📷 Photo credit: Ziyang (Lucia) Wang
In last week’s newsletter, Is It Time to Prepare For the Rise of the Machines?, I shared the following thought that disturbed more than a few readers:
“Either AI works for us, or we work for AI. There is no third option.”
One reader responded with,“This is the most depressing newsletter you’ve ever written…but I also just realized that you are right.”
My intention is not to depress you but instead prepare you. The genie is out of the bottle, and no amount of hunkering down changes the fact we’re never going back to “normal” (besides, normal wasn’t working anyways).
It’s a waste of time desperately hoping that artificial intelligence will “just go away.”
I also believe it’s a waste of time fighting for regulations that protect our jobs from any and all AI technology. (Which is a completely different argument than regulations that protect us from copyright infringement, plagiarism, authorship of original ideas, proper credit, exploitation of intellectual property, etc, all of which are essential and must be fought for at all costs.)
No different than countless technological innovations that have come before (See: Electricity, motor vehicles, radio, “talkies,” color film, television, VHS & DVD, the internet, streaming, etc), there is no stopping progress. Robots and machines have been replacing factory workers and countless blue collar jobs for decades, not to mention you now can’t run an errand without confronting a self-checkout kiosk or touch-screen ordering system. Technology replacing humans is nothing new.
Except now it’s our turn.
It’s Not Just Business This Time…It’s Personal
If there’s one thing I hope both the studios and creatives can universally agree on it’s that we must prevent a future where the algorithms and AI determine Ow My Balls! is appointment television. Yet instead of focusing on the bigger picture of how our stories help shape our culture, our political discourse, and our understanding of the world, this war has instead become about the transition from “Show” business to “Share” business, and the only objective is pleasing the shareholders at all costs. And I do mean at all costs.
These strikes are not the usual fare where one side demands 3%, the other side demands 9%, and ultimately everyone compromises at 6% after months of preening, posturing, and hand-wringing. As soon as it was made public that “The AMPTP’s strategy is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their houses,” the game changed.
The studios want us gone (and our families destroyed) so they can literally control the entire narrative from AI-generated idea through final algorithm-driven distribution. They think time is their secret weapon and that the longer they bleed us out, the higher their likelihood of success. But if we can just avoid the inevitable (and predictable) guild vs guild infighting and instead unify as fellow human beings across all unions & crafts, time is what may help us win this war for our livelihoods.
The suits may think they’re invincible, but they’re as expendable as all of us. All it takes is one or two dips in their quarterly reports for heads to roll. And it’s already apparent the longer this drags on, the streamers will hemorrhage more users, and the harder it will be for them to recoup their massive losses from the Ponzi scheme known as streaming.
We lose by fighting amongst ourselves and playing their game of checkers. We win by uniting as fellow craftspeople and playing our own game of chess.
Instead of wasting our time fighting the (futile) battle for regulations that protect us from being replaced by AI, we need to make it clear why we as artists, creatives, and storytellers simply cannot be replaced.
A Quick Reality Check: We Are All Non-Essential
If you’ve spent any time (or all of your time) doom scrolling the news recently, then you most likely heard about the historic deal the Teamsters struck with UPS to avoid a “calamitous strike.” To summarize months of complex negotiations:
UPS put $30 billion more on the table due to the negotiations, saying the deal
“sets a new standard in the labor movement.”
That’s not a typo…30 Billion. With a “B.”
To put this historic agreement into perspective, what the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are asking for is just over 1 billon dollars. Combined. If you total up the market cap of just the A-players in the AMPTP, their combined market cap is just over 5 TRILLION dollars.
To put this into perspective, UPS’ market cap is a paltry $158 billion dollars.
At first glance it seems so painfully obvious that if UPS is willing to put up billions of dollars to support the boots on the ground that keep their enterprise running effectively, Hollywood should easily be able to do the same at a fraction of the cost, right?
So why hasn’t the all-but-global work stoppage caused cooler heads to prevail and avoid the absolute collapse of the entertainment industry as we know it?
It’s pretty simple:
UPS workers are essential. Hollywood filmmakers are not.
When the pandemic hit, we were introduced to the term “essential worker.” Whether it was doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers, fire fighters, countless other sectors of the service & hospitality industries – or even those who simply stocked grocery shelves with toilet paper – we learned how delicate our cozy lives really were.
If UPS had gone on strike, there isn’t a single person who lives in the first world that wouldn’t have been immediately affected. Supply chains would’ve been massively disrupted. Essential packages wouldn’t have been delivered, literally costing lives. Needless to say, UPS going on strike would’ve been a catastrophe.
As of releasing this article, we’re 90 days past the beginning of the writer’s strike. Yet it’s not a catastrophe. And everyone across the globe is still getting their daily fixes binging their favorite shows & movies (and will be for a long time to come). While varying accounts differ, it would take over 4 years to consume everything just on Netflix if you watched 24/7/365.
If you ask ChatGPT how long it would take to consume all of the content across all the streaming services, this is how it responds:
“It would take an unrealistic amount of time to watch all the content on all streaming platforms, and due to the ever-changing nature of these services, it would be impossible to accomplish.”
There you have it. If we never created a single new movie or television show, it would be impossible to consume what we already have access to. Game over for the non-essential filmmakers in Hollywood, right?
We May Be Non-Essential…But What About Our Work?
