“Alexa Will Not Replace Us”

“Alexa Will Not Replace Us”
Photo by Lois Beckett, The Guardian

The Writers Guild of America is on strike, bringing movie and television production to a halt. This affects media companies across the board, but one of them is Amazon, which is not exactly like other media companies. It's primarily a retailer as well as a technology and infrastructure company. However, it's undeniable that the strike is happening in large part because of companies like Amazon and what they represent: the transformation of media by digital technologies like streaming video and artificial intelligence, and the further transformation of the media business model these technological innovations have introduced.

Many of the WGA's demands are about changing the pay rate for streaming video: getting a higher percentage of residuals for overseas streaming, and establishing a viewership-based streaming residual in addition to a fixed residual. The idea is to partially account for the substantially greater amount of time spent and revenue earned via streaming and the creation of new global video markets since the last time the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) came to an agreement. The AMPTP wants to pay a lower overall rate and a carve-out for streaming services with smaller overseas viewership.

Another demand is about the potential use of AI in script production. The WGA is looking for a targeted ban: no AI-written source material, writing or rewriting text, and not using writers' scripts to train AI. The AMPTP countered this position by offering “annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology.”

Source: WGA, via Rolling Stone

The AI component of the strike has been particularly notable in the picket line outside Amazon Studios, where striking writers including Damon Lindelof carried signs reading “Alexa Will Not Replace Us” and chanted “AI will replace you before it replaces us.”

I'm actually having a hard time getting past some of the similarities between these slogans and those of the white supremacist Great Replacement-believers at Charlottesville and elsewhere. I probably wouldn't have picked that as a slogan, for that reason. But there is a more substantiated anxiety at play here, and the WGA is making legitimate demands about the terms under which their work will be used.

At Rolling Stone, Miles Klee and Krystie Lee Yandoli have a solid, nuanced article on what the fight over AI is about. The short version is a worry that studios think the job of a writer is to crank out texts, rather than collaborate with each other, and with actors, directors, and producers to shape the overall product.

A good mantra is that fears about technology are almost always fears about capitalism. This is no exception. It isn't “AI” that has worked to eliminate writers' rooms and it isn't “streaming” that's shifted the revenue shared with writers and other artists to pennies on the dollar. It's companies that have done that, often exploiting the loopholes in their labor and royalty contracts that allow them to do so. The anxieties about AI are part of a broader shift in how creative labor is treated that devalues creators in favor of an abundance of digital objects that can pass for creative work.

Arguably, the creative industries are in a perfect position to model what a productive relationship between creators and large language model tools should look like. It's an industry that cares a lot about intellectual property and the derivative uses thereof, has a strong history of collective bargaining agreements and institutions regulating that IP, and a good deal of cultural hegemony across creative fields and across the world. The fact that the two sides are so far apart is not a good sign for how these negotiations will go across the board.

I can't help but think that part of this is because media companies in 2023 look a lot less like the movie and TV studios of the past and a lot more like Amazon. Amazon is a media company, sure, but it's a streaming-first media company that's also in the data, advertising, and retail business. Its money does not come from being creative, and its interest in media properties is as fungible commodities.

And the emergence of Amazon onto the media scene has revealed how much its competitors are like Amazon. Disney is not a pure media company; Comcast is quite obviously not a media company. Netflix received tech company valuations for years on the assumption that it was not especially a media company, but up to something different. YouTube, like Amazon Studios and MGM, is part of a larger tech conglomerate. And these companies are vastly profitable, in no small part because of their media wings, which ensure a steady stream of customers for the rest of their businesses.

A writer in 2023 is disproportionately likely to be working on a script for a giant company that treats their output as a vanishingly small data point to plug into the attention factory. Why wouldn't they be anxious?