Why the WGU is doomed: the difference between how artists see AI art and how most fans will see AI art

Today, I want to talk about the difference between what artists and audiences want vis-a-vis artificial intelligence. And why the artists are going to lose. (Yeah, I know I’m an artist. People often confuse my predictions with my desires. I’m not saying I relish this world, only that it will likely happen.)

When studying AI, there’s a strong tendency to look at what computer scientists are doing. Well, right now, the Writer’s Guild of America is on strike. One of the key elements of the contract is they don’t want AI to write or rewrite scripts. The answer from the studios has been a flat “no.”

As it so happens, an actress from a 1980s sitcom is also a computer scientist, and she gives a warning about AI. The actress, Justine Bateman, was on the sitcom “Family Ties.” It was something watched in my household. I barely remember it, to be honest, but it ran for seven seasons, so someone must have liked it.

One of the criticisms that Bateman leveled against AI is that when it is sufficiently powerful, it can make an eighth season of “Family Ties” without the intervention of any of the directors, actors, or writers. To her, as an actress, this is bad. But… for the audience, that’s great, right?

Imagine! AIFlix! (This is now a protected IP! You want to do AIFlix, you gotta go through me, now!) You could go to it and say, “Make me additional episodes of ‘Family Ties,'” and it would. And then you could share them with other people.

Of course, people aren’t going to do that. On the other hand, how many people would go, “Make me another season of ‘Firefly,'” or the original series Star Trek (indeed, some actors have already done THAT and done quite well, I should note.) I might tell AIFlix to finish the goddamn “Sarah Connors Chronicles,” and give me another season of “Caprica.”  Or, to be less of a grognard, another season of “Warrior Nun.”

But, of course, then it goes CRAZY. You might not ask for another season of “Family Ties,” you might say, “Give me a season of ‘Family Ties’ in the Marvel Cinematic Universe where Mallory has the powers of the Scarlet Witch, and Alex is Ultron.” Lulz ensues.

In that case, what you’re going to have is a living, visual representation of something a bit more popular that you might be comfortable admitting: fanfic. Viewed as literature, fanfic allows authors to do four main tasks that I can see: to continue a story that has officially ended (a fourth series of the original series Star Trek,) to correct the perceived flaws of a manuscript (heaven knows I’ve wanted to fix the endings of many a Stephen King novel or movie, but also a lot of romantic material that factually dominates fanfic) crossovers and mashups (“Family Ties” in the MCU,) and interpretive work (often with outside or peripheral characters reacting to the main action.) And after thinking about it, there is a fifth task that I could shoehorn into the other four but is substantial enough to merit its own category, which is self-insertion, where the author places a proxy for themselves in the story, usually to engage with the main characters romantically. Fanfic writers often deride self-insertion, but it is a common motivation to write fanfic.

AIFlix could do all that, but instead of being stories posted online, it would be (eventually) high-quality shows. It would have all the appeal of fanfic but with actors and storylines provided by the fans and created, on the spot, for them and their interests and tastes. It will be fanfic but more intense and easier to make. I think this will crush all other narrative forms except AI-generated procedural role-playing games (which will be de facto interactive self-insertion narratives, IMO.)

Fans are going to love this. There are only two things that prevent audiences from embracing this right now. First, it doesn’t exist yet. Second is that audiences connect with actors who play roles they enjoy. If you like Harry Potter, you probably have a lot of good feelings for Daniel Radcliffe. You think of all the time and effort he put into the role, and so when he says something, his words personally matter because you identify the actor with the role.

This is the main difference between generative AI and other technologies that have caused many workers to be fired. Few people lamented the replacement of farmers with tractors. They’re not millionaire superstars! They’re “just” farmers. So, we lament the destruction of jobs for famous people in ways that we do not for workers who are faceless to us. I find a lot of this “save the artist” rhetoric extremely classist, mainly because in almost no case do the artists make common cause with other workers. They aren’t even making common cause with camera people or caterers whose jobs are equally at risk in a world where generative AI makes everything. It’s not subtle.

