#35: Future Nostalgia
A couple of months ago, when the ChatGPT craze first erupted, I decided to take a second look at Her, a 2013 film about a man who falls in love with his sentient operating system, written and directed by Spike Jonze.
One of the film’s major themes is the tension between the intimate and the impersonal. Phoenix’s character, Theodore, is divorced and spends his days in a cavernous, empty, open-plan office, crafting beautiful handwritten love letters for other people. He’s anti-social, dodging his neighbors and co-workers in favor of solo video games and phone sex. He has a knee-jerk aversion to commitment in romantic relationships.
Her is a cold vision of the future in every other way, and it paints a romantic vision of the future of work. Judging by the size of his L.A. apartment, Theodore is paid handsomely to write those letters, even though he is an obscure writer of average talent, at least in his own estimation. His friend and neighbor, played by Amy Adams, is a video game architect with an enviable degree of creative control over her work. The city streets are gleaming, there’s no apparent homelessness and everyone takes public transportation. It’s a world of 100% employment, creative satisfaction, and material comfort.
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What’s strange is how antiquated and naive this vision feels. I’m quite certain Joaquin Phoenix’s job could not exist alongside an AI as articulate, socially intelligent, and all-powerful as Scarlett Jonhansson’s Samantha. Even if some firms in this future continued employing human writers—you know, for branding purposes—their writers would most likely be churning out bottom-of-the-barrel prose as fast as they could for $.01/word or worse, doctoring up AI-generated content to give it that final handmade touch a la Ten Thousand Villages.
A decade ago, did we actually believe that the future of work would be more humane? How did we get it so wrong? The Fed is attempting to engineer more unemployment to suppress wages. Tech companies are laying off workers because it’s fashionable. Almost 2/5ths of American workers have a second full-time job. As if that’s not enough, the Department of Labor recently found 102 kids, some as young as 13, illegally employed at meatpacking plants. (Take a guess at how pitifully small the fine was.)
We seem to be living through a kind of counter-reformation in the labor market. Post-great resignation and “quiet quitting,” companies are engaging in a new phenomenon called “quiet hiring,” asking current employees to do more work without hiring more people. Outside of Forbes and other business publications, this is otherwise known as “the same old shit.”
I know I wrote about work last year around this time, but it’s something I think about constantly. Being a freelancer forces me to constantly think about the way work should be. While I spend my days pitching clients and scrolling job boards, I often find myself lost in my imagination, dreaming of jobs that should exist.
It’s unlikely that Her represents Spike Jonze’s sincere prediction about the future of work. Theodore’s job is little more than a device to contrast the coldness of human relationships with the intimacy of Theodore and Samantha’s. Still, I can’t stop thinking about how good we’ve become at crafting work fantasies and how anachronistic those fantasies are. I keep thinking about the contradictions of having fantasy jobs at all. A couple of years ago, during the strictest lockdown period of the pandemic, the “I do not dream of labor” was catching fire on YouTube like the platform was made of natural fiber. Yet, as we’ve dragged ourselves back to our offices, we’ve begun succumbing to workplace fantasies once again.
Though the anti-work movement that was ascendant last year has quieted in the wake of layoffs and recession fears, I still think that the future of work revolves less around creating better jobs and more around creating less work. However, I have an odd prediction for the future of ChatGPT and the like, which is that, where it cannot replace workers but can make their jobs much easier, it will be banned, for the same reason that remote work is slowly drying up. After all, part of our relationship to jobs in this country is that they should not be pleasant or easy, or allow for a life balance that does not revolve around them (this is, of course, why so few characters in fictional media have real jobs). I hope that, before it’s too late, before we’ve let AI turn knowledge workers into 19th-century mill workers, we can abandon these fantasies in favor of better ones.
For instance, I asked the Notion AI chatbot to write me a 7-day meal plan and a grocery list to match, which it did, fairly successfully, in about 10 seconds. Now that is a fantasy come true.
I have a question for you. Where do you get your news these days? Last week, I canceled my New York Times subscription and am only embarrassed to say that I still had one. The Twitter news ecosystem is collapsing, I haven’t scrolled a Facebook newsfeed in about 18 months, and for the first time in a decade, I’m at a loss for an easily digestible news source that isn’t inaccurate, State propaganda, or just straight-up hateful. I’m curious about how everyone else is fairing.
Last week, I made another TikTok video! Video editing is, like, sooo much fun. It’s basically exactly like writing. Who knew?
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Next week, I have some studio updates planned, as well as a very fun Interlude segment. TTYL!