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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Morgan

Raging Against the Machine

On artificial intelligence, the role – and the rights – of artists, and the difference between art and artificial creation.

Image artist: Alexandra Koch

Though six men planned tonight’s covert mission, only five turn up at the meeting place. None of them blames the absent sixth – tonight’s raid will be dangerous and highly illegal. They meet at the edge of a wood that opens onto dark fields, across which they creep towards their target. Each of the men is armed: hammers for three of them, a heavy sledgehammer for the fourth, and a pistol for the last man. They’d argued over the necessity of the gun, but across the country too many of their informal cohort have been killed for the sort of thing these five men are about to do. Finally, they reach the factory, force their way inside, and the small band of Luddites unleash their fury on the new weaving machine.

For decades prior to that night in 1811 – a year in which Luddite riots swept across the country – textile workers had peacefully protested the use of various weaving technologies. The workers initially sought to ease the transition into the use of new technologies through letter-writing campaigns, in which they argued for what seem to modern sensibilities like reasonable things. A minimum wage, for one; certain labour standards; taxes to finance a workers’ pension scheme. Their demands were rejected by the wealthy factory owners, and the government offered no help, so the workers took direct action.

Two-hundred years later, the term Luddite has come to mean anyone exhibiting a technophobic resistance to progress. Luddites had no problem with technology; they were offended by its use to circumvent standard labour practices. According to Kevin Binfield, who edited a collection of Luddite writings, the Luddites “wanted machines that made high-quality goods, and they wanted these machines to be run by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and got paid decent wages”.

Given that there’s nothing new under the sun (a phrase not original to me and that I’ve used before), it shouldn’t surprise us when the past reappears in the present. Case in point: I’m about to reference an essay by Thomas Pynchon from 1984, in which he invokes the Luddite movement. Pynchon asks, “Is it O.K. to be a Luddite?” which is a question I’d like to bring back to life now.


In his essay, Pynchon imagines “the Luddite novel”, an exemplar of which might be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley’s novel warns “of what can happen when technology, and those who practice it, get out of hand”. Like the original Luddites, we need not see technology as the problem, only its misuse. Its misuse by who? “Luddites today are no longer faced with human factory owners and vulnerable machines,” Pynchon writes:

“As well-known President and unintentional Luddite D. D. Eisenhower prophesied when he left office, there is now a permanent power establishment of admirals, generals and corporate CEO’s, up against whom us average poor bastards are completely outclassed, although Ike didn’t put it quite that way.”

That nebulous cohort of “corporate CEO’s” has, in recent months, been narrowed to a target much easier to aim at: the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, or the AMPTP. This year, negotiations failed between the AMPTP and the Writers Guild of America (winner of Most Ironic Lack of an Apostrophe). Amongst other things, the writers took a stand against the encroachment of AI into their creative space. The WGA have proposed that:

1) no material that falls under their contracts can be generated by AI;

2) AI cannot supply source material as the basis for WGA work;

3) no WGA material can be fed into AI to help it learn.

The producers rejected all of that and offered a counter-proposal: annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology. In other words, “Nope, we’ll do as we like – but we’ll keep you updated on how we’re screwing you.” They went so far as claiming that writers – the very people currently petitioning for a ban on AI – actually want to use AI. Film critic Dan Murrell summed this up beautifully:

“The fact that, in a town of bull-shitters, the king bull-shitter [the AMPTP] is only able to come up with an excuse that poor is a very clear indication that they can’t wait to start giving jobs to AI, to cut staff by half, to use AI to generate what they consider to be a halfway-there copy and then maybe hire a couple of writers to punch it up a little bit.”

With the producers behaving like modern-day factory owners, writers have been forced to become the Luddites. With AI, of course, there is no machinery to destroy, no central server to approach under the cover of night to set ablaze. The WGA’s most potent form of economic assault was a strike, so writers across America took part in a “pens down” protest.

Just as the textile artisans resisted the degradation of their craft, today’s artists are raging against the machine of AI, which requires little skill to operate. In an episode of the podcast The Journal, digital artist Greg Rutkowski demonstrated how users of AI have rendered fabrications that look like Greg made them, though he had nothing to do with it. Typing a prompt – “two dragons fighting in a rainforest, in the style of Greg Rutkowski” – into an AI generator, four near-complete images were spat out in six seconds.

There is no slippery slope to slide down here: we have woken suddenly into a world where the technology exists (and is already being used) to replace humans in various fields. AI generators could entirely replace concept artists, storyboard sketchers, and others whose role it is to draft images and sketch ideas. The same is true for editors of any kind of text. It was once the job of comedy writers to sit in on shooting scenes and free-style variations on already-written jokes. This is a job now that cynical studios could give to AI.

Conversely, scriptwriters could become de facto “concept artists” of screenplays, creating outlines that serve as prompts to make AI generators spit out finished scripts. This would be even easier for franchise writers, especially the kind of big-name novelist who already employs a team of ghostwriters to mimic the author’s voice. The Hardy Boys have appeared in almost four hundred books whose covers bear the name of an author (Franklin W. Dixon) who never existed – those books were the work of an ever-changing team of ghostwriters. Why would a publisher (or a studio) continue to pay a human to do what an AI generator could produce in less time and for less cost? Looking at those four images the AI had made in his style, Greg Rutkowski said:

“I would have to spend at least a week to create those four images ... I would have to spend at least two days per image. So, you can see the comparison between human labour and artificial creation.”

Here, Greg has inadvertently neologised a term that captures the truth of these AI-generated images – they are, and are the products of, “artificial creation”.


In one of her journals, Sylvia Plath wrote:

“How can I ever find that permanence, that continuity with past and future, that communication with other human beings that I crave? Can I ever honestly accept an artificial imposed solution?”

It’s precisely that interaction between two people, the meeting of the reader’s soul with the writer’s, that sets the art of human minds apart from the calculations of AI. When we turn to life-altering literature and meaning-creating cinema, we do so for more than just a satisfying sequence of events that leads us through a plot; we are in conversation with filmmakers and writers. We are pitting our ideas against theirs, our beliefs against their scepticism and vice versa, measuring our experience of being human against theirs. A story that merely keeps us wondering what will happen next might make for good entertainment, but it will never satisfy our deepest needs.

While it is possible for AI to mimic the machinations of an Agatha Christie mystery or string together scenes of action that excite us for the duration of a movie, I don’t see how AI can offer us what we gain from the sweat and tears of human artists, whose work creates meaning out of their experiences and contributes to the meaning of our own lives. This might be the most fundamental dispute over AI and art.

In the twenty-first century, AI has refined what it means to be a humanist. Contrary to popular definitions of humanism as a form of atheism, to be a humanist today means embracing miracles. “To insist on the miraculous,” Pynchon writes, “is to deny to the machine at least some of its claims on us, to assert the limited wish that living things, earthly and otherwise, may on occasion ... take part in transcendent doings.” As we come to understand the implications of AI, it is the duty of humanists to champion the human soul against the soullessness of the machine.


Further reading:

Writings of the Luddites, ed. Kevin Binfield (2004)

• “Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite?”, in The New York Times, Thomas Pynchon (1984) Read it here.

• “2023 Writers’ Strike: Everything You Need To Know”, Dan Murrell on YouTube (2023) Watch it here.

When AI Comes For Your Art, The Journal (2023)

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