With the Screen Actors Guild having now joined the Writers Guild of America in a walkout, the actors and writers of most of the nation’s film and television projects are striking together for the first time since 1960 (when SAG was helmed by a charismatic actor named Ronald Reagan).
The union members have every right to make demands about how their labor is used or, as the case may be, not used. We’re hardly the first to point out the dubiousness of studio executives decrying the supposed unreasonableness of people without whose work there would be no product to sell or industry to have.
Yet this moment has significance beyond the movies and TV. The SAG-WGA strike is the bleeding edge of a reorganization of relationships between management and labor at a time of tech monopolization and AI’s looming mass impact on the nature and stability of work. That SAG-AFTRA Executive Director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland chose, out of dozens of issues, to highlight the fact that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers apparently wanted the power to produce scans of background actors so their AI-generated likenesses could be used in perpetuity without compensation is no accident.
This is a labor dispute over the notion that labor has an endpoint, and one that’s coming rapidly over the horizon. The unions’ position is fundamentally a rejection of management’s desire for their work to be little more than training data for their AI replacements, or that they should be content to act as de facto work-for-hire contractors whose creative efforts can be adapted, used and reused to generate profits for studies and executives while they’re left behind.
Anyone who draws a paycheck from intellectual work should be paying attention, as should anyone who uses, appreciates and enjoys this work — which is to say, everyone. It might seem like all the same to you now, but we guarantee that you’ll grow tired of AI-generated shows produced by fake actors and computer writers. By then, though, it might be too late.