(Another role that is either secondary or critical, I’m not sure yet, is that technology has also reached the point where we’re having to look it square in the face that maybe we’re not so special. Art is one of those jobs that most people felt it took “soul” to do properly. Apparently not. But intellectual tasks are supposed to be “our thing,” the thing humans excel at doing! We recoil in horror from the idea that GPT-4 would score higher than almost any human being on an IQ test. I think we’ll get used to the new order pretty fast because, ultimately, the products are more beloved than the creators, but we might recoil from the diminishment of our “humanity.” I think we’ll get used to it because that argument has been advanced since the days of the first socialists, and they lost big time, which is part of the reason we’re talking about AI this way in the first place.)

I believe this is the most important thing that Bateman said, “A.I. has to be [addressed] now or never. I believe this is the last time any labor action will be effective in our business… If we don’t make strong rules now, they simply won’t notice if we strike in three years, because at that point they won’t need us.”

That’s it. She’s giving the expiry for the job of screenwriter. In three years, Hollywood won’t need them. She’s probably wrong about the specifics but not about the idea that screenwriting has an expiry. Does it matter if it’s two or ten years? At some point, screenwriting as we know it goes away. And then, it will be robots writing lines for digitally generated characters.

And shortly after that, it won’t be big studios making series. It’ll be everyone. We’ll tell AIs what to do, and they’ll make shows, and we’ll share them, and they’ll be great. We’ll have so much fun.

A contract won’t stop it. Particularly for streaming platforms, work is already internationalized, in part to avoid the California-based guilds. We were silent when many shows moved their production to Vancouver to get around the unions in Hollywood. Do we imagine that the streaming services won’t just move their productions to non-union places and work from there? It’s one of the oldest union-busting tricks. And because everything will be done digitally, the country barely means anything. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were floating server farms soon, going to wherever the laws are best for doing AI generative content… or hanging out in international waters. Try enforcing a contract there!

So, where Bateman is wrong is that even addressing it NOW is meaningless. In one of the MCU movies, Robert Downey, Jr., was paid FIFTY MILLION dollars. Now you know how much it is worth to the studios to replace that one actor for one movie. With a digital Tony Stark (based on Downey, of course), they could churn out as many movies, shows, and everything else as their dark hearts could desire. And ultimately, you won’t care because you don’t know Robert Downey, Jr. To the extent that most people care about him, it is related to his roles. Most people love Iron Man far more than Robert Downey, Jr. To most of us, the person is far more replaceable than the human who portrayed them.

(As an example of fans not caring, in recent years, Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling has repeatedly and intentionally gone after trans people on her platform. It is fair to characterize her as anti-trans. HBO is making a reboot of the Harry Potter franchise in serial form – a TV show! Even though Rowling’s attitudes towards trans people are widely derided, and her most recent mockery of her detractors is bragging about her mind-blowing wealth in a way that makes me long for her introduction to Madame Guillotine, it is not expected to affect viewership of the show. Harry Potter fans are so desperate for new Harry Potter material that they’ll put up with Rowling’s bigotry and classism. Do we think that, in the long run, MCU fans would care if Iron Man was fully digital? I have trouble imagining this to be true for very long. They might complain for a while, but they will also watch.)

Sorry, WGU, you’ve already lost. Worldwide unionization didn’t happen, and that’s what you’d need to prevent your jobs from going away.

PS – As an indie writer who is unlikely to ever support himself financially on his art, this changes nothing. Like most artists, we don’t do it for worldwide fame or money. Those are the concerns of a tiny number of artists. Many artists lose money making art! We are spending money gotten from other jobs to subsidize our art. For us, AI changes nothing.

Indeed, I think it is possible that for indie artists, this could be a benefit. Instead of me essentially competing with Andy Weir or George R. R. Martin as if we’re the same “kind” of artist (we’re all “writers,”) we may find in the future that human artists of skill are considered to be artisanal professionals. Our status might increase because we’ll no longer be seen as the same “kind” of thing that makes art for big studios or publishers. We will be human artists making human products for people who want to feel that connection to humans, in the same way a person spends a lot of money for a hand-crafted table when, in truth, getting a mass-produced one from Ikea would serve the same function and cost a small fraction of the money. That’s my hope, but it is hardly necessary to become true for me to keep writing. I know that kind of success is not in the cards for me.

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