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Issue 006 Fall/Winter 2023 Features

Tools for the Future?

...or toys for technofascists? Ruminating on the rise of AI amid a summer of strikes.

By Clarkisha Kent
Artwork by Raquel Hazell

October 10, 2023

Artwork by Raquel Hazell.

The words “artificial intelligence” conjure up a couple of images in my ADHD-addled brain.

Most of these images have to do with large machinery performing mundane but necessary tasks while the rest of us get to frolic in the sun. Create art. Eat fruit. Just as Gaia intended! Such images would only be materialized due to the automation of workflow . . . if utilized judiciously. AI could be a game changer in, say, the health care sector. Or the clean energy sector. Or the like. However, more than one sci-fi movie has also made me skittish about the whole concept, particularly because such media is usually very adamant about pointing out how the altruistic usage of AI will always be a pipe dream of sorts as long as we continue to live under a capitalistic society that does not give a shit about ethics or public safety.

Usually I load my thoughts on AI into a dusty and dented spider-ridden box that resides in the attic that exists in my head. As I write this in the midst of the 2023 Writers Guild of America strike (with the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists also having joined the picket line as of July 2023), I have found that, as a culture writer, it would be quite irresponsible of me to not unearth such thoughts and publicly ponder them by putting pen to paper—as writers tend to do.

Why? Well, to cut to the chase, one of both WGA’s and SAG-AFTRA’s very reasonable demands of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (the alliance of major studios such as Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery, Netflix, Apple, and the like) includes “regulat[ing] the use of material produced using artificial intelligence or similar technologies.” Of course, the AMPTP would have us believe that AI usage in the entertainment sector is not that big of a deal. That the writers have nothing to worry about. That they are just being paranoid.

But . . . that is the same thing they said about streaming.

Artwork by Raquel Hazell.

In my inquiry to further explore my thoughts about the fight against exploitation by way of AI, I spoke with actress, TV writer, and producer Franchesca Ramsey, who is currently on strike with both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA.

Ramsey laid out just how far back the fight over the mis(use) of technology against creatives goes, harking back to the days of “pre–early YouTube, before any of these streamers [existed].” The issue of the internet and streaming was a main catalyst for the WGA’s 100-day strike in 2007. The guild pushed back against the studios’ nonchalance over protecting writers’ “specific percentages around the usage of our work on streaming,” Ramsey explains.

“Cut to 15 years later and the studios are saying this about AI: ‘This is not a big deal. We will give you a meeting about this. A meeting once a year to discuss this,’” Ramsey adds. “Well, that tells me, if you look at where streaming is now compared to where it was in 2007, they’re lying. They know full well.”

The 1% is trying to gaslight writers and the general populace about the potential far-reaching consequences of AI misuse, and the technofascists that are drooling over these possibilities are not necessarily new (in reality or in fiction), nor are they particularly surprising either.

In fact, it reminds me of one of my favorite films: I, Robot (2004).

Indeed. I, Robot is my go-to film when I want to really do a (mental) deep dive into the central question of AI. To me, as a ten-year-old girl, it had everything. High-speed car chases. Will Smith’s abs. And arms. And pecs. A rich white capitalist (Lawrence Robertson, played by Bruce Greenwood) getting snuffed out by VIKI—a supervillainess and an artificial intelligence supercomputer—due to his own hubris. And even philosophical questions about what it is to be human, what it means to be human. And what we believe we should be able to get away with because we assume we are the most intelligent or advanced beings who roam the planet.

But one of the more interesting things about the 2004 film is its commentary, both explicit and implied, about labor and how we view certain types of labor and the human beings performing them. Mainly, upon a much-needed and timely rewatch of this film, I took note of the type of jobs that robots, in the fictional year of 2035, were occupying. Many were mailmen and/or package handlers. Some were dog walkers. Many were personal assistants (think groceries, errands, etc.). A sizable portion were sanitation workers. And, as one might expect, some had replaced food service workers as well.

Artwork by Raquel Hazell.

Absent from this silent observation is the fact that we know nothing of what has happened to the humans—members of the working class—who previously occupied these positions. What is their new function in society? What has become of their compensation (because we obviously know the robots are not getting paid)? Where has that money gone? The answer is probably back into the hands of the bourgeois class, as they stand to be the only beneficiaries of the capital to be gained by the machines’ proliferation and distribution—seeing as a central goal of the film’s antagonist(s) was to install a robot in every single household in Chicago.

