Discover more from A User's Guide to History
Most of a lot is more than all of a little
When things get cheaper faster than they get worse
Before the industrial age, shoes were made by hand. They were accordingly expensive, at the prevailing value of money. Then machines came along that could make shoes. The new shoes weren’t as good as the old ones, but they were a lot less expensive. Now instead of having one pair of shoes, a person might have three or four pairs. You could still buy the old shoes, but fewer and fewer people did so. Most preferred the arithmetic of the machine age.
Hollywood is locked in what is a prospectively epic strike. At the heart of the issue is whether the cobblers are going to be replaced by machines. The cobblers are the writers; the machines are AI. A producer has an idea for a script. Producer tells AI to cross Barefoot in the Park with Jurassic Park. In thirty seconds the script is in hand. Producer sends script to freelance editor. Editor returns it tweaked and polished, and the cameras roll.
The $64 billion question is whether audiences will be able to tell the difference. More precisely, will they be willing to pay for the difference? Maybe the AI version is only 80 percent as good as the HI (human intelligence) version. But if it costs the consumer only half as much in theaters or via streaming, the consumer comes out ahead.
Not all movie viewers will be happy with the bargain. Some people still buy handmade shoes. But if enough accept the deal, handwritten movies will go the way of handmade shoes.
We’ve seen this in other industries. National Geographic magazine made its reputation and its fortune on the quality of its nature photography. When computers came along, purists insisted that polar bears and eagle chicks defied digital display. But the technology got better, and people got used to the convenience of screens. These days you can't give away those stacks of National Geographics gathering dust in your grandparents' garage. The magazine, now a division of Disney, recently announced that it will end newsstand sales next year.
When compact discs replaced vinyl, audiophiles foretold the end of the world. As compressed formats decreased the sound quality further, the end grew nigher. But the sort of people who used to listen to transistor radios decided that the loss in quality was more than offset by the gain in quantity, and they loaded whole libraries of music onto their iPods. Vinyl didn't vanish. But its customer base grew smaller and smaller. They were the ones wearing the handmade shoes.
Sometimes an external jolt gives the new technology a boost. Before covid, video conferencing was widely considered a bad joke. Then Zoom saved the economy and the educational system and much of ordinary life from a complete meltdown. In most essentials, a Zoom meeting is inferior to a face-to-face meeting. But at a time when face-to-face meetings were impossible or inadvisable, even a bad Zoom meeting was better than nothing. With face-to-face again an option, many people are deciding that a Zoom meeting with a client halfway around the world gives better return on investment than face-to-face, at least some of the time.
The Hollywood writers are up against it. A happy ending of the strike for them is going to require imagination. "AI: Write me a script for a mashup of Tron and It's a Wonderful Life."