Ricardo Signes: Welcome to our second and final bonus episode of Digital Citizen Season 2. I’m Ricardo Signes, the CTO of Fastmail, the email provider of choice for savvy digital citizens everywhere. Here with me is my colleague, Helen Horstmann-Allen. Helen, for new people, let them know who you are.
Helen Horstmann-Allen: Hey, everyone. I’m Helen Horstmann-Allen, Chief Operating Officer of Fastmail. This season, we want to learn more about you. We have a survey listed in the show notes. Please take a minute to fill it out to tell us more about who you are and what you’d like to see this season. One lucky winner will receive a free year of Fastmail. With that being said, I’m so excited to bring our third season filled with even more fantastic guests, starting with our first guest today. Rik, who are you talking to?
Ricardo Signes: I’m talking to Adam Conover, who’s a comedian and labor organizer.
Helen Horstmann-Allen: And a Fastmail customer. We got to know him after our producer, Haley, heard him talking about email and his comedy routine and knew we had to talk to him more, but then he pulled his own phone out and showed her that his email provider of choice is Fastmail.
Ricardo Signes: On today’s episode, we’ll be talking about Adam’s ongoing work as part of the WGA strike and diving into the impact of AI on creative industries. Stay tuned to hear Adam’s thoughts on the subject, and then keep listening until the end of this episode, where I’ll give you some takeaways — things you can actually do to become a better digital citizen. You can also find them on our website at fastmail.com/digitalcitizen.
Ricardo Signes: I am here today with Adam Conover. Adam, you want to tell us who you are and what you do?
Adam Conover: Sure. I’m a comedian. I’m a writer, television host. I also host a podcast called, “Factually!”, and I’m a general man about the internet, I suppose you might say.
Ricardo Signes: I know you are pretty vocally involved in the Writers Guild of America Strike. Can you tell us why there’s a strike?
Adam Conover: So, the Writers Guild of America is a labor union. We represent about 11,000 writers in television and film. We also represent a few other kinds of writers, but we’re specifically talking about the television and film writers now. We have a contract with the companies that produce television and film. They are called the AMPTP [Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers] is the sort of consortium of companies we negotiate against. They’ve spent the last 10 to 15 years figuring out ways to make our work more precarious and pay us less, like, basically exploiting contractual loopholes to separate us from a lot of our income and from our work stability. And we are on strike to try to fix that and to put into place in our contract protections that will codify an industry that writers will be able to make a sustainable living in.
Adam Conover: Writer pay has gone down by 23% over the last 10 years, even as show budgets have increased, I believe 50%. Writers are working less weeks. People can’t afford to live in Los Angeles, partially because how, you know, the cost of living here is also rising so quickly. Same problem in New York, and the companies are trying to eliminate the writers’ room. They’re trying to force screenwriters to do endless drafts for free. They’re trying to put comedy variety writers, that means like late night and daytime writers on a day rate where they can hire us and fire us by the day. We are on strike to change all of that.
Ricardo Signes: What’s your role been in that process?
Adam Conover: I’m a member of the Board of the Writers Guild of America West, and I’m also on our 2023 negotiating committee, so I’m like in the room. Yeah.
Ricardo Signes: Right. One of the topics I’ve heard come up as one of the key points being discussed in the strike is the use of AI, and I wanted to ask a bunch about that. First off, AI as a term, either it means a lot of things to different people or it doesn’t mean anything.
Adam Conover: Yeah.
Ricardo Signes: What does it mean to you when someone says like a script or a poem or whatever was made with AI?