This is to say . . . the robots’ occupations on display in this film are not coincidental. In fact, it is a very quick and pointedly visual reminder from a visual medium that a 1%-er such as Robertson—before he was felled by his own pride and greed—is aware of how much money he can squeeze out of the labor class by eliminating the need to hire humans (who do require compensation) in even the most basic and “menial” jobs. And just like Robertson, unimaginative tech bros and other unabashed proponents of AI have something to gain from its unregulated ascension. Money—capital—is the most obvious motivator, but there is also the issue of control at play here. Particularly, control of the labor class.

In short, current AI usage is an attempt to further divorce the proletariat from control over our own labor. Think about other working-class union members who believe that the WGA and its members have nothing to complain about—even though AI is a threat to all disenfranchised and underpaid workers. These disagreements among proletariats serve the ruling class because the question remains: who services, builds, and teaches the AI to be both useful and functional? The labor of building machinery or programming certainly is not performed by those who stand to benefit from its unregulated proliferation. No. That labor will still be performed by the proletariat.

This brings us to the genesis of the issue.

Artwork by Raquel Hazell.

Top labor economist David Autor has uncovered a damning amount of evidence that tells a story of ever-increasing inequality in technology over four decades. He refers to this as “job polarization,” meaning that computers have provided jobs for the high-income and the college-educated while killing manufacturing and office jobs that provided solid opportunities for Americans without college degrees.

And who stands to be hurt most by the unregulated proliferation of AI, economically, culturally, and otherwise? Black people.

Ramsey touches on an important aspect of what makes AI technology dystopian in the wrong hands: the potential of technofascists attempting to remake Blackness, Black work, and Black people into their own contorted images. This adds to the already existing crimes that include theft and malicious dissemination of Black art and Black culture, and could even function as the final boss of Blackfishing, on top of disenfranchising Black people where pay is concerned.

“As a Black creative, as a Black woman, as a Black queer woman, I know that this will hurt my community very deeply,” Ramsey tells me. “Because, you know, unfortunately, Hollywood loves to profit off of us in our stories, but they don’t necessarily want to pay us for our work and our stories.”

Ramsey goes on to expound upon the “Blackfishing” potential of such technology, presenting a dark but not-entirely-far-off scenario in which studios would have no qualms about using their so-called audience analytics to create their perfect version of Black person who “can’t be too Black,” whose hair “can’t be too nappy,” whose body “can’t be too thick,” and whose skin “can’t be too dark.” This dystopian development would essentially “erase Black people from the process in front of the camera and behind the camera,” she says.

She also spoke to the potential gatekeeping when speaking on AI-related disenfranchisement in the industry: “[This will also harm] folks who do not have familial connections in the business and people who do not have the financial resources to take a risk and get into the industry, because there are a lot of jobs that are unpaid or just low paid.”

“We live in a culture that has never meaningfully confronted [its] relationship to slavery. And we still see it as a ‘Black people problem’ rather than the fact that slavery is foundational to all work culture in the United States,” they add. “It is the reason these companies wish to extract [all] labor without valuing the person who’s making it. That legacy is the reason for them wanting to own, to be able to own and disseminate people, images, and likenesses. It is part of our cultural memory.”

I find that whenever people reduce the history of slavery—aka, the capitalistic framework that exists in this country’s bones—to being a “Black people problem,” I just laugh. And laugh. And laugh! Because if we are thinking about the darkness of such history being woven into every single corner of the labor market in this country, everyone has skin in the game when it comes to this AI shit and how these studios are attempting to exert ownership over ones’ work, voice, face, and thus body.


Artwork by Raquel Hazell.

Take, for example, the story of beloved Keanu Reeves finding out that a fake tear—that he surely did not squeeze out of his own eye—was digitally added to his face after filming. He never names the film, but the incident freaked him out so much that he added “a clause in every one of his movie contracts that prevents studios from digitally manipulating his performances.” There is also the example of Jet Li turning down the role of Seraph in the Matrix franchise (1999–) because he had a keen understanding that the studio could digitally capture his martial arts movements—his physical and intellectual property—claim it as their own in perpetuity, and potentially recycle and reuse it in the future without even having to secure his permission.1 He prophesied this . . . in the early 2000s.

