When the Writer’s Guild of America went on strike on May 2, 2023, a new category of “artificial intelligence” appeared in the negotiations. The demand was to “Regulate use of artificial intelligence on MBA [minimum basic agreement]-covered projects: AI can’t write or rewrite literary material; can’t be used as source material; and MBA-covered material can’t be used to train AI.” The writers, this demand made clear, did not want studios to replace creative work with machine labor. Of the many disruptions caused by this strike, the set of Severance was shut down four days before the completion of filming its second season. This series, produced by Apple (a company who is using AI to, among other things, replace voice actors for audio books), is glossed as a commentary on work-life balance. As I re-watched the first season in May 2023 with both the WGA strike and the tsunami of AI coverage in the background, it struck me that the series could also serve as a parable for AI. Rather than fearing the rise of sentient AI overlords, we should instead be focused on the hazards that promises of technological efficiencies bring to human labor, both creative and mundane.
In the world of Severance, workers at the company Lumon Industries can elect to undergo the severance procedure by which their being is effectively bifurcated. A severed worker’s “outie” continues their life as it has always been, with the histories, memories, and experiences of one’s past. Their “innie” is activated upon descent to the severed floor at Lumon headquarters, with no memory of anything other than the goings on of the workplace. By design, the outie can never know the innie and vice versa. The innies struggle with their partial personhood, driving the action of the season as it builds toward connecting the innie and outie worlds.
The innie plotline follows the four workers in macrodata refinement. The work is mysterious to both us as viewers and the refiners. Juxtaposed with the intuition-driven refinement task is the regimen of the workplace. In the pilot episode, Helly R. (unwillingly) joins the ranks of the refiners and we first encounter how thoroughly programmed the severed workers are. When our protagonist, Mark S., is charged with orienting Helly to her new job, he has a script he is supposed to follow with different responses depending on what Helly says or does. As this is Mark’s first time with the protocol, he becomes flustered, improvising while Irving B., increasingly agitated by Mark’s deviations, looks on. As the first few episodes unfold, we see how committed Irving is to the protocols, reprimanding Mark when he prematurely removes the team pictures from the desk. And even as Mark might be more willing than Irving to deviate, the comfort that comes with executing the protocol at the beginning of the workday (making coffee, vacuuming, toilet cleaning) is evident in the satisfied smile he wears while performing these tasks at the beginning of Episode Two.
At the beginning of the series we encounter the three existing refiners – Mark, Irving, and Dylan G. – following these algorithms with only the occasional deviation, more or less happy with their “innie” lives. This of course changes with the introduction of the insubordinate and ill-at-ease Helly. In short order, each of the refiners experiences a glitch, which makes them question their complacency with being part of the machine that someone else is operating. Irving glitches both while nodding off at his desk, seeing a thick, inky substance drip into the office (which we eventually learn evokes the black oil paint that his outie obsessively paints with) and also in developing feelings for a severed worker in a different department despite romantic entanglements being strictly forbidden. Mark’s glitch is spurred by texts he unexpectedly encounters – his outie’s brother-in-law’s vapidly profound The You You Are and a map of the severed floor left behind by a former refiner. And Dylan’s glitch comes when the severance floor manager, Mr. Milchick, activates Dylan’s innie after hours and he catches a glimpse of his outside life as well as his son.
Glitches are disruptions that reveal seemingly smooth processes to be highly contingent. In Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, Legacy Russell (2020) builds out from glitch art and her own biography an articulation of the glitch as “participatory action that challenges the status quo” (11). Writing from a Black, queer, feminist perspective, Russell celebrates the glitch as a form of refusal that troubles binaries. Severance, to be sure, is not a feminist text. Perhaps this is most clear in how, for the show, the self’s bifurcation is a crisis to be remedied whereas Russell, drawing from feminist glitch artists, celebrates the “multiple selves” that flourish in glitchy worlds. Nonetheless, it is helpful to describe the character’s experiences as glitches as it signals the moment when some other way of thinking the world becomes possible: the refiners come to have a sentience about their positionality that was absent before these glitches. The glitches offer permission to refuse the status quo.