Adam Conover: I mean, well, when they’re talking specifically about text, they’re almost always talking about text generated by large language models, which are a particular form of technology, that sucks up every piece, every word ever written on the internet, and outputs new words based on a statistical model. You know, it’s been described variously as like a word calculator. You input words one end, you get other words out the other end, which could be useful in some context. It’s also been described as a plagiarism machine, which it also is, you know. So, I can have it go say, “Hey, write an episode of Adam Ruins Everything,” my old show on truTV, and it can write something that kind of is like an episode of Adam Ruins Everything, although it doesn’t contain any jokes and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
Adam Conover: So the only reason it can do that output is because it was trained on my work. AI, those large language models, cannot actually do the work of a writer because all those language models do is output text, and writing is a lot more than outputting text. Any kind of writing is a lot more than outputting text, but specifically television and film writing is a lot more. Television and film writing entails tasks like taking a phone call from the studio to adjust the script in the ways that they want. It means meeting with the director to make sure the script fits his vision. It means meeting with the actor to make sure that he likes his portrayal, or she doesn’t have a problem with the way that she’s portrayed. It means meeting with the line producer to make sure that the script is in budget.Maybe the line producer will say, “Oh, this is too expensive, you know? You need to economize by combining scenes,” and et cetera, et cetera. It also means knowing ahead of time, “Oh shit, there’s too many locations. The line producer is going to yell at me. To make sure she doesn’t yell at me, let me combine these scenes.” That sort of thing, into one location.
Adam Conover: It means going to set and saying, “Oh, that line when read that way actually doesn’t mean what we thought it meant and it’ll conflict the rest of the script. We need to adjust the line reading slightly.” It means going to the edit in post-production and saying, “Oh, hold on a second. The episode is five minutes too long. Which five minutes can we cut and still have the episode make sense?” These are all tasks that a writer does, and so AI can not do the work of a writer. Unfortunately, you’d have to be stupid or completely ignorant about how the business works to think that an algorithm that simply outputs text can do the work of a writer. Unfortunately, I have a feeling that the people who run the companies that we’re negotiating against did not even negotiate with us over those proposals that we made about AI is evidence that they intend to use it that way. And so we have proposals that are designed to make sure that they cannot undermine our working conditions using this large language model software, and they’re pretty straightforward proposals that we think they’re going to certainly agree to at the end of the strike. I could get into them. They’re a little bit technical as regards our contract. It’s funny because there’s a lot of debate over what the technology can and can’t do. I’m actually less interested in what the technology can and can’t do. I’m interested in what the CEOs who run the corporations who are constantly trying to erode our wages and working conditions, I’m worried about what they will try to do with the technology no matter what it is literally capable of. That’s the important thing, that we’ve seen the people who lead not just our companies, but companies around the country use this technology to do shit that it is not capable of doing with disastrous results, and we are not going to let them do that in our neck of the woods.
Ricardo Signes: When you talk about this big list of things that writers do beyond putting words on a page, do you suppose those activities… A lot of those activities you named, those still have to happen. I mean, I can’t… I have never worked in television or film, but they sound like very clearly things that have to happen, even if the script got spit out by your large language model.
Adam Conover: Yeah.
Ricardo Signes: Who does those in this world where we’ve got a large language model spitting out a script that somehow is filmable? Who does that? Is it a writer who’s still in the Guild? Or are we doing something else?
Adam Conover: The fear is that the companies say, “Hey, would you take this script that the AI wrote? The AI wrote such a good script. Oh my God, we love the script so much. Would you just punch it up? Make sure to add some recent topical references, talk to the director, talk to the actor, go to set, go to post. Oh, but we’re not going to pay you as a writer because you didn’t write it. The AI wrote it.” That’s the nightmare scenario where we’re doing the same work minus the 1% of it that’s literally just outputting the words on a page, but we’re being paid far less because they’ve defined only what the large language model does as writing. That’s literally the scenario that we’re trying to protect against. Very clever, and guess what? If you can figure out that that would work, then I’m pretty sure the CEOs can, too, and that’s why it’s a big deal in our negotiation this year.
Ricardo Signes: And even as regards to, well, the act of writing, the idea that the algorithm is going to take over this and produce something, do you think this strike is, like, setting the stage for the same question in other media where we’re going to see people have the idea that we can have a random number generator produce other things traditionally produced by people and sold off based on, as you said, like a plagiarism for hire?
