Award-winning producer, songwriter and musician T Bone Burnett made a fire-and-brimstone rebuke against big tech “surveillance capitalists” last week at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, saying Silicon Valley is destroying humanity.
“To stay human, to survive as a species, we have to wrest our communications out of the control of the lust for power, the avarice, larceny, hubris, deceit and self-delusion of the heads of Google and Facebook,” said Burnett, who produced the soundtrack to film “O Brother, Where Art Thou” and “True Detective.”
Burnett’s keynote address was a nearly hourlong call-to-arms against the tech giants that invoked an array of experts and thinkers, including tech critic Shoshana Zuboff (who wrote a book on surveillance capitalism), writer Toni Morrison, Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and media scholar Marshall McLuhan (who coined the phrase “the medium is the message”).
Lamenting the growing power of these tech companies and their abilities to farm information for profit, Burnett said there’s been a “wholesale destruction of the creative economy” in the last decade that has affected journalists, musicians, authors and filmmakers. This destruction was “wrought by parasitic tech monopolies,” he said.
He pointed to the “safe harbor” provisions in the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act as being a “liability shield” for telecommunications companies, allowing them to skirt responsibility for the content that’s posted to their platforms. “This was an unwise decision,” he said.
He also took aim at YouTube, owned by Google, for becoming a “massive infringement machine” that greatly profited the company, “while returning between nothing and a small fraction of that money to the owners of the material posted on their platform.”
A 2018 Pew poll found that a majority — 63 percent — of Americans felt that major tech companies have had a net positive impact on society, and more — 74 percent — felt they had benefitted their individual lives.
Public attitudes may be starting to shift against tech industry monopolies and the mounting concerns over their power, in the wake of revelations about how users’ data and privacy has been used for gain, misinformation and influence.
On Wednesday, the European Union fined Google $1.7 billion for violating antitrust rules by blocking rivals’ advertisements. Meanwhile, Facebook announced major changes to how it targets ads as part of a legal settlement over its potential for housing, credit and employment discrimination. The social network also continues to grapple with the global outcry after a terrorist attack in New Zealand was live streamed on its platform.
Burnett called out politicians for “deafening silence” on how these companies have affected creative workers.
Art, Burnett said, provides a pathway to addressing these problems.
“Artists contain the accumulated knowledge of generations. Artists create conscience. The artists are our only hope,” Burnett said.
In an upcoming interview with the PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown, Burnett further explained his fiery SXSW comments, saying that “everywhere we go, we have different technologies zero in on us, and following us, tracing us, tracking us, predicting what we’re gonna do.”
“In that way, we’re becoming puppets. We’re becoming marionettes that have these electronic strings attached,” he added.
That Burnett spoke out against big tech companies at a festival that prides itself on innovation isn’t lost on him.
He said he doesn’t oppose technology. “I’m opposed to the doctrine of ethical neutrality that science has held for so long. That led to the atom bomb,” he said.
Coming soon on the PBS NewsHour, T Bone Burnett sits down with Jeffrey Brown for an interview. Check your local listings for the time.
Joshua Barajas is the arts editor for the NewsHour. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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