Politics Pop Culture

How The Light Gets In: How Fun is a Philosophy Festival?

The political geek's festival alternative to Glastonbury...

Lucy Mannion 

Naked Politics Blogger

At the end of May I schlepped up to Hay on Wye to the ‘world’s largest philosophy and music festival’ How The Light Gets In. The weather was abysmal and, despite the collective genius percolating around the valley, I heard the same joke many times, ‘should have called it How The Wet Gets In’. Ha ha ha.

Offering an intellectual smorgasbord of events including, talks, debates, philosophy breakfasts, comedy, music, documentary screenings and a German circus, this was not your ordinary festival.  Though it did look like it, between the yurts, colourful bunting, fairy lights and rustic jugs filled with flowers, it was certainly designed for Instagram.

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The schedule was vast and overlapping and the events were laid out across two different sites meaning you had to dash between listening to Diane Abbott on a panel and making it over to Ed Miliband’s live podcast.

The first talk I attended had the big name draw of Noam Chomsky speaking on darkness and authority, but before you get too excited, he was only appearing via video link, which did at one point cut out…On the panel in the flesh were two American academics who basically took opposing sides on the notion of having more or less political authority and legislation in our day to day lives.  Chomsky was occasionally allowed to interject, but sadly somewhat unintelligibly due to the quality of the sound feed. The conclusion as I took it was that, basically we’re going to be controlled so we may as well try to help shape the system that controls us!

The next morning I went along to a debate between firecracker Conservative MP Anna Soubry, who I can confirm is not afraid of saying bollocks in a crowded tent, could-have-been-leader of the Labour Party Angela Eagle and David Goodhart author of The Road To Somewhere.  This was a discussion on how meaningful the terms left and right are in politics now, David espoused his theory that we are more divided in to Anywheres and Somewheres these days, Anywheres being those that are more educated and defined by their achievements rather than where they are from, Somewheres conversely have a more tribal identity and are more threatened by immigration and globaslisation.  This is in essence just another linguistic take on the ‘open’ and ‘closed’ labels, nonetheless it was a lively and interesting hour with the term ‘infantile leftism’ being bandied about with joyful abandon.

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Slightly less riveting was a symposium on big data, entitled Numbers Versus Narrative, aside from one very animated Scandinavian academic, the panellists seemed to have a very negative view of the topic.  The dominant stance seemed to be that machines and algorithms are not being used by companies because they are helpful and neutral but because it is cheaper to use them to make decisions than to employ actual sentient humans.  The issue of bias in algorithms was also a hot point, though I would argue humans have huge amounts of bias that they don’t even realise. To be honest, this event seemed a bit doom mongering and my own reflection is that big data can of course be a positive thing, large amounts of anonymous aggregated data on medical problems for example can help us all, big data doesn’t always mean big brother!

Racier and garnering more chuckles, was a talk by an engaging Goldsmiths lecturer on ‘Robots and Relationships’ or sex robots.  She posited that most fears about sex robots are unfounded but delved into some of the history of mankind always trying to create perfect women and our frankly odd obsession with making humanoid robots.  Some terrifying problems concerning mixing sex toys with technology came up when she discussed instances of devices recording the sound of user’s climaxing and vaginal temperatures…      

A debate titled Empire 2.0 sounded better than it was, billed as an in depth look in to the power and future of internet companies the panel consisted of journalist Matthew D’Ancona, Chi Onwurah a Labour MP who used to work for Ofcom and Peter Smith, or American blockchain guy as I call him.  Chi had some pretty wild suggestions, she commented that technology did not move as fast as everyone thinks and as such governments should be better at legislating for the impact of technologies.  When challenged about who could have foreseen the great impact some inventions have had, she pointed out that some science fiction authors seemed to have got there…ok then.

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Peter Smith posited that Facebook or Google should be given a seat at the United Nations, a proposal so patently ridiculous, that it barely merits unpacking.  The salient point from this event was the issue that the large tech companies are all natural monopolies because their success rests on a vast network and their business model wouldn’t work if say there were lots of Facebooks and all your friends were on different ones, also the problem of nation states trying to regulate the global issues these international companies create were highlighted.

The last event I attended was a thoroughly entertaining talk by, a clearly still bitter with the powers that be, Professor David Nutt on psychedelics.  He spoke with great vigour on the mind altering substances humans have used throughout history, including fungus… He was compelling on how LSD can open up connections in the mind that people stop being able to access when infants and how the changes to your primary vision on a trip can help people with colour blindness.  His frustration with the government regarding a lack of evidence based policy making regarding drugs was evident and shared by most of the audience by the sound of the approving murmurs.

Once you were tired of listening, the Spiegel Circus shows were a site to behold.  Attending a matinee performance, specifically designed to be less erotic for children, I had to agree when it was put to me ‘Seriously, how much more sexy can it get!’  between the green haired man in cosmic print leggings doing lithe gymnastics and the women in barely there leotards doing what I can only call ‘sexual ribbon dancing’ I had to agree.  

Overall, the idea of the festival is a solid one, if you’re creeping up through your twenties and the grimy music festivals aren’t seeming so appealing, HTLGI is a solid option.  You can camp, drink overpriced artisan booze, wear a flower garland and listen to some top notch academics and thinkers. It was a hugely thought provoking weekend and left me with a lot of food for thought, broadly, the message I took away was participate, in whatever it is that interests you or that you care about.   Was it pretentious? Absolutely. Would I go again? One hundred percent.

You can now purchase tickets for the festival in London this September. 

 

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