The 2023 Writers Guild of America strike
THE WRITERS’ STRIKE IS entering its third week. No one seems hopeful for an early resolution. In the 16 years since the last strike, seemingly glamorous Hollywood writing jobs have devolved into piecemeal gig work, not terribly different in pay and glamour from a rideshare driver who occasionally chauffeurs famous people. Although the Writers Guild of America (WGA) faces off against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) over a range of issues—residuals, health plans, pension viability—the specter of AI hangs over everything. The AMPTP rejected a proposal to strictly regulate AI use in the industry, countering with an offer to meet annually “to discuss advancements in technology.” Even weekly meetings would’ve been an insult.1
There is an urge to compare this strike to the last one, in 2007, when streaming was the looming threat, not AI. Then, as now, the studios have seemingly feigned ignorance of the new technology, a weird tactic for an organization representing 350 companies (and a baldly disingenuous one; Hulu launched one week before the ’07 strike started). This time, however, the WGA is using the word ‘existential.’ According to the NY Times, AI raises the threat that “entertainment could become bloated by machine-generated mediocrity.”
Mediocre entertainment is not the threat. And the threat isn’t limited to the obliteration of television writing as a job. The threat is a world where anyone can use AI to remix, reboot, or manufacture wholesale any show they want, generated instantly, on a device they can slip into a pocket or watch on a wall. The threat is a future in which a constant pool of indebted and exhausted human artists square off against an ever-expanding army of eager and tireless nonhuman artists, and studios generate cash by licensing out their shows and characters as usable assets, as soft content. Past writer strikes have led to reality TV boomlets.2 This one could lead to reality shows made by and about non-real people. Spooky, boneless people. Fake people who will do anything to please you.3
THREE DAYS BEFORE THE strike, comedian Roy Wood jr. hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. He gave a funny, classy speech, more toast than roast. In this century, these events have come to take on an uncomfortable biting, bitter tone, and it seemed like Wood played off this, pulling punches, openly riffing on the punches he pulled. The whole thing felt like a genial breather in an era that itself increasingly looks like a pause between existential battles over the future of American democracy.
At around the 20 minute mark, Wood gave a defense of journalism that was both passionate and oddly oblivious. He hit all the marks—local newsrooms are crucial, reporters shouldn’t fear for their safety, etc.—that civilized people everywhere agree on in 2023. And yet even there, in a roomful of the nation’s most successful journalists, there seemed to be a mass consensus to avoid the other oncoming threat, the reality that the plagiarism engines threatening Hollywood are just as much a threat to journalism and an even greater threat to democracy.
Considering the state of congress in this decade, hopes for a legislative fix are not high. But courtroom showdowns are coming. Wins are possible. Many of the world’s worst technologies are still out of the public’s hands. The US State Department’s list of banned technologies is six pages long. Some genies can remained bottled indefinitely. And yet it’s not a great omen that almost no one grasps the scope of what’s coming. That is not so hot. Not ideal.
IN THE MEANTIME, WE have an era of lasts. If this writer’s strike goes the wrong way, it will be the last Hollywood writers’ strike. Seeing that in print feels ridiculous, hysterical. Hopefully I’m wrong. And yet; what will the world look like 16 years from now? Or even six years from now? Maybe as soon as the end of this year, people will be able to forge video, and/or claim that others’ video has been forged.
Life in 2023 involves navigating the endless slurry of racist public executions and daily mass shootings, gushing through social media, all day every day. In the extremely near future, the obscenity of these videos and stories will come burdened by an extra obscenity; the knowledge that others will gleefully deny its veracity, based on the new reality that anyone will be able to forge anything. The power of imagery—photography and then video—has propelled battles over lynching, Civil Rights, Vietnam, and BLM. That long era will end, soon. You can’t shock the public with atrocity if they don’t believe the atrocity is real.
This time around, the striking writers have a lot of public cheer (automated signs placed outside the Warner Brothers lot—by cops?—warn supporters not to honk). I live within driving distance of the picket lines, so at some point I’ll probably attempt to show my support, somehow. But I’m not one of them. There’s nearly nothing material I can do to help. It’s just one more high-stakes world event we all have to watch remotely, through screens, powerless to stop the outcome.
I’ve had many times in my life I wished I could magically change the outcome of a high-stakes world event. Soon, AI will allow each of us to do just that (at least on our own particular screen). Doesn’t that sound just a little bit tempting?
The day before the strike kicked off, on the opposite side of the planet, a conference in Nairobi established the first African Content Moderators Union. These are the people paid less than $2/hour to keep child sex abuse and snuff films out of humanity’s daily social media feed. The new union also highlights the way artificial intelligence feeds on human labor—not just to provide the art/text/photos to build vast datasets, but also for the degrading, PTSD-inducing sewer work of keeping unwanted thoughts out of AI’s plagiarized output. The stakes and complexity of this labor probably ensure it will be among the last jobs to get automated.
The Celebrity Apprentice and Cops, both shows with measurably bad effects on Americans (if not humanity), blossomed in the aftermath of two different writer strikes in two separate decades.
A Russian web series, PMJason, currently “stars” Jason Statham, Keanu Reeves, and Margo Robbie, each speaking presumably flawless Russian. The show uses real actors with replaced faces. In a few years, the anonymous actors will no longer be necessary. Nor will writers, directors, producers, costumes, or physical sets.