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Lancaster’s Festival of Questions kicked off Wednesday night with Prototype Theatre’s A Machine They’re Secretly Building, written and directed by Andrew Westerside and performed by Rachel Baynton and Gillian Lees. Named after Edward Snowden’s famous declaration that he couldn’t allow the US government to quietly construct the “massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building”, the play documents the history of government surveillance practices from World War II, up until the present day.
With only a camera, a projector and a filing cabinet to assist them, two women sit at a desk centre stage and within just one hour overwhelm us with information about our current predicament regarding privacy and surveillance. Whether they’re cracking jokes or relaying the chilling facts their voices maintain the flat, neutral authority of news readers as they lead us down to the reality of the scale of mass surveillance in 2016. The identities of the two women are unknown, with the advertising material for the performance suggesting that they could perhaps be “reporters, senators, freedom fighters, or just… well… concerned citizens like you.” Indeed, the pink bandanas that they sometimes don are reminiscent of Russian Punk band and ardent critics of government tyranny, Pussy Riot. Tension builds as we speed towards the historical turning point, 9/11, when the women shed their neutral exteriors and the audience suddenly finds themselves amidst a bombastic, dynamic explanation of world affairs since Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013.
They run around, they swear, and they use a number of interesting objects – from balloons to cling film – to get their point across, often being terribly funny in the process, but the play’s message is ultimately a grim one. Snowden’s documents demonstrated that the United States National Security Agency (NSA) was collaborating with US internet providers to collect citizen’s data on a scale much larger than previously thought, under a programme named PRISM. Since then we have witnessed the subsequent persecution of whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning and been subject to an extensive public debate about the morality of whistle blowing. As a result, I think that we’re all broadly aware of the vast level of surveillance that the government subjects us to. The strength of A Machine They’re Secretly Building, however, is that their humour and simple, compelling performance presents the facts plainly and directly challenges any sense that this is something that we can simply ignore, or pretend does not apply to “people like us”.
After hitting its audience with the facts about surveillance, the play ends by speculating on what the future might look like in the wake of Snowdon’s revelations and recent advancements in technologies such as drones. This is arguably the weakest part of the performance as, unfortunately, the speculation of what sort of sci-fi dystopian future awaits us by 2075 introduces an element of conjecture that A Machine They’re Secretly Building can’t afford when it’s purpose is to remind us that we live with a truth that is stranger than fiction. The idea that the US government’s Utah Data Centre is big enough to store data about its citizens in yottabytes (the play asking helpfully “what the fuck is a yottabyte?” and informing us that one yottabyte is equivalent to one trillion terabytes) and that such data is collected at a rate of 125 gigabytes a second, is enough to leave you feeling cold and afraid.
One thing that A Machine They’re Secretly Building never offers is practical advice or points of resistance against our predicament. Maybe that’s okay, though. This Festival is about questions; asking the right ones, asking them of the right people, in order to move towards comprehensive answers and action. The performance addresses some of the usual protestations that meet critics of government surveillance: If you have nothing to hide, why would you be afraid of spying? Does the government not need unrestricted access to our private communications in order to protect us from terrorists or other illicit activities? Does constant surveillance affect us to the extent that we begin to change our behaviour? Does this leave anyone else feeling rather afraid? Prototype Theatre’s piece was informative and thought-provoking, reminding us all how close we are to the precipice (maybe we’ve even gone too far) of unimpeded government surveillance. Their message was clear: now you have all the information, it’s time for you to decide what you want to do about it.