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Personal essays

Just for now - Essay from Newsletter 163

On shaping the future by accepting little changes now

My life as a Teamster

Years ago when I was teaching high school math in Newton, MA, there was one of those temporary transitional years when the schools wanted to increase the size of the classes - just for now.

I don’t remember what the reason given was but the suggestion sounded so benign that it seemed reasonable to me.

It may have been that this year’s ninth grade was a little bigger or we were space constrained for classrooms - in any case the school said that it would be helpful if just for the year we’d let the maximum size of our classes grow by five students.

I was twenty-one and didn’t see that an increase in class size of about 10% was a big deal.

One of my mentors was an adamant “no”.

Before we voted on whether or not to authorize this change, he argued that once we showed that we could successfully teach 35 students at a time instead of 30 (or whatever the actual number was), we’d never get that number back down to 30.

The school district’s assurance that his was “just for now” would soon be lost and this would be the new normal.

The union, we were affiliated with the Teamsters if I recall correctly, had the same point of view. They were also concerned that the school was really doing this to avoid hiring the extra teachers called for by the student population increase.

Honestly, the school district was worried that these hires weren’t “Just for now” and that once we had these new teachers in the building, that would be the new number of teachers.

The teachers and the union weren’t really having to peer into the future - the only needed to look at the past.

The teachers voted not to increase the average class size.

Seeing the future

I was thinking about that discussion for the strangest reasons. Netflix is going to stop mailing out physical copies of movies and the WGA is on strike.

Technically both the Writers Guild of America East and the Writers Guild of America West are on strike but it’s easier to think of them collectively as the WGA.

The last time the WGA went on strike was 2007.

Think of how you consumed television shows and movies back then - it was definitely different than it is now.

Netflix’s core business came from you signing up to rent some fixed number of movies at a time. You would decide which movies you wanted to see and they would send you the disks in the mail. You could keep them as long as you wanted - but you could only rent two, three, or four at a time (or whatever the number was in your particular plan level).

To understand the 2007 WGA strike you have to go back to the 1985 WGA strike.

Then the writers went on strike because they made very little money when a tv show or movie they wrote was released for the home video market.

The studios argued that the home video market was small - what’s the big deal.

The writers argued that the home video market was small but it would be big. By the time of the 2007 strike, companies were making many times more from home video than from the box office and the costs of production and distribution had dropped.

In 2007 the writers wanted an adjustment to home video and they were concerned that the next market would be home streaming.

Once again, the studios argued that this was a small market and the Writers shouldn’t worry about it.

Again, if you look at how you consume media, it’s hard to argue that the streaming market is small.

What was striking to me in looking back at this strike was how clearly both sides saw the future of media consumption and were trying to stake out their positions on both sides.

Class size

In addition, one of the changes to television has been the number of episodes in a season.

In the old model, there were more than twenty episodes in a US television series season. There was a magic number of 100. Once a show produced 100 episodes, it could comfortably be syndicated and the old shows could be repeated over and over without coming up so often that the viewers were unlikely to watch.

Now, many shows have fewer than ten episodes released in a year and often they are released all at once. And then that’s it.

So what?

Well there are many so what’s.

One is that if you are producing a ton of episodes, the writers are employed for the greater part of a year. Once they are employed, they are reasonably comfortable for that year and don’t have to worry until next year’s staffing season.

Another is that, with so many episodes, the show runner often has time to mentor their staff in other aspects of running the show. So different writers experience what it’s like to help with pre-production or to be on the set during the shooting of an episode to help with little rewrites.

In a short season, the writers are often gone before the show begins shooting and the show runner can do it all.

That’s bad for writers and employment, but, the WGA argues, it’s also bad for the future of television. Where will the next crop of show runners come from?

Things change

No matter how much I worry about AI and ChatGPT, it will seep into the creation of content that I read and watch.

Don’t worry, the studios say - it won’t be a big deal. The Writers say, “put that in writing”. Nah, say the studios, it really isn’t that big a deal.

I was watching a news show the other day as the camera swooped in on an announcer while graphics animated in over a synthetic whoosh followed by a boom.

News shows used to have actual camera operators and simple graphics. There weren’t distracting chyrons crawling at the bottom of every broadcast so much that you probably don’t even notice this constant assault on your attention.

Every change works its way in because it’s “Just for now” and “no big deal”. And over time, we go from teaching twenty students in a class to fifty

I just checked on the number of new COVID cases per day in the US and number of deaths. Either of these numbers would have been alarming five years ago, but now ten thousand new cases a day and one hundred deaths a day is considered so low that we’ve declared the crisis is over.

We’re one third of the way into 2023 and there have been thirteen thousand gun deaths in the US this year.

Sometimes we don’t need to speculate what the future will look like, we only need to look at the present or the past and act on the lessons we supposedly learned.

When we’re asked to go from thirty students in a classroom to thirty-five, there is a real argument that it’s a temporary change that isn’t that big a deal.

But “Just for now” becomes our new normal and changes how we view the world.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 163. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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