The Age Of Mediocrity

Ed Zitron 6 min read

After three months of striking, the AMPTP has reached out to the Writers Guild of America to resume negotiations this Friday. They’re looking to bring an end to a strike that has already cost the entertainment industry billions because entertainment executives refused to even negotiate with the union’s reasonable demands - things like “reasonable residuals” and “increased health care plan contributions” and, of course, protections against work being used to train artificial intelligence, removing writers from the process entirely.

I’ll admit that when the strike started I assumed that Hollywood would cave - AI isn’t currently at a place (nor do I believe it will be for some time) where it could realistically replace a writer or writer’s room, and it isn’t a huge concession to ask to not have your work, or voice, or image be actively plagiarized by a computer. The output from ChatGPT or any other generative AI feels utterly soulless, and I truly believed that this was obvious even to disconnected fauxecutives like David Zaslav of Warner Bros. Discovery, who once said that his company had been fighting to get “the greatest creatives” to work there.

I was wrong, and he was lying.

The WGA Strike - now joined by the actors in the union SAG-AFTRA as of July 14 - has become a referendum on the future of work, and a battle between executive greed and the creative forces that enrich them. Hollywood executives are willing to burn $150 million a week rather than pay fair wages to actors and writers (for context, David Zaslav made $247 million in 2021), all while effectively threatening a future where their hard work will be used to generate inferior work that they aren’t compensated or given credit for.

The entertainment industry would rather writers become homeless than negotiate in good faith, and the reason is simple: they do not respect creatives and are excited at the opportunity to turn their work into a generative commodity.  It doesn’t matter that the quality is questionable, inaccurate, or flat-out bad. It doesn’t matter that it feels soulless - a human being can “punch it up” after all - because it’s quick, and it certainly doesn’t matter that there aren’t any new ideas in it, because new ideas don’t matter to an entertainment industry dominated by shows about cops and first responders.

The battle over artificial intelligence - both inside and outside of Hollywood - is between those who do the work and those who profit from it. A study by IBM revealed that 43% of CEOs have reduced their workforce due to generative AI. While 75% of CEOs believe they have the knowledge and skills to integrate generative AI, only 30% of their teammates agree. Executives are gung-ho about the prospect of automating every appreciable part of a business, adopting AI - which hallucinates regularly and is somehow getting worse - as fast as possible, regardless of whether it actually makes sense.

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The average executive - who makes 300 times their median workers’ pay - believes that all labor beyond vague “strategy” and signing deals is something that should be automated. They crave a new Industrial Revolution where simulations of human beings do a shittier job slightly faster without needing to be paid to do it, or with a human being as a handler that must constantly refine and buff up work in a way that will likely take more time than having a human do it in the first place. Too many executives are fundamentally disconnected from the workforce (or work in general, I’d argue), and thus regularly conflate quick execution with good-quality work.

To put it simply, when your job is mostly made up of saying “we should do this” and other people doing it, your only interest lies in the financial output at the other end. If money keeps coming - if the revenue and growth numbers keep increasing - labor is simply a cost of doing business, a commodity rather than something involving a living, breathing person. Artificial intelligence allows the modern executive to recategorize more and more labor as “unskilled” because a computer could theoretically do it, even if the work product sucks. They want anything involving knowledge work or creativity to resemble the ultra-commoditized monopolies of car rental companies or airlines, where customers are so used to an exploitative and mediocre service that they’ll be surprised and delighted by just about anything.

Corporations are already salivating at the chance to replace their customer support staff with artificial intelligence, with 66% of managers - the mall cops of the working world - saying that they would “gladly” replace employees with AI tools “if the work was comparable.” And while there might be some that smugly suggest that their jobs will be safe - that their work product is “better” or “more important” than that of the 12 million people who may lose their jobs to AI by 2030 - they don’t realize that many executives simply do not understand (or care to understand) what it is you do every day, just that the business continues to make money.

AI is catnip for the rot economy - a symbolic way to “get more work done” and “push for efficiency” while “promoting growth” without having to invest in the well-being or future of anyone that works for them. Companies that have never had any interest in investing in training or mentoring young people will suddenly be happy to train their own models because they’ll finally have the perfect worker - a mediocre, featureless stooge that is helpful and doesn’t have the option or inclination to quit. They will gladly replace artists, writers and any other role that they believe can be automated in a heartbeat.

A reasonable person might think that companies wouldn’t lower the quality of their output just to theoretically save a dollar, and they would be wrong. AI offers bird-brained executives that haven’t done a full day’s work in decades the tantalizing opportunity to both commoditize labor and seem “pioneering,” even if the result is a less efficient company selling an inferior product. As I wrote back in March, Salesforce has perfected this art, announcing seemingly every year that AI or another buzzy feature would bring some sort of nebulous benefit to the platform. Does it make the company or user experience better? Absolutely not. But it makes investors happy, even if it ends up with Salesforce getting sued for never actually delivering on their promises.

It’s a conscious race to the bottom fueled by a conscious contempt for the customer. G/O Media - owners of Gizmodo, The Onion, and Jezebel - put out several AI-generated stories filled with errors, only to respond by saying that it was “absolutely a thing they wanted to do more of.” More than half of CNET’s AI-generated stories contained factual errors, and Men’s Journal’s foray into generative writing managed to publish an article with 18 different errors, despite Arena Group CEO Ross Levinsohn’s promise that they were not all about “cranking out AI content and doing as much as they could.”

I believe we are going to see a surge of companies desperately piling money into AI with little regard for the consequences, leading to several smaller versions of the $440 million software glitch that destroyed financial services firm Knight Capital. The bug in question was a combination of trusting new automations that had never been put through a formal code review or QA process, which then interacted with obsolete software to execute 4 million trades in 45 minutes, eventually leading to a massive loss and Knight having to sell itself to a rival firm by the end of 2012.

Sadly, an economy where “quiet quitting” was considered a real trend versus something made up to demonize the workforce is one primed to over-invest in automation. 2021 and 2022 convinced modern capitalism that the worker owed the executive something beyond what they were compensated to do, and AI - regardless of how capable it is at any given task - can and will be used to replace entire roles, or force current workers to take on massive amounts of extra work because they’re “enhanced by AI.”

I predict at least one company is going to experience a deeply embarrassing series of events caused by overreliance on AI - perhaps it’s a Knight Capital-style glitch, or a generative AI that decides to fill their marketing collateral with insane nonsense. Perhaps another healthcare-adjacent company has to pull down the chatbot it installed to replace workers because it gave harmful advice, or Wendy’s drive-thru chatbot ends up giving away millions of free burgers because of an errant bug or hallucination.

Either way, we are entering an era where companies will begin testing how much they can automate away the human element of their business, and how much of the customer experience they can trim off until they start losing money.

Editor’s Note: A previous version incorrectly said “Men’s Health” in place of “Men’s Journal.”

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