Adam Conover: I mean, we’re going to get a little bit into my personal view here. I believe personally that this technology is bad. I think it’s useful for a couple of things, but, like, outputting a string of intelligible text based on every piece of text that you’ve ever read in a way that is only semi-controllable, right? They have not shown that they can resist prompt engineering. They have not shown that they can keep offensive racist things out of it, et cetera. I think that has really limited uses. I think it has much more limited uses than people think that it does.
Adam Conover: A year from now, people are going to be so sick of all AI-generated content. It’s going to be like looking at Bored Ape NFTs. They hype wave will end, and it’ll go back to being one of many algorithms that people who work in tech can use to do some stuff if they like. Right?A good example of this is like Photoshop is integrating image generating tools into Photoshop. Sure, I think that a tool in Photoshop is a good use for this technology. Of course, they have to make sure it’s not like being trained on copyrighted material and stuff like that, but yeah, I could see myself using that, right? It’ll be a shortcut that some people can take if they want, but guess what? Photoshop’s already full of shortcuts. That’s what the Band-Aid [Healing Brush] tool is, you know, the Clone [Stamp] tool.
Adam Conover: As far as the Writers Guild strike being representative of, you know, or being a meaningful fight, I mean, our proposals that we’re looking to get are very specific to our contract. They’re meant to protect writers from what our specific people are doing. I think that the larger society is going to reject this being done on a wider scale. I’m worried about what will happen to writers over the next five years. I’m not actually worried about AI writing movies.
Ricardo Signes: Right, because it’s going to make bad art.
Adam Conover: Yeah. It’s not going to make art at all. I’m sorry. People who play with ChatGPT for five minutes and say, “Wow, this is going to write movies,” are very naïve. You know? You’re getting rolled. You’re getting rolled by a good tech demo. I have friends who have gone to AI conferences and they see a tech demo and then they come back and they’re like, “Oh my God, guys, this is going to change everything. It’s going to take over in five years.” I’m like, “Yeah, sounds like you saw a good demo by a marketing guy who was trying to scare you in order to make money for him.”
Adam Conover: You know what I mean? It’s like going to see a King Kong movie and being like, “Wow, that monkey was really big. Where did they get it?” It’s like, “No, it’s a fucking movie, man.” People need to have a little bit of critical thinking and stop swallowing every line that some tech billionaire is trying to sell you. We need a little bit more skepticism on the internet for our digital citizens, I’d have to say.
Ricardo Signes: I agree, and I think the real danger, just to talk about the AI specifically for another moment, I think the real danger here is the middlemen who are seeing the tech demo and saying, “What if we use that in our service area, in our product?” Right? Not-
Adam Conover: Correct.
Ricardo Signes: … “I bet this is going to be a big success.” We see people putting it in physician’s assistants and therapy, and it’s, I mean, it’s mind-blowing the idea that people are going to use it for things like that.
Adam Conover: The idea that you’re going to use a large language model for anything mission critical, for any purpose, is a fantasy. The thing that will happen more often, it’ll be a little bit of tech behind the scenes, or more likely, half the shit you seeing being advertised as AI is they’re just relabeling something that was previously a normal algorithm. Like, I had a friend go, “Oh my God, guys, they have AI investment advisors now. It’s replacing investment advisors.” I’m like, “No, that already existed. Wealthfront, Vanguard, Betterment, those are all just algorithmic like… That’s existed for 10 years.” They’re just calling it AI now because they’re trying to pump their stock price because that’s the new buzzword and you fell for it. Have a little bit of critical thinking. We just went through crypto two years ago. We’re all falling for it again? Come on. You got my anger up.
