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T Bone Burnett dives into digital dystopia at SXSW keynote

Peter Blackstock
T Bone Burnett gives a keynote during the South by Southwest Music Festival at the Austin Convention Center on Wednesday, March 13, 2019, in Austin, Texas. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

T Bone Burnett was about 15 minutes into his keynote address at South by Southwest when the audience applauded a pointed jab at the behavior of Mark Zuckerberg in the Facebook founder's college days. Pausing for a moment, Burnett smiled, appreciative of the reaction as he grabbed a glass of water: "Go ahead, let me have a drink on that."

It was a rare moment of levity in a deeply detailed, well-researched speech that dealt primarily with what Burnett termed "surveillance capital" practices of Facebook, Google and other tech giants. Weaving together the thoughts of 20th century visionaries such as Marshal McLuhan with recent observations from 21st century journalists and government regulators, Burnett painted a dark picture of where we find ourselves today, while still remaining optimistic that people have the power to change their futures.

Somewhat ironically, music wasn't the focus of this SXSW Music keynote by one of the most accomplished music-industry speakers SXSW has ever had. Co-founder Roland Swenson noted in a brief introduction that Burnett has won 10 Grammys as well as an Oscar. A legendary producer, he'll return to releasing his own music next month with "The Invisible Light: Acoustic Space," the first installment of a trilogy.

But Burnett also has long been fascinated by technology, which made him an ideal choice for SXSW given the event's 30-year evolution from regional music conference to global cross-platform phenomenon. Any of Burnett's many ruminations on the state of technology and humanity in 2019 could have been broken out into an extended side discussion.

A repeated mantra was Burnett's belief that the "safe harbor" provision of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act must be revised so that companies such as Google-owned YouTube become more responsible for the content on their forums. "This was an unwise decision," he said of the legislation that provided, as he put it, a "liability shield" for tech entities.

Burnett launched more slings and arrows as the speech went on. He cited a recent European governmental report that called Facebook "digital gangsters of the online world." (That Facebook experienced a massive outage just as Burnett was delivering his speech was mere coincidence. Probably.) Noting the combined $1.25 trillion valuation of Facebook and Google, he suggested that "this and much, much more is what your collected information is worth."

Questioning the two companies' adherence to privacy law, Burnett claimed that "unreasonable searches and seizures are Google and Facebook's business models." Expressing concern about the automation of propaganda via social media, he said he worries that "we are losing the ability to discern fact from fiction."

Vigilant activism is essential, Burnett said. Quoting Abraham Lincoln's belief that America's greatest threats would be from within, and recalling Martin Luther King's warning that citizens could be "sleeping through a revolution" in the civil rights era, Burnett concluded, "We must ask ourselves: Are we sleeping through the surveillance capital revolution?"

The way forward hinges largely upon artists, in Burnett's view. "The goal of art is to create conscience," he said. "The sciences have failed us; the churches have failed us; the politicians have failed us. Artists are our only hope," he declared, to another rousing ovation from about 1,000 attendees at a Downtown Hilton ballroom.

He closed by citing two very different poems from 20th century Polish writer Cseslaw Milosz: The cautionary "You Who Wronged" and the celebratory "Gift." More talk about music finally arose during a brief Q&A follow-up, including some fascinating technical discussion about drum sounds that could have led to a whole separate panel.

And asked what his favorite song lyric was, he delighted Texans in the crowd by pulling a line from Waco native Hank Thompson's classic "Wild Side of Life": "The glamor of the gay night life has lured you, to the places where the wine and liquor flow/ Where you wait to be anybody's baby, and forget the truest love you'll ever know."