March 13, 2014

SXSW as Metaphor

A couple of weeks ago I posted a reflection on the controversies surrounding the techie invasion of San Francisco. It was entitled “San Francisco as Metaphor,” and my basic point was that there’s nothing unique about the migration of money and power from Silicon Valley northward to the city, given that one of the fundamental characteristics of technology is a constant drive to expand its sphere of influence. For that reason the takeover of San Francisco by the power and values of technique is symptomatic of a process that’s occurring all over the country, and all over the world.

As it happens, last week the annual South by Southwest festival kicked off in Austin, and I’ve been struck by the degree to which the same arguments apply there. As Matt Honan pointed out in Wired, SXSW Interactive used to be a “sideshow” to SXSW Music. Now it’s the main event.

Indeed, SXSW Music itself seems to have been thoroughly interpolated by technology. A look at this year's schedule shows that many if not most of its panels have less to do with music per se than they do with the machinery of music, or with music as filtered through some combination of technology and economics—the methodological and ideological construct that Jacques Ellul called “technique.”  

My favorite example is a book signing by the authors of “Hit Brands: How Music Builds Value for the World’s Smartest Brands.” Here’s how the publisher describes the book on Amazon:
In the battleground for hearts and minds of customers, music is one of the most powerful tools that brands can use. In this definitive guide to how brands harness the power of music to drive business, three leading industry experts show you how to create and execute successful music strategies with lasting impact.
It turns out that “branding” occupies a whole section on the SXSW Music schedule. Sessions include “Using Music to Sell Other Stuff” and “Fashion + Rock n Roll: A Timeless Bond.” The latter session promises to answer the question, “How can fashion brands create authentic partnerships between celebrities and musicians?”

There is no more pressing question in music today, I submit, than how to create that elusive quality known as “authenticity.” 

For those of us old enough to remember Neil Young’s “This Note’s for You," all of this seems to confirm that we now inhabit a brave new world in which values that once prevailed have been turned upside down. There was a time, children, when rock and roll was subversive—that was its one of its main reasons for being. Believing that it actually was subversive may have always been an illusion, of course, but that was the idea.

Young (who appeared at SXSW this year to discuss his new audio streaming system, Pono) was making what has turned out to be a mostly futile protest against the co-optation of rock and roll by the very establishment powers it ostensibly challenged. Again, in its relentless drive toward expansion, technique endeavors to turn all things to its own ends, including the neighborhoods of San Francisco, including the rebellious authenticity of rock and roll.

Cutting loose at SXSW

Jacques Ellul argued that, to a point, rebellion serves a valuable function in a world dominated by technique: It harmlessly dissipates unruly emotions that might otherwise disrupt the functioning of the machine.

"Technique diffuses the revolt of the few and thus appeases the need of the millions for revolt," Ellul wrote.
Human impulses are confined within well-defined limits and become the objects of propaganda, profit-seeking, contractual obligations and the like…The supreme luxury of the society of technical necessity will be to grant the bonus of useless revolt an acquiescent smile.

Photo credit: Neil Young by Danny Clinch, Rolling Stone

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