AUSTIN — They came for a rock star, but got a slow motion tech geek.
Edward Snowden, patriot, traitor, hero hacker, runaway spy — take your pick — unveiled himself to the friendliest U.S. constituency he could find Monday as the tech industry's scruffy elite flocked to the Austin Convention Center to see him live from Russia at South by Southwest.
Sporting a short-cropped haircut and blue collar shirt and coat, with the shadowy makings of a mustache and chin beard, Snowden appeared on two giant screens to wild applause with a copy of Article 1 of the Constitution emblazoned on a green screen behind him.
"We the People" framed his headshot, though a poor video connection through Google Hangout and several server bounces from Russia turned the crowd's hero into more of a Saturday Night Live character, his face contorted in frozen video expressions as the audio ran. Tongue out, eyes rolled, mouth open. The embarrassing frames accompanied his hour-long chat with hosts Ben Wizner and Chris Soghoian of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The crowd, clad in requisite hoodies, jeans, ponytails and plaid shirts, clutching mobile devices overwhelmed by the conference's wireless traffic, streamed into the airplane hangar-like Exhibit Hall 5 for more than two hours before the 11 a.m. CT session. As Snowden appeared, photographers raced the aisles trying to get a decent shot of the scourge of the NSA without the frozen expressions.
But the biggest problem wasn't the connection. It was the discussion itself. Far from a ringing indictment of the U.S. government's snooping policy, or of the role of whistleblowers in keeping the public informed, the talk quickly devolved into a dissertation on encryption techniques and global network structures.
Snowden dutifully made his case that the government had crossed the line, in his mind, by moving from a defensive surveillance and electronic protection strategy to an offensive data snatch-and-attack policy. He argued it has also been completely ineffective in protecting us.
"We spent all this money, all this time, hacking into Google to see their databases, and what did we get? We got nothing." He said attacks like the Boston bombings might have been prevented if the authorities spend more time chasing leads and less time grabbing metadata.
Twenty-five minutes into the session though, the excitement of seeing him live had begun to wear off. A trickle of people in the audience made their way for the door. When a tweeted question about how users could protect themselves was answered with a suggestion they adopt "full disk encryption" and the TOR routing network, the trickle became a stream.
There were moments of applause. Six of them actually, including a half-hearted attempt at a standing ovation at the end, with a smattering of folks rising to their feet, as Snowden did his best to finish on a patriotic note.
"I took an oath to defend the Constitution and I saw the Constitution had been violated on a massive scale," he explained in a final answer to a question about why he did what he did. By then the crowd was well on its way to the next session, or to the lunch bars of Austin's famed 6th Street.
Snowden had made tech history again, and furthered South by Southwest's claim to the top tech gathering event of the year. He also revealed the tech geek behind the hero, patriot, or traitor. A complex young man caught in the swirl of history, but one this crowd could now better understand as one of their own.