There’s a long history of management painting automation as something as inevitable as sunrise. It’s an echoing pattern, one the late historian of technology David F. Noble summarized in Forces of Production, his account of the implementation of machine tools in America. “‘Automatic’ or ‘self-acting’ machinery made it possible for management both to eliminate workers altogether and to control more directly the production process,” he wrote. “The machinery, in turn, was used to discipline and pace the operators who attended it, thereby reducing the “labor problem” indirectly via the seeming requirements of the technology of production itself.”
Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity, a book from MIT economists Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson that’s due out next month, chronicles a thousand years of elites—from European nobles in the Middle Ages to modern-day tech CEOs—gaining from technological advancements at the expense of workers. Generative AI fits neatly into this historical context. “We argue that this obsession with machine intelligence is not helpful because it’s all about replacing people,” Johnson explains. “Whereas if you focus on making machines useful to people—nurses, doctors, teachers, and so on—that will be much more helpful to productivity and therefore, potentially, to pay.”
Futures range in awfulness. August’s personal dystopia is what he calls the Nora Ephron scenario, where AI learns to mimic cultural titans, eclipsing new human writers. Studios likely won’t employ AI scabs during this strike, not least because having AI tools cross the picket line introduces a host of copyright issues, but it’s not hard to imagine that this could happen at one point. (“You cannot protect studio execs from their bad ideas,” he says.)
And then there is the most likely bad scenario, the one worth getting out in front of right now: a producer requesting that a writer edit a script (which pays less than producing an original work) and not telling them it was generated by a chatbot. “That’s a crisis in our compensation, it’s a crisis in our residuals, and a crisis in our artistic ability to do the things we are put in this industry to do,” says August. “So that’s a fundamental nightmare scenario. And that feels very obvious if we don’t get this resolved.”
More positive outcomes include improved productivity, like moving from a typewriter to a word processor. Commentators are unsure, however, whether that increase in productivity will lead to tangible improvements, like an increased standard of living. ChatGPT is already useful for brainstorming: If you need 15 different names for a Mandarin bagel shop, as August puts it, AI does an alright job. And he sees a possibility that the tech could create opportunities for more diverse writers, improving the scripts of someone for whom English is not their first language, for instance.
Automation and redundancy are not necessarily conjoined, and introducing disruptive technology—like the self-checkout machine—is a choice. There are examples of times when worker perspectives on new technologies, not just those of management, have been successfully taken into account. In their book, Acemoglu and Johnson cite West Coast longshoremen who demanded to be retrained in new technology. They won, leading to a reduction in job losses and an increase in productivity. Katya Klinova, head of Al, labor, and the economy at the Partnership on AI, points to Unite Here, which represents hospitality workers, who in 2018 successfully won the right to negotiate how Marriott plans to bring in new technology, like online services, computers, and even robots.
Digital technologies are inherently isolating: They do not lead people into factories to discuss concerns with their fellow workers. The efforts of a union with the relative power of WGA trying to assert control over AI implementation are instructive for everyone. For the writers, it’s critical: Their contract is only up for negotiation every three years. That’s a long time in tech. “You know, in 2007, streaming wasn’t there yet. But by 2010, you started to see those inklings,” says August. “In 2023, AI is not replacing us—AI is not being used to write exactly what we’re doing. But by 2026, the next time this contract is up, it really feels like that technology will be very refined. We need to make sure that this is addressed.”