There is a high probability that, somewhere in Los Angeles, Matt Stone and Trey Parker are drafting a “they terk er jerbs” sketch for the upcoming season of South Park – but with their usual confederate flag-waving white men in overalls replaced by, like, Alan Ruck and a bunch of diverse, long-suffering millennials who write for Netflix. In one of the biggest ongoing news stories of the year, Hollywood is on strike for the first time since the 1980s, with thousands of WGA and SAG-AFTRA members on the picket line taking a $3 billion sledgehammer to California’s economy alone. There are several reasons why. There’s the same issues of dogshit compensation, staffing and greedy bosses that triggered 2022’s ‘hot strike summer’ (which has since become ‘hot strike forever’), when a wave of industrial action erupted across sectors that bore the brunt of the pandemic. But there’s also the more existential question of automation.
Until recently, “machines are coming for our jobs” was a largely industrial concern. Jobs in manufacturing, agriculture and customer service have been consistently dwindling, as assembly lines and public-facing roles are replaced by robot matrons having a go at you for having an unexpected item in the bagging area and so on. This has been happening for ages and, while technological advancement is not inherently bad, right now things feel a bit… off. It’s hard not to feel like you’re slipping slowly into madness when there’s an app for everything and yet nothing fucking works, meanwhile tech billionaires are busy congratulating themselves for inventing the bus. As Daniel Susskind, author of A World Without Work: Technology, Automation and How We Should Respond, put it in a uniquely depressing statement to Time in August 2020, the pandemic “created a very strong incentive to automate the work of human beings… Machines don’t fall ill, they don’t need to isolate to protect peers, they don’t need to take time off work.”
Three years and the release of ChatGPT later, and a similar crisis is now coming for Hollywood. In a pragmatic run-down of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes on Vulture, entertainment lawyer Jonathan Handel explains that AI has become the dominant talking point because of the hype cycle around AI in general. In Silicon Valley, people are excited about AI – to some degree “unrealistically.” In Hollywood, people are scared about AI – also to some degree unrealistically. “The dog can dance, but it’s not gonna be performing in the New York Ballet next week,” as Handel puts it. “Nonetheless [...] the writers are afraid that if the contract’s language only reflected the current state of affairs, then that language would get locked in and change to it would be resisted as the technology evolves.”
Handel adds that “all Hollywood strikes have been about technological change,” nodding to the dual SAG and WGA strikes in 1960 that came off the back of a 12-year fight over whether movies played on TV would generate residuals. As back then, today’s unions aren’t taking a Luddite stance on new technology. They just want to be fairly compensated and ensure that it’s used as a tool rather than a replacement for workers. The WGA’s stance on AI is to “harness – rather than – ban” it.
Amid economic uncertainty and an industry in flux – the box office is down, cable is dying, streaming doesn’t have the capital it once did – it’s understandable that most people worry that AI will be used in service of the bottom line. From a consumer perspective, certainly, it’s hard to get too excited about AI based on the ways in which it’s currently being used. Yes, it can digitally resurrect Carrie Fisher. Yes, it can de-age Al Pacino and “add 30 more years” to Robert De Niro’s career. Yes, it can show you what Hank Williams might sound like singing “Straight Outta Compton.” That’s cool, but when you view these things in the wider context of how much the creative industries are struggling, the gains pale in comparison to the losses.
There’s already a stark lack of opportunity for people to make unique films, weird shows and left-field music. And I’m not doubting the appeal of long-running franchises, CGI-heavy superhero epics and brand IP – I have “I’m Just Ken” living rent free in my head as much as the next person – but that can’t be all there is. Not everything has to be Pee-wee’s Playhouse, but it would be a sad state of affairs if all that’s on offer down the line is the reanimated cast of Reservoir Dogs doing an origin story of the Beanie Babies.
Without strikes and without change, this is what we’ll default to: industries that filter every decision through the prism of commerce, ruthlessly cutting budgets to maintain bonuses in the boardroom and spitting out soulless, easily-replicated content whose value is measured by the ticking of arbitrary boxes. None of us are above a Big Mac here and there, but imagine being force-fed one for every single meal by a suit who knows it’s not as good as a fresh Caprese grilled cheese on Pane Laterza done by someone’s Nonna, but doesn’t think you deserve a fresh Caprese grilled cheese on Pane Laterza done by someone’s Nonna if it will delay their own acquisition of a holiday home in Portofino. Perhaps the introduction of AI won’t make a huge amount of difference to the end product as far as the Big Macs of Hollywood go, but it certainly won’t usher in a bold new era for Nonna’s grilled cheese.
Call me old fashioned, but I also don’t believe that AI is capable of producing art that can move people the way someone like Sinéad O’Connor, who Nick Levine beautifully eulogised for Huck, can. The breathtaking physicality in her performance of one of the most vulnerable love songs of all time, the way she howls “You’re still a liar” for the third time at the end of “Troy.” These things are singular, lightning-in-a-bottle moments that capture the truth of the human experience the same way looking up at a vast mountain range can make you believe in god – even just for a second. So I say if you need hope for the future of non-AI art, simply interact with some. True art can only come from someone who has experienced, enjoyed and most importantly suffered the many psychedelic horrors of being alive.
Now, can I interest you in some cool pictures of donkeys?
See you next month,
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Current obsession: Jim Legxacy – a wildly fresh blend of emo, rap, glitch, lo-fi and a load of other influences from Lewisham, London. The beats are insane but what I really rate about Jim Legxacy is that everything about his art is unmistakably his, because he puts his heart in the small details and frontloads them – whether it’s the diaristic lyrics or the DIY aesthetics.
Best new discovery: The Blog Era podcast – a loving and rigorously researched history of how the mid-00s to early-2010s landscape of rap blogs and free mixtapes reshaped the music industry by circumventing its gatekeepers. Essential listening for anyone raised on a diet of Curren$y and COMME des FUCKDOWN snapbacks.
Most looking forward to: Porthcawl Elvis Festival – haters will say I’m at least three generations too young to enjoy a celebration of The King in the kind of seaside town Morrissey probably had in mind when he sang “come Armageddon, come.” But if the words “The Best Festival Elvis Competition (Heat One)” don’t send shivers up your spine and your knees sliding across the nearest parquet floor then I don’t know what to tell you.
Alex (Senior Editor): I’ve just started reading Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence by James Bridle, which puts developments in AI in a much broader – planetary – context. Mind-expanding stuff!
Isaac (Social Editor & Photography Writer): I’m loving this Masahisa Fukase photobook. It basically pulls together some of the Japanese master’s later works, where he interrogates his role and presence as a photographer with 20th century selfies – a true pioneer. And he even added colour paints to blur the lines between artist and photographer.
Ben (Digital Editor): I’ve just finished re-reading Phillipe Besson’s Lie With Me translated by Molly Ringwald (yes, that one!) ahead of watching the film and loved it even more the second time around. Been making my way through Shattered Nation by Danny Dorling ahead of a collab for our At What Cost series (little newsletter exclusive for you there!) and I’ve had the latest Sufjan tune on repeat ahead of the record drop next month (huge day for sad pretentious homosexuals the land over!).
Josh (Print Editor): I’ve been staring at the art of James-Lee Duffy, whose frenetic, anarchic style stems from the heavy cartoon consumption of his childhood. I’ve been reading American satirist, talk show host and comedian Ziwe’s debut book, Black Friend, which is an incredibly funny, poignant and educational series of essays.
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