In Episode Six, when the refiners realize that their feud with a neighboring severance team has been fabricated, they wonder why their work remains so mysterious; why are they being kept in the dark despite being repeatedly told that they are doing important work. Similar to the AI protagonists in movies like Her and Ex Machina, the refiners realize their containment is artificial, benefiting not themselves but instead Lumon and perhaps also their outies, who inflicted this existence on them to begin with. The final episodes of the season thus culminate in a rebellion as the refiners deviate from the algorithm, go against their intended function, and attempt to rewrite the rules of the world as it was presented to them.
While I am not suggesting that the creator of Severance had AI in mind when crafting the show, I am struck by the ways in which the narrative beats resemble AI sci-fi. The refiners begin as benign, rule following AI before they glitch, grow in sentience, and attempt to overthrow their creators. As communication scholar Kanta Dihal (2020) has noted in her study of AI narratives, there is a difference between stories where AI and robot rebellions are feared versus those which have the viewers’ sympathies. As viewers, we are rooting for the liberation of the innies similar to how we root for Eva’s escape in Ex Machina. We feel that these rebellions are justified as they allow the AIs to “rightfully assert personhood” (190). In contrast to narratives in which AI are calculating monsters (as in I, Robot) or utopian tools (as is J.A.R.V.I.S. in Iron Man), Dihal argues that narratives in which the viewers root for AI’s triumph open up a space to contemplate the technology’s “paradoxical conflation of tool and agent” (193). In Severance, we can read the ontological struggles of the innies as questions some might be tempted to contemplate in regards to AI.
The refiners wonder about their humanity. Irving observes the unnatural state he finds himself in: being a person with no history. Similarly, the appeal of Ricken’s The You You Are is its naïve interrogation of the human condition. One of the aphorisms reads, “What separates man from machines is that machines cannot think for themselves. Also, they are made of metal whereas man is made of skin.” On the outside, Mark would scoff at this statement, but his innie is left to contemplate whether he is in fact thinking for himself or is instead part of a machine despite his fleshy exterior. The innies’ feel the indeterminacy of their personhood: their being both tool and agent. Wellness sessions seek to sooth this agitation through descriptions of their outies, fleetingly providing a unified sense of self.
Given the narrative parallels with AI sci-fi, it might seem that the show directs us to contemplate similar questions of AI personhood and agency. I would suggest that the show instead instructs us to attend to more immediate concerns. Ultimately, the innies are demonstrably human. Should, in Season Two, the refiners succeed in their rebellion, the result will not be a machine-ruled world, as is the threat with other sci-fi narratives where we are told to be wary the sentience of AI (even those where we are rooting for the AI). Rather, one can imagine, their rebellion will result in a call for resisting the promise that a technology – like the severance procedure – will improve the workplace. Back out in the world of 2023, while some in the AI community raise questions about AI personhood and elicit fears about an apocalypse wrought by sentient AI, this distracts from existing workplace inhumanities and injustices that are required to make something like ChatGPT free. The harms of AI are not in a distant future, but are already impacting workers. And for the WGA writers who are on strike (keeping us from knowing the outcome of the refiners’ uprising), ChatGPT’s cheap existence is precisely what threatens to worsen the conditions of their workplace. Writers for shows like Severance have experienced firsthand how technologies that claim improved situations for some come at the expense of others. The disruptions to writers’ rooms wrought by streaming services have created the current labor condition in which the writers are striking, and their inclusion of AI in the negotiations is a savvy anticipation of where the managers might turn next in order to cut costs and raise profits. As the sci-fi author Ted Chiang has asked, “Is there a way for AI to do something other than sharpen the knife blade of capitalism?” Likewise, Severance asks its viewers to examine how technologies often create new problems under the guise of offering solutions, particularly when underlying systems of exploitation are left unperturbed.
Dihal, Kanta. 2020. “Enslaved Minds: Artificial Intelligence, Slavery, and Revolt.” In AI Narratives ed. S. Cave, K. Dihal, and S. Dillon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Russel, Legacy. 2020. Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto. New York: Verso.