveillance, we're talking about whether we're applying it in ways that are beneficial-

O: No one cares. [shakes head] They don't give a shit.

S: We spied on Unicef. The children's fund.

O: Sure.

S: We spied on lawyers negotiating-

O: What was Unicef doing?

S: [blank face]

O: I mean, that's the question there isn't it.

S: The question is, are these programs valuable? Are we going to be safer when we're spying on Unicef, or on lawyers who are negotiating the price of shrimp and clove cigarettes-

O: I don't think they'll say that's good. I think they'll definitely say they don't care. Americans do not give a shit-

S: I think you're right.

O: -about foreign surveillance.

Oliver's insight here is this: people will care about what Snowden revealed, when put into the context of genitals. Make it clear that this is about the government's ability to get hold of dick pics, and then you get a conversation going - and that's the thing Oliver is really pushing here, that there should be a real debate about the extension-or-otherwise of the bits of the Patriot Act that make that interception possible. Make it clear that your husband or wife's nude pics are being stored on some bureaucrats desktop somewhere, and it gets right to the crux of the privacy/security thing.

(And, side note: Oliver is also one of the few interviewers to speak to Snowden who really pushes back on some of the ethical issues surrounding his leak that others have often ignored, such as his admission that he hadn't fully read and understood many of the sensitive documents that he passed on to journalists - and he also has him accept culpability for some of the serious mistakes those journalists have made at times in not properly redacting classified information.)

"I guess I never thought about putting it in the context of your junk," a slightly bashful Snowden admits, at the end - while Oliver sums the debate up as one about whether it's right that the US is "a country of barely-regulated government-sanctioned dick sheriffs". It may not be worthy of an Oscar, but it's a pretty effective interview.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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