WRITING / Why AI may be similar to Air Conditioning

PUBLISHED: 17.04.2023

614 words — 3 mins

Why AI may be similar to Air Conditioning

Don‘t sweat it

In recent weeks I‘ve read several pieces on the speculative impacts of “AI” (in its incarnation as ChatGPT) on the field of journalism. Many of these arguments are often rather hyperbolic predictions of imminent job losses and disruptions.

I don‘t agree with most of them, mostly because they rely on flimsy data and a tech-deterministic model of the impact of technology on jobs. I don‘t want to add to the pile but want to offer a different argument: what if chatGPT will have a similar impact on journalism as air conditioning?

(The following is based on the excellent paper: ‘Staying Cool—The Impact of Air Conditioning on News Work and the Modern Newsroom’ by Will Mari (2010))

Pre-war newsrooms were built to impress as these had (similar to some tech companies) a monopoly on the local advertising markets. They weren‘t a good place to work, though. Often close to the printing presses, offices were loud, sweaty, filled with cigarette smoke and hot. While journalists were able to escape these buildings for reporting, they inevitably had to return to finish their stories.

Journalism during these decades was, for the most part, a dirty, blue-collar job. The training happened on the job and the profession bread its own machismo.

All this slowly changed with the commercialization of air conditioning during the 40s. Newspapers were quick to adopt this new technology, often at great cost, touting their effect on workers’ productivity, as a way to keep machines cool, and the paper free from mould. Such adoption was often accompanied by congratulatory coverage in the industry press.

In the following years, AC became one of the dominant factors, slowly changing the face of journalism. They not only allowed newspapers to recruit from universities, thus slowly transforming journalism into a white-collar profession, but it was also a weapon in the fight against the newly emerging advertising industry. 5th Avenue was fishing for the same talent, often offering air-conditioned offices as a job perk in the same way you‘d offer people an in-house masseur today.

Magazines, keen to recruit the best and brightest journalism grads, also touted their AC systems as part of their appeal. Life, then in its heyday, invested $50,000 of a $250,000 budget for a new photo lab in its AC system, then considered state-of-the-art and an example for less lofty publications.

To stay competitive you needed AC.

With the first wave of computerization in the industry, AC became even more important. If you had an air-conditioned building running computers became feasible without transforming the newsroom into an oven.

As the century wore on, AC units were used not so much to cool people, but rather the machines—in this case, the mainframes and minicomputers of the 1960s and then 1970s.

In short: in the decades after the second world war AC have become part of the invisible infrastructure of journalism, only noticeable should it fail on a sweltering summer day. They enabled not only modern office buildings with their glass facades but also helped professionalize journalism from its blue-collar roots.

What if ChatGPT‘s (or better LLM‘s) effect will be similar? Not disruptive but rather slowly transformative, despite the breathless reporting at the moment.

  • They will integrate smoothly into existing work processes while being praised as a way to increase productivity
  • Their effect will level out with everyone in the industry adopting the technology
  • They will slowly over time change the profession in combination with other trends
  • They will become part of the technological infrastructure, barely noticeable in journalist‘s day-to-day job

Given of course LLMs are even able to deliver on their promises long-term, which is something that remains to be seen.