Studios’ Lack of Negotiation About AI Before WGA Strike Is a Huge Red Flag
Whenever a new, groundbreaking piece of tech starts to enter the public sphere, it’s advisable to be skeptical of any ensuing panic. So, as the backlash to AI writing has grown into a major issue (among others), especially around the launch of ChatGPT, I wasn’t sure whether people were overreacting or not. And then came the breakdown of negotiations that led the Writers Guild of America to strike—as well as the studios’ reactions, now that the strike is in full swing. It seems those fears were absolutely justified.
The WGA strike is about much more than AI, of course. As with so many other fields, full time employment—or at least reliably long stints of work—are getting phased out in favor of hiring writers for freelance contract work. That work could just be on a week-to-week basis, and the state of royalties for writing streaming content is awful. This is about human beings who should able to make a living without needing second jobs as the companies and executives they work for make massive profits, instead of the head of Warner Bros. making a full $250 million a year while the people who generate that money struggle.
Of the many (incredibly reasonable) negotiating points the WGA brought to the studios ahead of the strike, they devoted space entirely to how and when AI can be used. They asked to “regulate use of artificial intelligence on MBA-covered projects: AI can’t write literary material; can’t be used as source material; and MBA-covered material can’t be used to train AI.”
In other words, studios shouldn’t use AI to write scripts instead of hiring writers. They shouldn’t cut out some writers by having AI make a “first draft” for a human writer to come in and punch up, and they absolutely should not use writers’ material to train AI to make the AI better so it can replace those writers. The latter point echoes many of the concerns visual artists have had about AI image generators in the past year.
The studios on the other end of negotiations ignored every single one of these points. They didn’t even try to negotiate a halfway point. Instead, they proposed “annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology”—which, obviously, is nothing. Considering how quickly AI has become an issue in just about five months’ time, even the “annual” part is insulting.
The bigger picture
When it comes to AI, the studios see a shortcut. They see a way to cut out labor. I’m not even here to go on about how AI can’t make something with the quality and nuance and drama and emotion that a human writer can offer—we’ve already had that discussion on this website—or to point out how incredibly dark the depths of capitalism we’ve reached must be when art gets mechanized the same way a car assembly line got mechanized a century ago.
I’m here to point out that, back then, a lot of people lost their jobs, and unless studios and media outlets can realize that the value of a human voice is greater than a bigger profit margin, a whole ton of people are about to those their jobs again—and, honestly, already are.
The move to replace human labor with AI in the entertainment industry is already happening. The Writers Guild of America’s concerns are already showing exactly how justified they are. According to Above the Line (and this should be taken with a grain of salt), multiple studios are looking into having AI write scripts based on public domain books.
And it’s not just writers, by the way. A New York Times story from this week reported that, in a recent contract with an actor, Netflix “sought to grant the company free use of a simulation of an actor’s voice ‘by all technologies and processes now known or hereafter developed, throughout the universe and in perpetuity.'”
Nor does this only apply to writers in entertainment. As Gizmodo points out, BuzzFeed, CNET, and Insider are all exploring AI programs or have been actively using them in secret. All three companies have also had significant layoffs of their writing teams in the last couple months. BuzzFeed News was shut down entirely. In the same announcement, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti said the company would begin exploring how to “bring AI enhancements to every aspect of our sales process.”
Do I realize the irony here, since I, someone who makes my living through writing, am telling you all this? Yes. I am writing this as someone who has seen countless peers laid off this year. Some are still looking for work, months later. With media companies laying off workers due to inflation, a perfect storm has been cast overhead. And I don’t like it.
Support the strike!!
Look, I don’t want to fear-monger, but the very short honeymoon period we had with AI tech is definitely over. I’ve already had to give friends the stink eye for using AI album art instead of hiring a person. But, of course, the enemy here is not each other: It’s the people like the CEO of Warner Bros. who have all the money and are still looking for budget cuts.
So dear god, support the WGA strike however you can. While the people who write Pretty Little Liars might seem like far-removed stars, I assure you they’re not. They’re people who have to have second jobs, even pick up Uber shifts. They’re people for whom making rent and figuring out health care is still an issue, despite the fact that Pretty Little Liars was a big hit that made big money.
And right now, one of the things the WGA is fighting for could actively affect you and me down the line. I mean this literally. If the writers’ strike fails and studios feel like they’ve been “proven right” about the feasibility of relying on AI, there will be layoffs for all kinds of industries: copywriters, social media writers, journalists, SEO writers—you name it. You think listicles are annoying now? Just wait until a human being doesn’t temper the BS.
In short, the WGA’s success is also the success of thousands of other workers who could have their jobs cut out by AI. Root for them. Their fight is literally our fight.
(featured image: Metro-Goldwyn Mayer)
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