Ricardo Signes: No, I mean, I’m controlling my own. I’ve been through the same tech nonsense and it blows the mind, but let’s get out of your anger zone. Well, no, I’m sorry. it’s not going to help. Let’s get out of your AI anger zone. I’ll ask you another question about the strike. I know another issue that’s been on the docket is streaming residuals, and my understanding is something like when shows are streamed, the amount of money that writers who worked on the show get is much less than other ways of distribution. Is that… Why don’t you set me straight because assuming I’m probably wrong in some way.
Adam Conover: Look, it’s a little bit of a complicated topic. Yes, the residuals are less than they were in the past. Yes, we are seeking an increase in residuals. There are, frankly, other issues in our contract that are just as big. Residuals tend to get an outsized amount of media airtime because the public sort of already understands them to a certain extent and it’s like, “Ah, yes, residuals, those are bad now, right?”
Adam Conover: The problem is not the technology. The problem is that in the move to the technology, we’re having to renegotiate our contract all over again because the old contract only covered linear television and film. And so, we’re just having to be over the last 10 years, “No, we get this in streaming as well. No, we get this in streaming as well. No, we get this in streaming as well.” Right, and the counting for streaming works a little bit differently because the residual is based on the thing being on the platform all the time, as opposed to airing once on television, right, which is a big difference in the structure of the payment. There’s also a big problem in foreign residuals where they undercount foreign subscribers quite significantly. We’re also seeking a view-based residual where we would get a residual every time a thing is viewed. All that is really important.
Adam Conover: What is just as important and less covered are things like the fact that the companies are trying to eliminate the writers’ room, which would move us from a model where, first of all, writers spend like a year and a half trying to get their next job generally. But when we get that job, in the past, that job has lasted for like 10 months and it’s paid you well enough that you can survive for another year and a half on that job. Now, though, the companies are trying to eliminate the writers’ room and just put us on a freelance model where one person is writing the entire show and can occasionally farm a script out to a freelancer for like 7500 bucks or something like that. If we were to allow them to do that, television writing would cease to become a career. It would become like something that you do in between your shifts at your day job, and that is frankly what it is in many other countries. If you look at countries like… There was a great piece in The L.A. Times about how much Netflix screws writers in Korea. If you look at them, their content is very popular around the world. These people are not able to make a living writing for television. They’re doing it for fun and because they just love the medium so much in between their shifts being an accountant or whatever. And so that is the biggest problem that we’re facing. There’s also similar problems, like I said, for late night writing, which is the sort of comedy that I do, and for screenwriting where screenwriters are like forced to do endless drafts for free and, you know, go often years between receiving payments on the work that they’re doing.
Ricardo Signes: This seems like a recurring theme that the people who do creative work, there’s this idea that they have to do it. They will do it no matter what, and so remuneration is kind of not necessary. We can negotiate all that away.
Adam Conover: I mean, that’s how most creative fields work. Most of them work on, “Hey, you love it, right? You just love it, and so you’ll do it whether or not we pay you.” And they inculcate that desire in people to do it for free. If you look at something like professional wrestling, it’s just the first one that comes to mind, right? These people kill themselves. They die young. They concuss themselves a dozen times a night. They’re all paid terribly. None of them have health insurance. None of them are W2s. They’re all 1099s. They have no union. They have no pension plan, but they love wrestling, you know? Like, wrestling is just such a cool thing to do. They just want to do it really badly, and so they put up with it. And it’s like incredibly abusive, but that business runs on chewing people’s dreams up, you know. There’s always another 20-year-old showing up who’s just like, “Yeah, I want to be the next big star.”
Adam Conover: Standup comedy, honestly, works very much the same way. Standup comedy pays shit almost to everybody, but, “Oh no, I just love comedy. I just want to be like Dave Chappelle,” you know, like that kind of thing. That’s a recipe for being exploited, and you know the Writers Guild, we’ve had a union for 90 years and part of the point was to end that and to make sure we were actually paid for the value that we create. And the only reason anybody thinks of television and film writing as being a well-paid industry, occasionally we get, “Oh, you guys are rich. Why are you on strike?” The only reason anyone even thinks of television writing as being a good job is because we’ve had a union for 90 years.
