There is a long history of paint management automation as something as inevitable as the dawn. It’s a resonant pattern, one that the late technology historian David F. Noble summed up in Production Forces, his account of the introduction of machine tools in America. “’Automatic’ or ‘self-activating’ machinery made it possible for management to eliminate workers entirely and more directly control the production process,” he wrote. “The machinery, in turn, was used to discipline and pace the operators who served it, thus reducing the ‘labor problem’ indirectly through the apparent requirements of the production technology itself.”
Power and progress: our millennial struggle for technology and prosperityDue out next month, a book by MIT economists Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson chronicles a thousand years of elites, from European nobles in the Middle Ages to today’s tech CEOs, who benefit from technological advances through workers’ expense. Generative AI fits perfectly into this historical context. “We argue that this obsession with artificial intelligence is not useful because it is about replacing people,” Johnson explains. “Whereas if you focus on making machines useful for the people (nurses, doctors, teachers, etc.) who will be much more useful for productivity and therefore potentially paying.”
Futures vary in horror. August’s personal dystopia is what he calls the Nora Ephron scenario, where the AI learns to imitate the cultural titans, outshining the new human writers. Studios likely won’t employ AI scabs during this strike, especially since having AI tools cross the picket line introduces a host of copyright issues, but it’s not hard to imagine this could happen at some point. (“You can’t protect studio executives from their bad ideas,” he says.)
And then there’s the most likely bad scenario, which is worth dealing with right now: a producer requests that a writer edit a script (which pays less than producing original work) and doesn’t tell them it was generated by a chatbot. . “That’s a crisis in our compensation, it’s a crisis in our waste, and a crisis in our artistic ability to do the things we’re asked to do in this industry,” August says. “So that’s a fundamental nightmare scenario. And that feels very obvious if we don’t figure this out.”
The most positive results include increased productivity, such as going from a typewriter to a word processor. Commenters are not sureHowever, if that increase in productivity will lead to tangible improvements, such as a higher standard of living. ChatGPT is already useful for brainstorming: if you need 15 different names for a Mandarin bagel shop, as August says, AI does a pretty good job. And he sees the possibility that technology could create opportunities for more diverse writers, enhancing the scripts of someone for whom English is not their first language, for example.
Automation and redundancy do not necessarily go together, and the introduction of disruptive technology, such as self checkout machine— is a choice. There are examples of times where the perspectives of workers on new technologies have been successfully taken into account, not just those of management. In their book, Acemoglu and Johnson cite longshoremen on the West Coast who demanded that they be trained in new technology. They won, leading to a reduction in job losses and an increase in productivity. Katya Klinova, Head of Al, Labor and Economics at Partnership on AI, points to Unite Here, which represents hospitality workers, which in 2018 successfully won the right to negotiate how Marriott plans to incorporate new technology, such as online services, computers and even robots.
Digital technologies are inherently isolating: they don’t bring people into factories to discuss their concerns with their coworkers. The efforts of a union with the relative power of the WGA trying to assert control over AI implementation are instructive to all. For writers, it’s critical: their contract is only negotiated every three years. That’s a long time in technology. “You know, in 2007, streaming didn’t exist yet. But in 2010, you started to see those signs,” says August. “In 2023, AI will not replace us; the AI will not be used to write exactly what we are doing. But by 2026, the next time this contract is up, it really looks like the technology will be very refined. We have to make sure this is addressed.”