Whether AI Can Write A Story Is The Wrong Question.

There is a qualitative difference in the output between a writer who knows story structure and a writer who understands how story structure works.

I am certain that current AI technology can do the former. I am very skeptical of the latter.

But that really isn’t the right question — or questions — to ask.

The first relevant question is: "Will people pay more for the difference?"

The second relevant question is: "Who will profit?"

The first question is one we’ve faced before.

This is the same question that we’ve wrestled with the displacement of craftsmanship by mechanization, industrialization, and mass production.

Compare a chest of drawers that is made from actual wood with one which was made from particleboard. The first has hand-wrought dovetailed joins where they are simply staple-gunned in the latter. The first has been hand-polished, the second is essentially covered in varnished contact paper with a wood grain print.

And the first is horrendously expensive and difficult to come by, compared to the second.

I know the "The Sam Vimes "Boots" theory of socioeconomic unfairness;" wait for it.

Mechanization and automation are great at repetitive tasks. There’s no arguing that, say, modern farming methods (for all of its flaws, which are many) dramatically reduced worldwide famine rates after the transformation of agriculture in the 1960’s.

But there, too, there is a qualitative difference. "Not dying of famine" is hugely different from "well-nourished," or "sustainably nourished," or "healthily nourished," or any of a host of other criteria.

There is a market for hand-made things (and hand-grown or hand-prepared food), because of the qualitative difference I mentioned before… although it is a pricey one.

Theoretically, this would be taken care of by the free market, right? People won’t choose lower-quality goods (or entertainment) if there is a better alternative. There is, after all, a reason why "dollar store" is used as a pejorative adjective.

That brings us to the second question.

All this automation — including computers and software — represents an increase in productivity.

So why are we still working as hard — or as much — as people ten, twenty, forty, sixty and more years ago?

The answer is pretty simple. The benefits of productivity increases were not — and are not — accessible to the population at large. Those benefits have been hoarded by executives and shareholders.

For example, how a certain box store has reduced its workforce expenses by nearly eliminating everything except for self-checkout lanes and utilizing brutal employee sick policies. While customers are complaining.

Perhaps you’d think that greater efficiency and lower costs would allow the company to lower its prices. Except that box store is also beating quarterly expectations for revenue and earnings, despite current inflation and lower sales.

It’s not just that box store, though. According to the Economic Policy Institute, workers haven’t gained anything from the growth in productivity pretty much for my entire lifetime.

That’s the disconnect.

In a functional free-market society, this would all balance out, at least in theory. {1} The benefits of that increased productivity would be passed on to the rest of society in one way or another. Instead, those benefits are being hoarded by an investor class {2}, which means that the hand-made goods — the quality goods — are even further out of reach for everyone else.

And now we are seeing it be applied to story and art as well.

Like it or not, art and entertainment cost.

They cost money, which a lot of us are feeling pretty tightly right now (while the aforementioned investor class is doing just fine). But there’s a second cost: The cost in free time.

Currently just one streaming service would have to run constantly for four years to view it all. Oh, yes, a huge chunk of it — and many other streaming services — consist of formulaic and poor-quality offerings. {3} This applies to other forms of entertainment as well, where available quantity is the primary selling point (eBooks, audiobooks, artwork, you name it).

But if that’s what you are able to afford financially, and you’re strapped for time because despite all this technological improvement you’re still working forty hours a week plus commuting time, well, you get what you can.

This is what happened with the last writer’s strike and the rise of reality television. Reality television was (and is) comparatively inexpensive to make, and, because of how distribution of media works, brought in equivalent ratings — and therefore, equivalent advertising dollars.

Now, reality TV has become as much of a staple as the self-checkout station… and in the same way, only the investor class is better off for it. For corporations and investors, it is — practically by definition — only the profit margin that matters. The particulars about what is created and how literally Do Not Matter. {4}

Given all this, it is no accident that the current writer’s strike is deeply concerned about AI.

It isn’t difficult to imagine these same investors — the ones who control enough resources to get books in bookstores, to get films distributed to theaters and to major streaming services, to get a series greenlit — will be far more interested in turning out formulaic hack plots.

You can already see a similar effect in brick-and-mortar chain bookstores, particularly in the sci-fi and fantasy sections, where it’s become increasingly difficult to find anything but the "safest" titles, usually with "now a major motion picture" or "now a streaming series" splashed across the cover.

There is a simple answer to these issues: to distribute the benefits of our society’s increased productivity through mechanization, automation, algorithms, machine learning, and AI to society at large both in terms of financial and time resources. Where our tools augment our abilities individually and as a species, for the betterment of both the individual and society at large.

Instead, we have a society where it is not enough to make a profit — you must maximize that profit. Instead, we have a world where half of the wealth is held by 1.1% of the population, and 55% of all humans hold only 1.3% of global wealth.

Regardless of the outcome of the writer’s strike, or outrage over publishers using AI art for book covers, the voracious drive of the investor class to increase profits will almost certainly lead to a race to the bottom that favors the "cheapest" methods to create art and music and publishing and media as our ability — both financially and in terms of time — is squeezed tighter and tighter.

At least, that’s how I’m afraid it will go as long as all the rest of us are bullied into submission.

Good luck.

{1} A free-market society also allows for the free movement of labor, which… well, look at the discussion we’re having about the US-Mexico border, and you can see that is not what’s happening there.

{2} Yes, I know. At least I’m not calling them the "bourgeoisie," although that’s mostly because I need spellcheck to get that word right.

{3} Look, I’m not knocking your taste here. I’ve enjoyed some reality television and other forms of "light entertainment" — like Taskmaster and Dimension 20 — myself. At the same time, that isn’t all I want to have available.

{4} Fun related fact: Subway, the largest fast-food chain in the US, was founded by a physicist who had never seen a "sub" sandwich and a family friend. Check out The Food That Built America episode!

Featured Image by 0fjd125gk87 from Pixabay