Adam Conover: Just like people think of being an autoworker in the ’70s as being a good job because of the United Autoworkers, or any other union, or a postal carrier. You’re like, “oh, government job, you must get paid pretty well.” That’s because they have a union, and so we’re fighting. We’re taking the fight right now that every union needs to take occasionally in order to make, you know, secure a future for its members.
Ricardo Signes: Yeah, I grew up in a steel town, so very much union yes childhood.
Adam Conover: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Ricardo Signes: When those of us who aren’t… we’re not writers, we’re not part of the entertainment industry, what can we do to support the Writers Guild to help it reach its goal, if anything?
Adam Conover: Yeah. No, there’s plenty that you can do. First of all, you can… So, the number one rule when you want to support a union is look at what the union asks you to do, right? So, sometimes people are like, “Should I cancel my Netflix?” We’re not asking people to cancel their Netflix, and the reason is that boycotts are much weaker than strikes. A strike is the way to really hit them where it hurts, so we’re not asking people to cancel anything. What we are asking people to do is, “Hey, boost us on social media.” You know what I mean? Like, publicly support us. If you work for one of those companies, like I ran into an Apple employee and she was like, “I don’t work for the department that negotiates with you guys, but I support you.” I was like, “Great, here is an I stand With The Writers Guild pin and you can wear that to work.” And she said, “I would love to do that.” That’s a great way to support.
Adam Conover: The other thing you can do is that we’re very cognizant that our strike is affecting other workers who are not in our union. Crew members, PAs, actors, et cetera. There’s a group called The Entertainment Community Fund that raises money, or that, sorry, gives grants to folks in the entertainment industry who have fallen on hard times. They’ve been around for a hundred years. They do this every day of the year, but we specifically, the Writers Guild has raised $2 million for that fund to give to folks who are experiencing hardship because of the strike. You can donate to that fund as well, and they do wonderful work. It’s like truly mutual aid. So, you can go to entertainmentcommunityfund.org and a donation there. You pick film and TV from the dropdown menu of where you want the money directed an dit helps.
Ricardo Signes: Great. Okay. Well, we will put some of those links in the show notes. I think I have exhausted all the questions I wanted to ask you, so you might be free of me. Is there anything you wish I’d asked you about these topics before I let you go?
Adam Conover: I mean, you didn’t ask me why I love Fastmail so much. I was expecting a little bit more-
Ricardo Signes: You know, I don’t want to be a shill, but-
Adam Conover: … company shilling. I expected a little bit more.
Ricardo Signes: I am very hesitant to shill, but I do love Fastmail, and if you want to tell us things that make us great, I don’t know if we’ll air it, but we’ll play it in the office and people will high five.
Adam Conover: I mean, rock solid, great web interface. I’m really happy you added Snooze and Undo Send. Those were really the two features that I wanted. You know, I love that I email the company and I get a reply back really quick. Calendar syncing’s really nice. I mean… And I host it at my own domain name. It’s like really great. You know a couple years, I was like, “I’m just going to deGoogle if I got on Fastmail.” Never looked back. Oh, I’ll shout-out I use an app called Fastmate, which was-
Ricardo Signes: Oh yeah.
Adam Conover: … made by just some guy on Reddit and he just updates it once every six months on his GitHub repository or whatever. It’s just a little OSX or Mac OS wrapper for Fastmail that makes it run as a separate app, which I really prefer. I don’t like having email on a web browser tab. It’s like I’ll never find it again when it’s in there. So, I really do enjoy that, but I love your iOS app as well. The search is really nice. Yeah, I mean good product.
Ricardo Signes: I think people sleep on our search. It makes me crazy that Google has how many billion dollars and we beat them at search for email.
