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  • Writer's picturebonniehl

The Realities We Make

As a professional creative I have had the same response to the AI "art" craze as many other artists, writers, and talented individuals in other creative fields including but not limited to: panic that my job would be taken, despair that my creativity as a human would no longer be valued, rage at the excitement that others had for the technology's speed and potential while brushing off the cries of those who would be most impacted by its widespread adaptation. The WGA and SAG strikes have revealed the horrifying but not at all surprising reality of what AI means to the business side of creative industries. AMPTP has rejected the WGA's proposal to limit the use of AI in writers' rooms and proposed a nightmarish arrangement that would allow them to use AI recreations of SAG-AFTRA members' likenesses without compensation or consent. I believe it's now officially safe to say that artists have been right to raise the alarm on generative AI from the start.

Whether the technology is currently capable of actually replacing writers or actors is not the issue. It's not outside the realm of possibility with AI development proceeding rapidly and with little regulation and it's clear as day that rich executives are eagerly embracing the possibility that pesky artists will no longer be taking literal pennies out of their overstuffed pockets. Similar efforts have already begun to ramp up in the increasingly greedy gaming industry. With game dev unions still in their infancy and a storied history of game companies underpaying and abusing staff, not to mention regular mass layoffs, it's not a stretch to assume that many games jobs, particularly at entry level, will be given to AI tools that aren't so selfish as to expect a paycheck.

In early May I watched this video where computer science professor Manolis Kellis says it would be "discriminative" to not let an AI program do his job if he was inferior to it despite the fulfillment he derives from his work. While I believe (or at least hope) that his view is on the extreme end of support for AI, his choice to compare refusal to adopt it to discrimination got me thinking about the concept of "robo-racism" in media, a subset of the fantastic racism trope where robots are depicted as intelligent beings deserving of the same rights and protections as humans. This is absolutely (not) hilarious given the very real challenges of being an unemployed human that are threatening artists in the here and now and are even being leveraged against them in the current strikes. I wonder what aggressive tactics corporations would come up with to keep sentient AI agents in line since they don't require housing and food?

Sarcasm aside, the interview reminded me of the character Tadano from Aggretsuko, a tech entreprenuer who wants to replace "menial" jobs with AI so that people can pursue their interests. When Retsuko challenged his plan by pointing out the human impact of job loss, Tadano asserted that he would essentially institute universal basic income. While Tadano's idea of menial work wasn't very detailed, I've always assumed he wanted to allow people to freely create art as the interests people have to put aside in order to make ends meet are typically artistic in nature. The writers behind the show understood that AI could expand the freedoms of people, but only if the work it replaced allowed more room for self-determinism and its implementation was accompanied by measures to protect human wellbeing. AI evangelists like Kellis seem to gloss over this point entirely when discussing the "progress" to be gained from broad AI application, which emboldens organizations like the AMPTP to use AI as a threat against the livelihoods of people who dare to demand fair treatment for their labor.

A few months ago when I was scrolling late at night trying to stave off another existential crisis, I came across this account written by the author of The End Poem in Minecraft after he released it to the public domain. It details how he approached a business deal like doing a favor for a friend and how that ultimately came back to bite him financially. I felt deeply seen by his desire to make art for arts' sake. No one who decides to make art for a living does it with the primary goal of making money. Yes of course we hope that one day we'll be able to make enough off of our artistic pursuits that we won't need to work a second or third job to pay the bills, but the main reason that people create, whether for profit or for fun, is love.

However, we don't live in a society that supports labors of love. We live in one where most labor is underpaid and grueling, specifically designed to leave people too anxious and exhausted to fight for their rights to safety, fairness, and basic dignity. Lacking time, resources, and energy to pursue one's passion is a cruel byproduct of our economic model--one could easily argue that it is the goal. At the same time, there is constant demand for entertainment, for distractions from the horrors I just described. So deep and insatiable is this appetite for content that mass production of media in the style of the MCU or Netflix throwing a season's worth of money at anyone who brings them a pilot has become the norm. Generative AI seems like the next evolution of the mass production of art: take everything that's out there, throw it into a blender, and pump out concoctions of highly variable quality in seconds. No need to work, barely a need to think, only to type a few words and press enter. (Disclaimer: yes I know that getting a coherent result from generative AI requires tuning your prompts but this does not negate the fundamental process of typing words and pressing enter to get a result.)

Learning how to make art of any kind is incredibly hard and it's frustrating to have ideas that you can't execute. This is a feeling that I struggle with almost daily. Being neurodivergent, my mind is constantly generating new ideas. However this same mind makes it almost unbearable, even to the point of physical pain, to fathom learning the skills I would need to to catch up with even one of the ideas racing to and fro, some getting stuck to the walls of my skull for years, others forgotten as soon as they appear, precious few caught and released and caught again like fish that can't resist a worm despite the hook. Longwinded metaphor to say, I understand the allure of generative AI. Even with the skills to execute some of my ideas under my belt, execution can be an arduous process riddled with self-doubt and creative blocks, and that's if I can muster the energy after dealing with the drudgery of daily life to work on personal projects at all. We've all wished at some point or another that we could press a button and have all of our beautiful ideas spring to life in an instant. But now that that wish is becoming reality, I'm realizing that that was never really the point.

If no one had to worry about losing their home or supporting their family or being able to eat if they lost their job to an AI program, I probably wouldn't be writing this post. Even if that were true though, the ability to create something purely for the love of it that can connect the hearts of others when shared is what makes us human. I am profoundly disheartened that we have reached the point where creativity is widely viewed as a commodity when it is the nature of humanity. Honestly, I think the hype around generative AI is just a symptom of that much larger problem. I'm not saying no one should ever use AI in their creative process for any reason whatsoever, but it should never be forced on (or force out) an artist for the sake of profit. Until we live in a society that values the artist as much as the art, the use of generative AI for creative purposes will continue to be an existential and material threat to those of us who aspire to make our living off of labors of love.


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