What the pandemic also taught us is that entertainment, the arts, and most importantly stories are absolutely essential to our survival. I cannot even fathom how much higher the depression & suicide rates would’ve been if we couldn’t have collectively binged Tiger King,Ted Lasso,The Queen’s Gambit, or Cobra Kai (full disclosure: I’m an editor & associate producer for Cobra Kai). Even if all you did during lockdown was hunker down in the basement catching up on the classics or binging The Golden Girls, stories are what kept us from going insane.
Just imagine if we didn’t have music, books, paintings, poetry, photography, television, and films to help us make sense of the massive uncertainty we were collectively experiencing. As we were forced to hit the pause button and reflect on our life choices (and more importantly the fragility of our mortality), it was stories that helped us make sense of our place within the world. It’s no coincidence that Contagion skyrocketed into the global top 10 films in early 2020.
Now here we are just three years later once again involuntarily forced to reflect on our life choices and our mortality. Only now it’s not a deadly virus that’s brought us here, it’s the emergence of artificial intelligence.
Minus the masks, we’ve simply updated to Covid 2.0. And with this latest update, not only are we collectively forced once again to reflect on our life choices, we’re now also forced to reflect on our identity.
If Software Can Replace Us, Then Who the Hell Are We?
I’m not a technologist. I don’t understand how artificial intelligence is designed or how it works. And I certainly don’t know how it thinks. But I do know people. And despite thinking we’re logical beings, we’re actually pure balls of emotion wrapped in a logical, candy-coated shell. And right now the fear is driven by something much larger than an economic crisis.
We’re having an identity crisis.
AI technology will rapidly wipe out countless tasks, jobs, and entire career paths that are specialized, predictable, and repeatable. With the recent introduction of tech like ChatGPT and generative AI, the jobs & careers on the chopping block are no longer only technical careers but also highly creative ones as well.
If we’re going to survive, we need to double down on what makes us human.
What separates us from the machines is our curiosity. Our incessant need to understand our existence. Our human emotions. And our ability to empathize with the emotions of other humans. There is no amount of code brilliant enough to succinctly explain to a computer what love feels like. Or sadness. Or anger. Or jealousy. Or guilt. Even describing what love feels like to ourselves in plain English is near-impossible, so how can we explain it to machines?
Showrunner might be able to create a (shitty) episode of South Park with just a few prompts, but AI cannot empathize with our collective fear & anxiety. No different than at any previous time in history, in order to cope with our evolving world, we need new, engaging, & relevant stories. We need to feel like we’re not alone. And no amount of binging AI-generated episodes of Law & Order: Topeka is going to change that.
But make no mistake: AI as a creative tool is the future of filmmaking.
Filmmakers will not be replaced by AI.
Filmmakers will be replaced by filmmakers using AI.
In order to stay relevant as artists, creatives, and storytellers we need to stop prioritizing specialization because all of the highly specialized crafts will be replaced by AI faster than we can comprehend. Our path to success going forwards is embracing generalization as our new means of survival. Our value will come from (and always has come from) the cross section of our broader skillsets, unique life experiences, our core values, and most importantly our ability to combine seemingly separate ideas into new ideas (i.e. our creativity).
The industrialization machine has conditioned us for generations to believe that specialization is the path to our prosperity. But in reality we were simply trained to become widgets on the assembly line of someone else’s dreams.
Our specialization has led to maximizing stock prices for the man.
Our return to generalization will lead to more balanced, more sustainable, and more fulfilling lives for ourselves.
Time Is Our Ally, Not Our Enemy
Making the transition from specialists to generalists isn’t going to happen overnight. And that’s where time is no longer our kryptonite but instead becomes our superpower. (But hey, the more time The Rock can buy us all, the better!)
Even if the writers & actors (and eventually IATSE in 2024) are granted historic contracts, the AI Revolution is undoubtedly going to shrink the workforce across all sectors. As with the advent of any new technology, with more efficiency comes the need for less people. No matter how you slice it – and no matter your craft – it’s going to take less of us to do the same amount of work. What we need now more than anything to weather this historic transition is time.
- Time allows us the space to escape the distractions of the endless rat race and focus on who we are beyond our résumés.
- Time allows us to expand and diversify our networks.
- Time grants us the ability to have new life experiences (thus making us better storytellers).
- Time grants us the ability to learn new skills (like AI).
- Time also grants us the ability to leverage all of the above so we can generate multiple streams of income (that will most likely make us happier in the long run, anyways).
To ensure we emerge from this war more valuable than ever, we must use this time to:
- Embrace AI as a creative tool that makes us more effective storytellers (while also ensuring the AI works for us, not the other way around).
- Leverage the unique and complex combination of our experiences, skills, passions, knowledge, and values that make us human (and separates us from the machines).
- Diversify our career portfolios and develop multiple streams of income so the next time the assholes in suits try to exploit our time & expertise, we’ll have the negotiating power to tell them where they can shove their exposure bucks.
As time marches on, as our insurance hours run dry, and as our emergency funds continue to drain, never forget that good storytelling is woven into the fabric of our society. And the survival of the studios & streamers in our new world of limitless entertainment still depends on people paying for compelling stories. It won’t take the studios long to discover that AI without creatives in the driver’s seat only leads us closer to Idiocracy.
Every time you think about how they’re coming for our houses, never forget that as much as the Hollywood suits hate us…they’ll always need us.