Adam Conover: I have in this email archive, going back to, and by the way, one of the most impressive things was that when I moved from Gmail to Fastmail, the archive, the moving over process was perfect. Like, I had Gmail conversations going back to 2005, like literally when Gmail launched. I was an original Gmail user, and all of them are in there perfectly. Like I can find… And you know, the only problem with that is sometimes you search for someone’s name and then you’re like, “Oh, what’s this email from them? This conversation that we had back in 2005?” And you’re like, “Oh my God, what a horrible… Did I really say that? That’s awful. I wish I hadn’t seen that.” You sort of like go down a memory hole. You find yourself falling down a time tunnel to your past. That’s a little bit uncomfortable, but apart from that, I love everything about Fastmail.
Ricardo Signes: I hope you enjoyed the interview.
Helen Horstmann-Allen: Definitely. The best part of having a show like this is getting to talk to so many incredible people. You know, 30 years ago, technology was something not everybody took part in. Not anymore. What I love about our show is that as technology touches so much of the world, there are so many ways to be a thoughtful digital citizen. We’ve gotten to talk to technologists, authors, activists, and lots more, but there are so many dream guests out there. If you could invite anyone living or dead to do an episode, who would it be?
Ricardo Signes: Obviously it’s a tough question and it’s really easy for me to gravitate immediately towards people who I respect in my field as a, I guess I’ll say a technologist. But the problem is inside my own field, I already have a great sense of the contexts that are brought to the table and having these conversations about digital citizenship. And I, I think that asking me to pick the next guest is maybe a bad idea. I think maybe what we really need is to get a sense of what people have a diverse set of experiences about how the internet affects their lives and the way that they engage with the world that I can’t even imagine who I would ask. So the problem is, then, I don’t know who to ask and I don’t know who to ask to ask.
Helen Horstmann-Allen: So I think you’re saying, please go to the show notes and fill out the survey.
Ricardo Signes: Yeah. But what about you?
Helen Horstmann-Allen: Well, as a Philadelphian, I’d probably have to say Ben Franklin, who is definitely on the cutting edge of technology and citizenship in his day.
Helen Horstmann-Allen: What do you think the key takeaways from today’s conversation were, Rik?
Ricardo Signes: First off, be skeptical about claims that are being made about new technology. There’s not a lot of silver bullets that ever get made. We’ve seen crypto and NFT and Web3 and now AI and all these things are interesting and they all usually have uses, but not everything that comes out is going to change the whole world in an amazing way. And in fact, almost nothing does, so when someone says something that seems too good to be true, it probably is. Be skeptical and find out what it can really do. Next, understand the economies that you participate in, and it doesn’t sound exciting, but it’s one of the things we talk about a lot. You need to be mindful of the world that you live in.
Ricardo Signes: When you pay for stuff, are you paying your money into an exploitative industry? If you are, maybe you shouldn’t. That means you have to learn about these things and that can be a drag, but it means that you’re learning how to make the world a better place. So for example, when you see a strike is happening, read about it. Figure out why it’s happening and what you can do about it.
And finally, one of the things you can do about these problems is boost the signal on things that you think people need to know about. If you read about a strike, if you read about some injustice and you think people need to know about it, tell them. If you have a voice, which you do, you should use it to tell people about the problems that they can help fix.
Helen Horstmann-Allen: We hope that you can take these actionable steps towards a better digital citizenship.
Ricardo Signes: See you later this year for another conversation with Adam about online productivity and celebrity and for conversations with new exciting guests about digital citizenship.
Ricardo Signes: Thanks for listening to Digital Citizen. Digital Citizen is produced by Fastmail, the email provider of choice for savvy digital citizens everywhere. Our show is produced by Haley Hnatuk. Special thanks to the incredible team of people behind Fastmail. Digital Citizen is hosted by me, Ricardo Signes. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast player. For a free one-month trial of Fastmail, you can go to fastmail.com/podcast, and for more episodes, transcripts, and my takeaways, you can go to digitalcitizenshow.com.