Artificial Labor

Ed Zitron 5 min read

As we speak, we are entering a historical battle between actual labor – those who create value in organizations and the world itself – and the petty executive titans that believe that there are no true value creators in society, only “ideas people” and those interchangeable units who carry out their whims.

The Writers Guild of America strike happened because the television and film industries are controlled by exceedingly rich executives that view entertainment as something that can (and should) be commoditized and traded, rather than fostered and created by human beings. While dialogue eventually has to be performed by a human being, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers clearly views writing (and writers) as more of a fuel that can be used to create products rather than something unique or special.

The strike has already cost the entertainment industry billions of dollars of losses in share value, and all because the AMPTP has decided that streaming content isn’t as valuable as television or film (despite taking just as much effort), and because entertainment’s elites very clearly want to be able to use artificial intelligence to write content. While I am assuming a great deal about their motives, there are very few ways to interpret the lack of negotiations with the WGA other than that Hollywood may simply believe that the future role of writers is in editing and rewriting machine-generated scripts. .

This situation isn’t just about mass production of content.  AI will allow the AMPTP to reduce writers’ rooms to one person and one machine, which will in turn reduce the number of people in the Writers Guild of America, which will in turn weaken and eventually destroy one of the most powerful unions in the world.

Entertainment executives (and, more broadly, executives) find unions exceedingly annoying because executives are not creators – they are finger-pointers, document signers, and vague pontificators that are entirely disconnected from labor itself. Despite being self-described “ideas guys,” they fundamentally misunderstand how creative ideas are generated. They see the creative process of people in a room workshopping content as something that could be made “more efficient,” because efficiency (unless we’re talking about executive compensation) is the name of the game in a “challenging economy.”

And I think that this is what’s truly powering executive excitement over artificial intelligence – the idea that workers can eventually be removed from the equation entirely.

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Artificial Consumerism

Taking this a step further, I also believe there are parts of rot capitalism that fantasize about the concept of entirely removing human interaction with the consumer. Wendy’s is testing an AI-powered chatbot for taking burger orders to “take the complexity out of the ordering process.” While a human being may have to make the burger (for now), I believe the fast food industry’s eventual goal is to make human beings a conveyance rather than anything approaching customer service. Wendy’s doesn’t care that there’s a person making your burger or handing it to you – their ideal scenario is something more akin to a drop-shippable vending machine that gives you a steaming pile of meat.

Eating inside a Wendy’s might require some sort of staff, but those craving efficient capitalism likely want to reduce this to a series of machines and a security guard to make sure that nobody assaults BurgerBot or SodaMachine.

And one might think this is impossible – that multi-billion dollar corporations could not simply remove all customer service – until you consider how companies like Twitter, Facebook and Uber have all but removed customer service.

While Uber might have customer service, they actively impede any attempt to contact it through a labyrinth of different menus and chatbots. Twitter and Facebook both famously lack any meaningful support, and Facebook has even gone as far as to only offer direct access to customer support if you pay for verification. These are giant companies with hundreds of millions (or billions) of users that have proven that customers will still use a service even if they’re tacitly informed that the company doesn’t give a shit about them.

While I’m not suggesting that every company will follow this model, this feels like an inevitable consequence of artificial intelligence adoption. Companies may believe (at least, superficially) that the consumer is “important,” but they also hate the idea that their enterprise is somehow responsible for the product that they provide to them. Uber doesn’t believe drivers are a core part of its business because that would suggest that they are somehow responsible for the service they give the customer. If it’s good, that’s because Uber’s app was successful in making it happen, and if it’s bad, that’s because the driver was at fault, rather than Uber’s ability to maintain a quality experience.

The great thing about artificial intelligence for companies is that it allows them to hold customers at arm’s length while still pretending to give a shit. An AI agent can mimic the abilities of a customer service agent without having any of the responsibility or empathy. A customer can still be “helped,” but not in any way that gives them progress or influence over the organization – they are trapped in an autonomous world where the rules are entirely set by the company.

While a human being might get involved, those person-to-person interactions will become increasingly rare, and as a result distance the company from any customer responsibility. Companies have already been doing this with colossal phone trees and awkward-to-use chatbots, but artificial intelligence has given them the exciting chance to make phone trees and chatbots slightly more useful, which will keep those annoying customers from ever having to speak to a living being.

It also gives some companies the chance to (as Meta has) – turn customer service into a premium product. I fundamentally believe a lot of modern enterprises see human interactions as an impedance – as something that gets in the way of a transaction rather than something that builds trust or makes a transaction feel “better.” This is a natural byproduct of modern capitalism’s pursuit of eternal growth – the belief that anything perceived as “friction” in a deal between the customer and an enterprise shouldn’t be there, because one cannot assign a numerical value to empathy or trust on a balance sheet. The relationship with the customer is only relevant to how it increases the amount said customer spends, or whether said customer spends money on a competitor’s product, because a sustainable relationship with a customer isn’t really a problem if revenues keep going up.

The same applies to the entertainment industry. Hollywood is wildly profitable – sustainably so – and yet they won’t equitably share said profits because they view the creative process as something that should be commoditized. Being profitable isn’t enough. They must always be more profitable, every single quarter, every single year, even if doing so means that they erode the fabric of entertainment itself.

Unionization terrifies them, because unions don’t just protect laborers, but the quality and value of labor itself. They stand as a protective force around a quality product, and against the drive of vulture capitalism’s attempts to simmer down labor to the point that companies can sell customers the lowest-quality product that they’re willing to purchase.


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