Hollywood Strikers Carry the Legacy of Ned LuddRoundup
tags: Hollywood, technology, labor history, Luddism, Writers Guild
Gavin Mueller is an assistant professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Amsterdam. He is the author of Breaking Things at Work: the Luddites are Right About Why You Hate Your Job.
The hollywood writers’ strike, like most strikes, is about money. It is also, fundamentally, about technology. The rise of streaming platforms has not had happy consequences for the writers who satisfy the ever-growing demand for scripted content. According to the Writers Guild of America, the studios have transformed an industry that once supported stable writing careers into a gig economy of precarious, low-paying freelance work. And a new technological threat looms: AI-powered writing tools. The strikers are demanding a guarantee that the studios won’t cut them out of royalty payments by crediting AI tools like ChatGPT as authors of scripts or as source material. In their opposition to a technological shift widely deemed unstoppable, the writers inevitably invite comparisons to history’s most famous technophobes: the Luddites.
Luddite has long been an epithet for anyone who resists technological progress. The original Luddites were English textile workers who, in the early 1800s, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, rebelled against mechanization by breaking into factories and smashing the machines. To modern eyes, those actions register as the height of irrationality—a childish outburst in the face of scientific progress. Today, utopians and doomsayers alike have declared artificial intelligence to be the next inescapable technological revolution. And so the WGA’s demand to limit the use of AI in script writing is distinctly Luddite. How could a bunch of scrappy wordsmiths stand in the way of this world-conquering juggernaut?
In fact, an understanding of the Luddites derived from their actual history can help us appreciate the WGA’s position. The Luddites’ infamous attacks on machinery were the culmination of their activities, not the beginning. The weavers had a legal right to control the textile trade, including setting prices and production standards. They considered factory owners to be operating outside the law. The weavers appealed to the British Crown to enforce the terms of the royal charter, but were ignored. With no other recourse, they took matters into their own hands.
The Luddites were not some group of fanatics trying to slow the march of history. They were workers trying to protect their livelihood from new machines that would churn out low-quality stockings using cheaper, less skilled labor. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm diagnosed decades ago, they were completely rational in doing so: After their rebellion was crushed, their communities fell into ruin. Indeed, some historians have found that living standards declined broadly during the first decades of the Industrial Revolution. Writers might see themselves in a similar existential battle against the machines.
Those 19th-century textile mills have more in common with contemporary “disruptors” than you might think. The likes of Uber and Spotify have also been accused of evading existing legal structures. Call it “platform exceptionalism”: the notion that, because an existing service now comes to us via an app, the old rules don’t apply. So Uber, a taxi service, doesn’t have to follow taxi laws, and Airbnb, an accommodation provider, can avoid hotel or zoning regulations. Since 1960, paying radio operators to play certain songs has been illegal “payola,” but Spotify is allowed to give artists a boost in visibility if they agree to forfeit royalties. In each case, workers bear the cost of the change: Gig workers and musicians both struggle to live off the crumbs they receive from the platforms.
Platform exceptionalism goes to the heart of the WGA’s wage demands. Studios treat streaming content as distinct from cable and broadcast, and claim they can pay writers much less for it. But streaming shows and movies are produced in the same way as everything else. The studios’ position is rooted in nothing but confidence that they’re powerful enough to get away with it.