The Luddites of Hollywood

The writers’ strike is a struggle to give workers a say over how new technologies like artificial intelligence are adopted.

A 19th-century Luddite wields a clapperboard with the Hollywood sign in the background.
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Wikimedia.

The Hollywood writers’ strike, like most strikes, is about money. It is also, fundamentally, about technology. The rise of streaming platforms has not had happy consequences for the writers who satisfy the ever-growing demand for scripted content. According to the Writers Guild of America, the studios have transformed an industry that once supported stable writing careers into a gig economy of precarious, low-paying freelance work. And a new technological threat looms: AI-powered writing tools. The strikers are demanding a guarantee that the studios won’t cut them out of royalty payments by crediting AI tools like ChatGPT as authors of scripts or as source material. In their opposition to a technological shift widely deemed unstoppable, the writers inevitably invite comparisons to history’s most famous technophobes: the Luddites.

Luddite has long been an epithet for anyone who resists technological progress. The original Luddites were English textile workers who, in the early 1800s, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, rebelled against mechanization by breaking into factories and smashing the machines. To modern eyes, those actions register as the height of irrationality—a childish outburst in the face of scientific progress. Today, utopians and doomsayers alike have declared artificial intelligence to be the next inescapable technological revolution. And so the WGA’s demand to limit the use of AI in script writing is distinctly Luddite. How could a bunch of scrappy wordsmiths stand in the way of this world-conquering juggernaut?

In fact, an understanding of the Luddites derived from their actual history can help us appreciate the WGA’s position. The Luddites’ infamous attacks on machinery were the culmination of their activities, not the beginning. The weavers had a legal right to control the textile trade, including setting prices and production standards. They considered factory owners to be operating outside the law. The weavers appealed to the British Crown to enforce the terms of the royal charter, but were ignored. With no other recourse, they took matters into their own hands.

The Luddites were not some group of fanatics trying to slow the march of history. They were workers trying to protect their livelihood from new machines that would churn out low-quality stockings using cheaper, less skilled labor. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm diagnosed decades ago, they were completely rational in doing so: After their rebellion was crushed, their communities fell into ruin. Indeed, some historians have found that living standards declined broadly during the first decades of the Industrial Revolution. Writers might see themselves in a similar existential battle against the machines.

Those 19th-century textile mills have more in common with contemporary “disruptors” than you might think. The likes of Uber and Spotify have also been accused of evading existing legal structures. Call it “platform exceptionalism”: the notion that, because an existing service now comes to us via an app, the old rules don’t apply. So Uber, a taxi service, doesn’t have to follow taxi laws, and Airbnb, an accommodation provider, can avoid hotel or zoning regulations. Since 1960, paying radio operators to play certain songs has been illegal “payola,” but Spotify is allowed to give artists a boost in visibility if they agree to forfeit royalties. In each case, workers bear the cost of the change: Gig workers and musicians both struggle to live off the crumbs they receive from the platforms.

Platform exceptionalism goes to the heart of the WGA’s wage demands. Studios treat streaming content as distinct from cable and broadcast, and claim they can pay writers much less for it. But streaming shows and movies are produced in the same way as everything else. The studios’ position is rooted in nothing but confidence that they’re powerful enough to get away with it.

In this way, platform exceptionalism works like outsourcing, whereby companies relocate their operations to jurisdictions where rules on pay and working conditions don’t apply. Outsourcing turns out to be part of the troubled story of labor in the 21st-century entertainment industry. Because the majority of film and television is now created in digital formats, editing and effects have become much simpler to do and more central to the filmmaking process. They have also become easier to outsource, because digital information, unlike a film canister, can be accessed from anywhere. “Fixing it in post” often takes place overseas, where labor costs are cheaper and union protections nonexistent. Studios seem to assume that technology is doing the hard part and that human workers are replaceable. But reliance on lower-paid postproduction work may contribute to annoyances for streaming viewers, such as shows being too dark and hard to hear.

The Luddites were also concerned about technology degrading the quality of the finished product. They were skilled craftspeople who took pride in their output. New technologies like the stocking frame produced cheap, poorly made garments. The Luddites felt that this cast the whole industry in a negative light. In a typical letter, one Luddite lamented that the production of such “fraudulent and deceitful manufactures” was leading to “the discredit and utter ruin of our Trade.” The Luddites had no problem with new methods, as long as manufacturers maintained previously agreed-upon prices and standards of quality. Factory owners who operated according to those rules didn’t have their machines smashed.

Until now, writers and other creatives seemed to have little to fear from technology. But new, high-profile AI tools such as Midjourney and ChatGPT are oriented toward the quintessentially human endeavors of art and language. The disruptions are already being felt. A few months after ChatGPT opened to the public, the acclaimed science-fiction magazine Clarkesworld closed its submissions against a deluge of AI-generated stories.

To be clear, the problem with these stories was not that they were too good, but that they were too bad. Clarkesworld’s inbox was simply being overwhelmed with junk. Because large language models generate text probabilistically, based on the universe of existing content, mediocrity is built into the package. It’s unlikely that Hollywood will turn to fully automated script writing any time soon. Automation rarely means complete replacement of the worker. Instead, workers are delegated lower-skilled, less autonomous work while machines do the big stuff. That’s what seems to be happening at digital journalism outlets like BuzzFeed, which has closed its news division, laid off writers, and conscripted ChatGPT to produce clickbait content. This is exactly what the WGA fears. If a writer is asked to spruce up a lump of AI-generated pap, rather than starting with a blank page, a studio might claim that the writer is technically adapting source material, which pays much less than creating original content.

The Luddites resorted to violence in a context where the government ignored existing regulations and collective labor action was illegal. Today’s workers have more options. Italy has banned ChatGPT, arguing that it violates European data-protection laws. Artists are testing the legal waters by suing AI companies for copyright infringement based on the unauthorized incorporation of their work into training-data sets. The NBA players’ union prevented owners from using fitness-tracking data in contract negotiations. Unionized casino workers in Las Vegas have kept robots at bay, and in 2018, Marriott housekeepers went on strike in part to oppose new scheduling software.

And so the stakes of the WGA strike go far beyond our ability to watch the next season of The White Lotus. While futurists once again predict the imminent arrival of a world where robots throw us out of work, the WGA is pushing for an alternate future in which workers have a say over whether and how new technologies are adopted. Anyone working in an industry where CEOs see AI as a way to reduce labor costs should be paying close attention to how the strike plays out. That almost certainly includes you.