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Perspective: Who'll write the ending of this writers strike?

Original photo by Arnold Reinhold
wikimedia.org, Pixlr

We are now several weeks into a writers strike, and one of the sticking points in this labor dispute would itself make for a compelling Hollywood drama. The picketing workers are understandably concerned with the impact of new technology on their craft and livelihood — not just streaming services but also the role of artificial intelligence in the development of new content.

And as if on cue, management has responded to the strike by suggesting that the very technologies that are part of the problem might actually be the solution. It’s an old story going back to the early days of industrialization, and we have seen the scenario play out several times before.

In the 1957 film Desk Set, for example, Spencer Tracy plays an efficiency engineer called into computerize the reference library of a national entertainment and news company. In doing so he predictably comes into conflict with the spunky head librarian, played by Katharine Hepburn. It’s a classic in the Hepburn/Tracy repertoire and the outcome is exactly what you’d expect. The rivals eventually fall in love and the machine, which had been seen as a threat, turns out be a tool to assist rather than replace the human workers.

Whether the current strike ends with a similar happy ending has yet to be determined. But how that ending comes to be written — and who actually writes it — is something that will have an impact on all of us. In effect, the striking Hollywood writers are currently involved in composing the screenplay for our future.

Northern Illinois University professor and author