Dingus of The Week: Pivoting to Robots
"Three labor violations in a trench coat"
The 2012 show Barbie and the Dreamhouse lays out a complex vision for AI with the character of Closet. Closet is Barbie’s closet and he (they?) helps Barbie organize her Narnian expanse of fashion. Closet is supposed to be helpful, but as Ken notes in one scene, “How could giving the closet artificial intelligence, complete control over the Dreamhouse, and a surly personality backfire?”
Well, it backfires. In season five, episode five, Raquelle, Barbie’s frenemy, turns on the “evil” switch and Closet traps Barbie in the closet. But once the switch is turned off, Closet goes back to being a benign and helpful presence. “Why do they even have that switch?” Ken asks.
Listen, it’s pretty clear that none of the geniuses behind tech innovation watched Barbie and the Dreamhouse, because if they had, they’d realize, giving AI total control and a surly personality will backfire. Also, if you are going to have AI, don’t give it an evil switch.
Right now, TV writers are on strike for many many reasons, including demanding a living wage, another reason is that studio executives are intent on reserving the right to use AI for generating plotlines and writing or rewriting scripts. I don’t think any writer is concerned that AI will do a good job at this and replace writers, I think they’re concerned that their ability to work will be undermined by a robot-regurgitated-drivel and that will be used as a reason to pay actual humans less.
The way AI works is not that it comes up with original content, but that it aggregates information and rasterizes it back out. (To be fair, a lot of human writers work this way too.) Basically, when it comes to content creation AI is a fancy plagiarism machine with an evil switch. It is as Katharine Trendacosta, the Associate Director of Policy and Activism at Electronic Frontier Foundation, notes, “Three labor violations in a trench coat.”
I am not anti-AI. In fact, I love my little robot vacuum named “Beep Bo” and am on record as loving the robots and welcoming the robot invasion. (Do you hear that robots? When it’s time to take over, I’m your girl. I’ll sell out all these humans for you.) But even Beep Bo isn’t perfect and requires a lot of maintenance and has on more than one occasion smeared dog shit all over my floors.
So, if I were a CEO, I’d be looking at what robots can do and thinking, “Maybe if a high-tech robot vacuum can’t distinguish between dog shit and lint, perhaps we aren’t ready to let it win an Oscar?” (But again, to be fair, a lot of humans can’t distinguish the difference.) But my point is, before we get to the part where we have Megatron Thoreau and Autobot Austen, could we, have a robot that will actually do something like the dishes or actually clean my floor?
How are we doing this so wrong that the labor we are trying to replace is the fun interesting labor instead of the boring bad labor?
This is like the equivalent of inventing a robot that tastes food so that you never have to enjoy a french fry again.
Back when I worked for the website The Daily Dot, I wrote a lot of stories that were basically like, “This tech guy invented an app that does your laundry!” Except all the app actually did was connect with a dry cleaner, a human, who came to pick up your laundry and do it for you. All the app did was make you pay $14.99 a month to connect with a human who you’d never have to see and who actually did all the work.
The reality is, the promise of robots taking over writing jobs is a myth. The reality is that AI-generated content is still largely reliant on humans to edit it and make it make sense. When a tech CEO touts AI as the future, what he really means, is it’s the future in lowering wages. It’s the future of creating an underclass of workers rendered completely invisible and impoverished, while executives widen their profit margins.
And Now For Something Good:
Iowa has a unionized Starbucks!
And the city of Waterloo banned conversion therapy.
The Disney v. DeSantis feud continues. My solution to this is inspired by Michael Chiklis’s character on the TV show The Sheild. Once when there were two warring gangs, Chiklis’s cop character locked both the gang leaders in a shipping container with one weapon, and whoever came out alive, won.
Every day we draw one day closer to seeing the movie Killers of the Flower Moon.
Penguin Random House is suing Florida over the book bans. My publisher, Crown, is a subsidiary of Penguin, so, thank you, mother!
Are you watching the TV show Somebody Somewhere? NO? WATCH IT NOW! It’s a hilarious, tender, and heart breaking portrayal of queer people in Kansas. It’s a visual love letter for these people and places stuck in between. I love it.
Amy Spitalnik is very good at her job, which is fighting anti-semitism in America. I got to know her while reporting on the trial in Charlottesville. And she did some very good things this week.
This week’s mid-week newsletter was a report out of Delta, Iowa, where the town is working to save it’s fire department. It’s a story that is almost universal —asking the questions of how we save the people and places we love? And reminds us all that even small efforts can mean so much.
I was able to go to Delta and talk to people because paid subscribers make this newsletter sustainable for me as a job. You might have seen the news about Buzzfeed shutting down its news division and Vice filing for bankruptcy. The reality is, the writing industry is bleak and there are very few jobs that pay well. And they certainly don’t exist in Iowa. So, thank you for making this enterprise of writing about the state I love so much successful and sustainable for a single mom.
And if you haven’t subscribed, you can do so, right now.
What I Am Drinking:
This week was a quiet week. I’ve been working on copy edits and dealing with illnesses and the really fun dance of is it strep, Covid, or allergies? Why not all of three? I was supposed to take a small trip to New York, but had to cancel it because of all that health stuff. (I absolutely was not going to get on a plane with Covid symptoms.) So, beyond a beer that I snuck into my son’s baseball game, I’ve been drinking coffee and water like some Puritan named Chastity Boredom. I did some cleaning this week and discovered in the back of my liquor closet a lavender and Earl gray simple syrup that I must have picked up some time and never used. So, this weekend, I plan on adding it to some tonic water and taking things up a notch. My lavender is really taking over my garden so far this spring and I love coming up with uses for it. I’d love to know how you put your garden herbs to use.
Over on Discord, Caitlin suggested drinking De La Calle. And I just ordered some.
I hope you all have a lovely weekend!
Barbie and the Dreamhouse is one of the funniest most original kid’s shows I’ve ever seen and I will die on this hill. And this is also why I’m very excited about the Greta Gerwig Barbie movie. I love how subversive these much-maligned dolls can be.
This entire newsletter is just referencing TV shows no one watched except me, some blonde 9 year-olds, and a couple of angry men.
This: Megatron Thoreau and Autobot Austen Love your word play!
OMG I LOVE BARBIE DREAMHOUSE THE SHOW! My kids still watch it occasionally. And my fake Roomba is named "Rosie" like the robot maid on the classic cartoon "The Jetsons."