Through this example, we begin to understand the startling lengths and breadths studios will go to to digitally alter performances as they see fit. Jet Li and Keanu Reeves are veterans of their industry, widely respected and recognized. The question that surfaces then is: how far would studios go in their undeniable violations against actors who have no substantial capital to fight the power or negotiate on their own behalf to protect their likeness? What happens to the extras? The fight coordinators? The stuntpeople? What recourse do they have in an industry where they are already criminally underpaid and consistently snubbed?

And, mind you, the dark future that Jet Li peeked into, where creatives can have their physical and intellectual property hijacked, has surely arrived. I have seen deepfakes of, for example, actors such as Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Reynolds floating around at an alarming frequency.

In an email, actress Tika Sumpter spoke to me about how creepy deepfake videos are and their potential implications, calling it “unsettling.”

“Acting is already a very tough career to sustain oneself in, and I think social media fools a lot of people into thinking every actor is thriving,” she explains. “Most of us have watched fantastic movies such as The Terminator [1984], thinking, Holy cow, that’s wild! That will never happen. And I’m trying not to be an alarmist here, but I do think about the idea of humans no longer being needed. As a society, we will have to figure out how much we want to continue to engage with humankind.”

Ramsey, who is also an actor, brings up current negotiations over the usage of actors’ likenesses and what it could mean for misrepresentation and misinformation (as shown in these deepfake videos): “With negotiations, some of the core issues around AI [are] not being able to license our images without our signoff—and also making sure that if they were to do that, we were paid fairly for it. And that those protections are baked into our contracts. So they couldn’t do it, for example, without our knowledge, put you in a compromising position, or put words in your mouth that you would never say, et cetera.”

Music, another creative industry, is also not immune from this advanced technological theft, considering the sheer amount of “AI covers” I have come across in the style of SZA or Jazmine Sullivan, or even Marvin Sapp. (Sorry, y’all, but those Patrick Star AI covers freak me the fuck out.)

Singer and musician Jordan Occasionally also echoes observations about Black people being violently severed from our work (particularly where deepfakes and Blackfishing are concerned) by such technology. “Technology has democratized the arts—music especially—and, of course, people are jumping in where they can,” they tell me. “But honestly? I didn’t think that people would then be like, ‘Okay, now I can steal [a Black voice].’ Right? Like nothing could have ever prepared me, for example, [for] an ‘AI Rapper,’ who was probably voiced by a white man, saying the N-word. But I should have known, because once [capitalists] get power, they want to extract as much value from these things as they can, particularly in the music industry. AI, in this case, is just a tack-on to the capitalistic nature of these industries.’”

And Jordan is quite right. As someone who cares not about being called an alarmist, it would be quite easy for me to dismiss AI as this great and catastrophic evil that could wipe us all out at a moment’s notice without any safeguards to stifle its proliferation, à la some Skynet knockoff that I’m sure some tech bro out there is just drooling at the possibility of funding.

But . . . that would also be giving AI way too much credit.

At the end of the day, AI—intelligence demonstrated by computers—is taught. AI has to be trained. It learns by what is fed to it, whether that information is ethical or not. That means that AI is not naturally coming out of the gate with the intention of stealing our faces, our words, or our voices. No. AI, as it stands, currently operates as an extension of cartoonishly evil tech robber barons who wish to plunder these things from us and monetize them for their own selfish and iniquitous purposes.

There is definitely a future in which AI could potentially function alongside us as a tool to further technological advancements and alleviate human suffering. But that is not the future for which we are headed if we cannot find a way to divorce this technology from the capitalistic framework that our society currently operates under. Even now, as I write on this subject, the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are striking for fair compensation for their intellectual property, their creations, their ideas, their likenesses, and their performances in the face of rapacious capitalists such as David Zaslav and Bob Iger. And these unions deserve our support. For without their labor and art, a substantial part of our lives becomes hollow—devoid of shape and color. We lose an important medium to discuss, educate, and enlighten on social issues; we lose the very things that bring us closer to our humanity and empower us to tell our stories; we lose our interconnectedness—which is pivotal in uniting the working class around the protection and preservation of their labor and dignity—a unifying force that AI does not possess the capacity to replicate.

And this cannot stand.


1. Amid Amidi, “Jet Li Turned Down ‘The Matrix’ Films Because He Didn’t Want Warner Bros. to Own His Mo-Cap Martial Arts,” Cartoon Brew, October 20, 2018.