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Hollywood Strikes Offer an A.I. Opportunity
Plus I saw Barbie, yes. I. Saw. Barbie.
Barbietunde just getting his Ken on for a hot pink summer second.
Per usual, there’s a full edition the essay below in Puck. Get thee a subscription!
At long last, my feet are firmly planted in very hot Southern California soil. No more flight updates or trips to report, at least for now. In this issue, I’m focusing on the dual union strikes in Hollywood, with a close look at how A.I. is playing a role in these bitter negotiations. But first, here’s a brief tour of some other things on my mind:
I’ve watched the French World Cup ad at least five times. There’s a chance you haven’t seen it yet, so I’ll say less and just encourage you to watch it.
I also saw Barbie, and it was way more interesting than any movie about a toy has a right to be. I laughed. I had thoughts. I was impressed with the performances. They missed an opportunity in the end that I won’t spoil, but I’m glad I saw it. And I might have dressed up a little bit.
The Texas Tribune published a powerful piece about the devastating human impact of the state’s abortion ban. It’s a tough but important read.
The education standards in Florida have reached a new low as a result of Ron DeSantis’s performative anti-wokeness. In the latest twist of dystopian absurdity, the Department of Education-approved curricula now essentially promotes the idea that the system of chattel slavery had benefits for Black people! For informationally-displaced persons in places like Florida, at least there’s this incredible “Crash Course American Black History” class from Clint Smith on YouTube.
Finally, I’m excited to share this conversation I had with Adam Grant on his TED WorkLife podcast. We focused on my approach to storytelling, and hit on the limits of resilience and the emerging challenges of artificial intelligence. I shared some experiences and ideas in this chat that I’ve never shared before, including a ridiculous story of childhood resilience I’ve clipped for you and posted to YouTube.
And now, to the main event…
A.I.: A Hollywood Odyssey
There are ways that these tools can enhance storytelling, support labor, and improve the industry. But that has to be determined in collaboration—not by a handful of big tech companies dropping random, unvetted digital tools on an industry. Not again.
We’re living through what labor organizers are calling “Hot Labor Summer.” Workers are striking on multiple fronts across multiple industries, from food service to shipping to, of course, entertainment—where writers and performers represented by the Writers Guild and SAG-AFTRA have taken to the streets to fight for better compensation in the age of streaming, limitations on artificial intelligence in Hollywood, and dozens of other totally reasonable things. Here in Los Angeles, where I live and work, it feels like the white-hot center of the labor storm. It’s the first time since 1960 that these Hollywood unions have gone on strike simultaneously: When people who need work collectively agree to stop working, you know it’s a big fucking deal.
I’m familiar with the particular and often maddening rhythms of Hollywood. I’ve pitched and piloted shows, worked for union productions, and have even benefitted from wonderful union healthcare. While my current show is not directly affected by the work stoppage (my PBS series, America Outdoors, is covered by a different contract than the one that just expired), I’m undoubtedly biased toward the side of labor and creators; I have skin in this game.
I also have a long history of creating with, benefiting from, and criticizing technology—which has been especially relevant in the context of this round of strikes, when both unions have cited the potential threat of artificial intelligence as a key point to be negotiated. Despite the ongoing sense of gridlock, I believe this dual strike in Hollywood represents one of our greatest opportunities yet to contend with the aggressive encroachment of technology on our lives and livelihoods. It’s fitting that it’s Hollywood creatives who are dramatically holding this particular line.
The Three Outcomes
Of course, it goes without saying that there is enormous potential for the use of artificial intelligence in creative projects. Basically every step of the creative process can be accelerated or enhanced by A.I. tools, from virtual writing assistants to faster graphics generation.
And the iterations are increasingly ubiquitous. To help introduce an A.I. workshop I recently ran, a friend created a welcome video featuring me and my voice, but without any of my time or energy. The script, voice, and video were all generated. Epic Games recently updated its Unreal Engine creative tool with a new “Metahuman Animator,” that lets you capture an actor’s performance using an iPhone and animate a near-infinite set of digital characters in games, films and other projects. ABBA is already performing concerts without physically being in the venue. There’s an undeniable wow factor to this technology.
But these advancements also pose a massive, existential risk to people who rely on their creative skills for a living. For the WGA’s writers, artificial intelligence is playing a key role in the stalled negotiations. The WGA wants to ensure that studios use actual human beings to write their shows, and not tools like ChatGPT, and that executives won’t use A.I. to generate the first draft of a script before hiring writers (at a lower wage) to merely revise those machine-generated drafts. For actors, their focus is on preserving control of their image, likeness, and performances, while making sure they are reasonably compensated for all of the above.
