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They Don’t Want Us And We Don’t Need Them

Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav attends the premiere of The Flash in Hollywood.
Leon Bennett/WireImage

The main villain of the new Mission Impossible movie is an algorithm that the film calls The Entity. This is funny in the grandiose and unsettling way that so many things about Tom Cruise are funny. Cruise is, after all, the man who has made it his mission to save The Movies as a business, an experience, and an idea from the oppressive and faceless algorithms that rule contemporary Hollywood; he seems rather worryingly determined to die in a workplace accident while doing so, and the Mission Impossible franchise is where he's making that final stand. "Essentially, the streaming algorithm identifies Tom Cruise as the only person who can stop it, and therefore does everything in its power to kill him," Indiewire's David Ehrlich wrote in his review of the film.

When and where sinister artificial intelligence has been a villain on film, it has mostly done the nasty stuff macro-scale villains do—heave some Terminators back in time, trigger nuclear exchanges on spec, and generally work to hurt as many people as possible on pure anti-human principle. If people sometimes still confuse those villains for something else, it's mostly because the villains are so busy and ambitious and big, all of which can pass as heroic in a culture that doesn't really know what it values, or actually value the things it knows it should.

Some of that anti-heroic scale is a matter of storytelling necessity where these disembodied villains are concerned, and some of it speaks to what now feels like a more poignant imaginative deficit. The things we make, out of blank cleverness or greed, might in time devour us is an old idea, if a resonant one. But as the market grinds on through what feels like a closing stage of something, "devour" seems almost too focused a description for what's going on. There's a whole process and purpose behind eating, after all, and while that would necessarily matter less to the party being eaten it is at least legible. This moment doesn't quite feel like that. It just feels like being chewed, endlessly. No one wants to be food, but it feels somehow more demeaning to be gum.

There were a number of lacerating and self-evidently correct bits taken out of Jason Bailey's GQ story about Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav at Zaslav's behest, but the one I've found myself thinking about is the pair of high-capitalist looters to which Zaslav was compared. One was Edward Lewis, Richard Gere's corporate-raider character in Pretty Woman, a man who buys and breaks things without actually making anything in the process but money; the other, which is a more glancing blow, is Logan Roy, the bellowing fail-tyrant whose brutish density pins Succession's various degraded satellites in orbit.

Bailey makes more of the Lewis comparison, which makes sense given that Zaslav's work, for which he has been paid nearly half a billion dollars over five years, has more to do with flattening his industry than producing anything that anyone might enjoy or care about or even remember for very long; his atavistic zeal in that work has been almost algorithmic in its own right. But Roy, whose only belief and singular passion is a bloodless white-collar vision of war and to whom the whole world is enemies and marks that he holds in the lowest possible regard, belongs here, too. The two characters represent different routes to the same place—to Zaslav and his moment, more or less, one in which so many of the things built to delight or entertain or even just distract people seem somehow to have turned against them, or at least turned up the intensity on the familiar extracting squeeze into something that feels more frankly assaultive.

As Drew pointed out in his column at SF Gate, it's a remarkable testament to his unique personal virulence that anyone even knows Zaslav's name; what he represents, in his mission to homogenize all film and television into something equally cost-certain and shelf-stable and disposable, feels unusually offensive because of the extent to which it is an active attempt to drain the culture's strategic dream reserve. But he is not alone, in his cynicism or in his work, which has lately been taken up everywhere it can be taken up by the sort of people who get referred to as founders. Virtually everywhere it can be done, those executives have decided to turn their products more or less against the users that make them not just valuable, but viable.

The vague but ominous disruption promised by artificial intelligence fogs this process, justifying where it needs to justify and serving as a sort of jeering threat everywhere else; that this AI doesn't yet really do anything well, and has the unfortunate habit of eating its own excrement until it goes insane, has not really damped this cohort's enthusiasm for it. Which fits, because that appeal is more ideological and aspirational than practical. What all of these businesses—creative industries, social media platforms, online commerce—have in common is that they need people. They need people to make them, and they need other people to pay attention to them. The super-class that sits atop all this, gloating, does not like that very much.

All that human attention is valuable to those businesses insofar as it can be turned into money, but it is also fickle and fleeting just by nature of being human. This puts the founder types in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable spot. From one moment to the next, they are in charge of vast infrastructures and thousands of people and untold millions of dollars; more broadly, though, they are not in charge, and are reminded constantly of all the things that they do not command and cannot control. This would chafe after a while, especially if you were, as these people almost universally are, both personally an asshole and someone whose broader social milieu has lately begun getting extravagantly and dangerously high on its own supply of grievance and wounded messianic authoritarianism, to the point where they are as a class now at least a little bit fascism-curious. A rising tide of anti-human disgust lifts the gaudy yachts higher, and brings the smell of rot.

The writer Cory Doctorow came up with a name for the phenomenon that tends to follow from this uneasy relationship. He calls it enshittification. "Here is how platforms die," he writes.

First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.

The strained and aggravated strangeness of this moment, I think, is all the residue of that last turn. There is the abstract sense of a lot of big ideas dying or being abandoned at once, but there's also the more urgent feeling of being squeezed and squeezed and squeezed by the people in charge, who have decided either that they do not in fact require any actual people anymore—and this is a pretty fucking bold thing in its own right, the idea that for instance Reddit somehow doesn't necessarily need Redditors, or that you can as a viable business model have editorial bots writing posts meant to be consumed by ad bots—or just that they would like to extract more money from those people, and right away.

That there is always some business justification for this—that the things that people have used and loved despite their better judgment were often pretty unremarkable businesses in terms of their profits—does not necessarily make that justification more convincing. If it weren't for the attention and affection of the people that use them, these businesses wouldn't exist as such; they can grow, and can live a long time in that way, but they can never really become something other than that. This is the problem for people like Zaslav, who has become the face of a very powerful and lucrative industry that, given its relationship to creative people and their ideas, is inherently much less predictable from one moment to the next than investors prefer. The faceless capital that rules all this wants to see things get bigger and watch numbers go up; the people that support it, on the other hand, mostly just want to go on using the things they enjoy. That fundamental disconnect only becomes an existential threat—that is, only gets to the point we're at now—when capital decides, out of spite or impatience or greed, that it is sick of it all and tries to see whether there isn't some way to do this without having to deal with all those people and their bullshit.

This is one of the oldest and most fundamental capitalist fantasies, and one that this moment's reigning titans have kept themselves busy chasing—the one true disruption that would unlock to the elect the alchemist's secret of Free Real Estate. That it has always proven false, for the rich people whose wealth and distance and incuriosity have given them the idea that they are somehow outside and above history, would only make it seem more appealing. The idea that all those riches can somehow be won on vision alone, and that all those other people were always and only in the way, is alluring to the people that have appointed themselves the protagonists of reality and the heroes of the free market. If the clock is clearly ticking—if these people haven't really invented anything valuable or good in a long while, and seem increasingly out of ideas—they don't understand it in a way that will matter to anyone else.

At some point, there has to be a parting of ways. If what the market demands diverges not just from what people want but from what they can actually bear, the answer would seem to be to get on with making something else. There is no reason that the people who made this moment, and who are currently rushing to put up fences and turnstiles everywhere they can, really need to be a part of whatever is next. They own a lot, but the value doesn't come from them. At this point, everyone has seen the shape of their ambitions and their limitations; it is clear that, in some fundamental ways, they have nothing to do with us.

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