A Trilogy of Meditations on AI and Art (Part One)

Originating in late 18th century England, Luddism was a populist movement by middle-class, skilled workers in response to the burgeoning Industrial Revolution’s supplanting of their labor by machines. Throughout the centuries, the movement has been mischaracterized.

According to Historic U.K.’s Jessica Brain:

The Luddites were not, as has often been portrayed, against the concept of progress and industrialisation as such, but instead the idea that mechanisation would threaten their livelihood and the skills they had spent years acquiring. The group went about destroying weaving machines and other tools as a form of protest . . . 

Some inclined to look through the prism of history have reviled or romanticized the Luddites’ struggle. In both instances, such views can elide how the movement did not wholly rely on self-defeating destruction to redress their grievances. As Brain notes: “In an attempt to halt or at least make the transition smoother, the Luddites initially sought to renegotiate terms of working conditions based on the changing circumstances in the workplace . . . These attempts at bargaining proved futile.”

The result was a tragic vindication of the Luddites’ belief that mechanization would “prove disastrous for the artisans of their craft, who had spent years perfecting and honing their skills only to be replaced by less skilled, underpaid workers operating machinery.”

Today, even those less inclined to look through the prism of history can see the parallels between the Luddite movement’s response to the Industrial Revolution and today’s workers at risk of being replaced by artificial intelligence (AI). While current workers have not organically coalesced into a movement with an eponymous name based upon a mythic figure and engaged in civil disorder to press their claims against AI, earlier manifestations of the inchoate, palpable public angst against globalization manifested itself in riots and acts of mayhem by nominally “populist” leftist organizations, both foreign and domestic.

In the specific instance of AI, some of those whose vocations are most at risk have chosen to negotiate first. The outcome may lay a cornerstone of how other occupations—blue collar or white collar—endeavor to come to terms with AI. More importantly, it also raises the question of how everyone must grapple with what it means to be human.

Recently, Variety cited director Joe Russo, who estimated that within “two years,” AI could be “engineering and changing storytelling,” and making movies. With a tinge of resignation evoking the Luddites, Russo realistically mulled the peril to the creative process by impending onslaught of AI: 

I’m gonna speak from my experience of being on the board of those companies, [so] there are AI companies that are developing AI to protect you from AI. And unfortunately, we’re in that world, and you will need an AI in your life because whether we want to see it developed or not, people who are not friendly to us may develop it anyways. So, we’re going to be in that future. The question is, then, how we protect ourselves in that future?

That question is one of the critical issues the Writers Guild of America (WGA) is grappling with in its negotiations with studios and streaming companies. The WGA is trying to protect both its members’ financial interests and, more importantly for everyone, the future of artistic creation, per a Vanity Fair report: “There’s also an effort to get ahead of burgeoning technologies like artificial intelligence that threaten writers’ jobs.” 

But while discussing the entire situation, one gleans the goal is not the knee-jerk eradication of AI, but rather a more realistic goal: “‘To safeguard ourselves from it getting worse,’ as one writer-producer explains.” Getting worse would be the termination of human authors and the ubiquitous utilization of low-cost AI programs to generate content for production companies and streaming outlets.

Granted, while a Philistine view, it is true that written works are commodities, like a shoe. Yet, as in a master shoe maker’s product, the sum of an author’s written work is greater than the sum of its inputs. 

When the Luddites ultimately lost, the guilds were decimated and their skilled workers impoverished; and the human element in producing shoes—experience, knowledge, artistry, etc.—was lost, except for pockets of artisans serving as repositories of their craft’s traditions, customs, techniques, and talents. With mechanization, shoes became less expensive, and the world little noticed the plight of the skilled shoemakers. Why? Because, in many ways, the purpose of a shoe is a practical one capable of mass production—the protection of one’s feet. All things being equal, in a pinch any shoe will do.

Not so with art. What AI will decimate with authors and all artistic creators is the very essence of art: a human being crafting a work for the purposes of escapist and/or thought-provoking entertainment; and to express and affirm the essence of his own humanity and the universality of the human experience to another person.

Can AI craft a story? Perhaps. Can AI bring to bear the unique individual essence of a writer? No—and not even if the characteristics of said author are programmed into AI. For AI’s product is a derivative replication, not a unique creation; an act of mimicry, not artistry; a work of machine, not man. 

It is the difference between a symphony and a jam session. A symphony is structured; a jam session is spontaneous. Incapable of being replicated again, a jam session relies upon the unique, inimitable experiences, abilities, and instincts of its players—all of whom, like the collective experience, are themselves individually unique. No matter how seemingly structured the work, inside every artist’s mind is a jam session of soul and synapses connecting disparate ideas, inspirations, and emotions and synthesizing them into a work that has never been seen throughout history. And no matter its programming, it is a work of art the AI can only simulate, emulate, imitate, and replicate, but can never create.  

CT Insider once reported how Paul McCartney “believes in a magical, mysterious nature to songwriting and can often feel like a conduit. ‘I have to [believe in magic]. Because some of the things that have happened to me in songwriting are pretty amazing.’” This is a traditional view of the artist as a conduit for God or an otherwise defined mystical inspiration. In fact, the postmodern view is that the true work of art is not the piece, but the artist himself—his life the ultimate canvas for creation.

Thus, in the current battle of artificial intelligence against artists’ imagination, like the Luddites before them, the WGA is not only bargaining for its members’ livelihoods. It is fighting for their artistic lives. 

Godspeed in the good fight, WGA.

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About Thaddeus G. McCotter

An American Greatness contributor, the Hon. Thaddeus G. McCotter (M.C., Ret.) represented Michigan’s 11th Congressional district from 2003 to 2012 and served as Chair of the Republican House Policy Committee. Not a lobbyist, he is a frequent public speaker and moderator for public policy seminars, and a Monday co-host of the "John Batchelor Show" among sundry media appearances.

Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

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