Monday, September 26, 2016

A Response To T Bone's Americana Address: Part1

   A couple of thoughts on T Bone Burnett's well considered keynote address at Americana Fest from this past weekend. Burnett the winner of a Grammy and an Oscar, as well as having a mile long list of production credits that range from John Mellencamp to Diana Krall. Burnett, to say the least, is a serious artist and his address makes the case for the sanctified role of artists in shaping and pushing societal innovation now and throughout history. He cites for example a man landing on the moon in a Jules Vern novel a hundred years before it actually happened. However, he feels today’s artist is in jeopardy due to the shifting technological landscape which has so upended the  music industry's business model, directly affecting his bottom line. On the encroachment of technology, he recommends a book: The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul, and goes on to say:

John Wilkinson, the translator, in his 1964 introduction, describes the book this way- “The Technological Society is a description of the way in which an autonomous technology is in the process of taking over the traditional values of every society without exception, subverting and surpassing those values to produce at last a monolithic world culture in which all technological difference and variety is mere appearance.” This is the core of the dead serious challenge we face.

I really disagree with this, especially the part where he says there’s going to be one monolithic world culture with differences only in appearance, which is something akin to the right wing’s never ending fear mongering about Washington taking orders from the UN. I think as Americans, with all our adventurism and the push back we have received for it, especially over these last years in the Middle East, we should understand there isn’t much appetite for a monolithic one world culture. People want to remain autonomous and keep their unique values and heritage, as evidenced by the never ending strife in Iraq, which forced Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to live together under one centralized government after WW1. That is not to say the world remains separate and insular with the internet and global economy. We also have a common interest in working together to solve issues of climate, extreme poverty, displacement of people and a litany of other issues. Central to solving these problems are technological innovation in the production of energy as well as improvements in communication, medicine and food production. No doubt technology can have vast unintended consequences like suburban sprawl, but if managed properly we can use it to solve problems without jeopardizing our individuality.

Next he goes on to complain about the military origins of our technology:

Parenthetically, we have to remember that all this technology we use has been developed by the war machine- Turing was breaking codes for the spies, Oppenheimer was theorising and realising weapons. Many of the tools we use in the studio for recording- microphones and limiters and equalizers and all that- were developed for the military. It is our privilege to beat those swords into plowshares

While I really love that last line: It is our privilege to beat those swords into plowshares, I am rather unmoved by this argument. We need to face up to the fact we are a warring people. I wish it weren’t so, but we as a society have collectively decided that we value the ability to make war above almost anything else. Save your patronizing 9/11, terrorism and Putin speeches, that’s not the point. The point is we invest one-third of our resources into the military. That’s indisputable. And from this investment, besides missile systems, nuclear subs and all the rest we get microphones, computers and the internet, which begs the question: What difference does it make where these innovations, that have so enriched our lives, originated? Is the internet any less valuable or fun because it came from the military? Sure I would love every climate scientist, the CDC and computer engineer to have the resources we pour into the military, but that’s not our reality, it’s not what we value and thus, a moot, irrelevant point. 

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