why the battle between hollywood writers and a.i. should matter to you
EXTERIOR. HOLLYWOOD. DAY. We open on a picket line of frustrated, angry WRITERS carrying witty signs like “AI doesn’t have childhood trauma!” to protest their bosses’ plan to outsource much of their work to generative AI like ChatGPT and reduce their jobs to nothing more than editing gig work. Of course, that last part should have been presented in an exposition scene, not an establishing shot, so we’re going to have to leave script format to talk about what the latest Hollywood writers’ strike is really about, and why it already matters to you.
You’ve probably been told a million times that artificial intelligence is dangerous and will change humanity’s future by Luddites, sci-fi utopians, and writers of dystopian fiction. And the thing is, they were all right even if it was for the wrong reasons. It’s way too late to brace for robots, software, and creative engines to disrupt our work, politics, education, and research. It already happened. Without firing a single shot, AI has taken over and we’re just now trying to figure out how to deal with the fallout.
With the rise of generative AI tools, machines are also coming for writers, artists, and creative professions which were supposed to be safe from automation. And technically, they should be, but modern markets and economics have added an ugly twist. While any creative job should, in theory, stand to gain from automation by using it to generate new ideas to further refine, or get boring boilerplate stuff out of the way, the shareholder class views the people poised to do that as little more than necessary evils, evils no longer necessary when an AI is available.
the one with the grim future of entertainment
Using the same scientific management notions originally created for manufacturing industries, The People Who Own Things view everything as just another widget, including the people who make the stuff they sell. Living wage, dignity, purpose, personal growth, and the idea of honing a craft for one of the peons who kept the wheels of their machines turning until the arrival of a robot, or app, or AI that could do it faster and cheaper, have become utterly alien concepts to them. And that attitude includes the writers of shows they supposedly enjoy.
The writers on strike see their work as an art, and that while AI can help them break through a block, or a rut by throwing a million ideas at a wall in the span of a week, giving them material to refine into an entertaining narrative that justifies the price of a movie ticket, or maintaining your streaming subscriptions, to the owners of the studios, a script, is a script, is a script. They have no interest in art, just content, content they can jam down the eyeballs of the unwashed masses whose purpose they believe is to toil so they can give them more money.
Realizing this full well, the writers are outraged and worried about the future of entertainment being amorphous content from Showrunner Bot 9000, which, in the time it took you to read this sentence, just composed 37 seasons of Relatable Midwestern Sitcom for the 25-to-55-year-old-suburbanite-with-an-income-135%-the-national-median demographic. That’s what their bosses told them will happen, and they’re rightfully terrified of being paid scraps to touch up randomly assembled micro-targeted content made with procedurally generated visuals and muzak.
the one with the sad, boring dystopia of our algorithmic overlords
My wife recently booked a place to stay through a hotel reservation site. Within a few minutes, she received a text with a confirmation. From some vacation rental company. That processed a request from another, better known travel booking company. Which had apparently made our reservation on behalf of the original site. And this is our modern advanced economy; a never-ending Russian nesting doll of middlemen all the way down, held together with a Gordian Knot of contract gigs, zero responsibility, and quick magic VC cash on standby.
It’s an economy that exists to perpetuate itself and little more, and one of the reasons why we see sky-high inflation after the pandemic. To continue feeding this ever-growing chain of fiscal parasites, companies are using every possible excuse to gouge consumers, creating what’s now known as “greedflation” while finding endless ways to cut jobs and depress wages, using machinery, software, and AI as the fastest way to cut costs and boost profit margins. And with the focus squarely on hoarding profits, very little is going towards new jobs and ideas.
This means that instead of using record global profits to invest in the future and develop new jobs and ways of running a post-industrial economy, we’re struggling to even figure out what the jobs of the future will look like. At best, people keeping afloat in the current economy are being bored to the point of derangement and doing endless busywork they loathe. At worst, ever-growing numbers of people who are no longer keeping up are trying to monetize literally every aspect of their lives to scrape enough cash for rent, even sex and their commutes.
the one with the future that doesn’t need you
All this brings us right back to Hollywood writers refusing to help studio bosses make them obsolete, and in the process turn what was once an art — a commercial art designed to make money, promotive franchises, and appeal to a certain demographic, but still art meant to be enjoyable to other humans or make them think — into soulless Content Brand Content™ for human consumption, Idiocracy-style with the help of AI. And it also highlights their core argument; that humans need to be able to both survive and work.
Even the usual peanut gallery of pundits whose response to similar arguments has been “oh well, adapt or die, am I right?” is lined up behind the striking writers hoping for a turning point in a narrative where humans and their needs seem to be becoming ever less of a concern for those who own everything around us and charge extractive fees from us to merely exist. When do we say enough? How do we stop what seems like a runaway economic train, or at least slow that monstrosity down so we can get on board?
In a world that doesn’t seem to see us as anything more than wallets with eyes whose only duty in life is to “rise and grind” for less and less, and consume more and more, it seems like we only have two options to restore some basic self-determination, dignity, and purpose to our lives. We can either get governments to pass reforms that allow our taxes to take care of essential basics like housing, food, and healthcare, allowing us to afford freelance work and research, or very rapidly adopt unions like the Writers’ Guild and players’ unions of professional sports leagues.
Both will be a massive, uphill climb, and tycoons who are now bankrolling entire governments won’t just quietly allow either to happen. They will not want to pay new taxes or face any new obligations at the threat of having no labor to do the work necessary to justify the valuations of their stocks and businesses. But if enough humans become obsolete, unable to afford to put a roof over their heads, and with nothing but time on their hands to nurse their anger, the end result will have the owner class running for their luxury doomsday bunkers. So, who blinks first in this game of late-stage capitalist chicken could tell us quite a bit about what happens next.