Ten years ago, it would have been absurd to insist on protections around these concepts in negotiations for writing and performing services, but we live in a different world now, and it’s very plausible that entire creative industries will be unrecognizable in a few years because of how quickly these technologies are being improved, deployed, and adopted. Honestly, it’s taken this strike, on some level, to help educate the public about the dramatic impacts of A.I. on their own lives, industries, and careers—particularly those in so-called white collar professions.
Indeed, this is the same story of technological advance we’ve seen before, but it’s also different this time because of the response. It feels like we’re not buying the same old derivative story that “the future is coming, and that we should just take it as-is,” delivered from on high. In fact, our recent history has demonstrated how quickly and malevolently new technologies can produce unintended consequences. This time, it’s people in our storytelling industry drawing a line and saying enough before the forces of those technologies have been truly released. And this pause in business-as-usual has forced us to examine the logic of our business and technology models, and what they mean for human creativity.
So I’m going to dive into the breach and offer my analysis on three scenarios: i) What the world could look like if the unions’ worst fears are realized; ii) what it would mean if the doomsday A.I. fears are actually overblown; and iii) what I would do, personally, if I could wave my own magic wand (or prompt) and fix it all.
From the worst-case scenario segment:
Writers will become little more than document janitors, hired to clean up a machine’s first draft. Stories won’t be created and developed—they’ll be manufactured and assembled, before being distributed like any other consumer packaged good.
It’s hard to imagine these A.I. generated scripts would offer anything other than a serious decline in quality. This is because of a dirty little secret relating to how large language models function: at least for now, they are derivative by design. The text they spit out is based on existing material they’ve ingested—and often that material is unlicensed, and thus flirting with illegality. This also means that it can’t produce anything that is truly new. Hollywood is already overly dependent on sequels, remakes, and the mining of well-trod I.P.—not a recipe for sustained audience engagement. Leaning on A.I.-created content would only exacerbate this problem, with each new derivative script becoming a watered-down version of the last.
it’s not an exaggeration to say that Hollywood’s wholesale embrace of A.I. would blunt America’s cultural relevance on a global scale, because our outsize influence is so inextricably tied to the stories that emerge from Hollywood. One of the reasons people from other countries dream of working here, living here, and finding educational opportunities in the States is because, at one point or another, they were mesmerized, as we’ve all been, by the remarkable power of American-made television and film. If we lose that edge, flooding the zone with cheap stories rather than those that resonate, the country will lose more than jobs and creative awards. It will lose a vital source of soft power across the world.
From the It-Might-Not-Be-So-Bad section
the unions might be so caught up in fighting against the A.I. tidal wave that they fail to see how their writing and acting could actually be enhanced because of this technology. Less than a generation ago, computers and word processing software revolutionized the process of writing for TV and film, just as sticking cameras into mobile phones made most of us into shitty filmmakers, but also made it possible for actually good filmmakers to emerge from different sectors than was historically possible. In these cases, new technology democratized participation in otherwise cost-prohibitive creative endeavors, and I’m not immune to the argument that new storytellers could emerge, wielding new storytelling tools, as a result of A.I.
A sneak peek at my conclusion
I also believe that with a little creative thinking, there are ways that these tools can be used to enhance storytelling, support labor, and improve the industry. But these tools and changes need to be conceived of and implemented through collaboration. The studios shouldn’t be able to wholly dictate the future of work for a large swath of the creative class, just as big tech companies shouldn’t be permitted to drop unvetted digital tools on an industry. In the past, we’ve missed key opportunities to hold Big Tech accountable while they deploy capability- and culture-shifting tools. Right now, we’re facing a similar inflection point, but this time, the unions and their members are on the frontlines, with writers and actors occupying an unfamiliar spotlight.
The doomsday scenario I painted above doesn’t have to be the future, even though it sometimes feels like an inevitability. As my friend, the illustrator and author Molly Crabapple said in a recent podcast appearance, “The tech industry speaks in terms of inevitability as a strategy to keep people from resisting in the first place. The more we insist on our human agency, our ability to organize, and our ability to fight even the most well-funded foes, the more that we can take back some control.”
Thanks and Stay Human.
Full essay here.