We had two covers this week, on stardom in the age of AI and on Chinese power.
For the past six months Hollywood has been at a standstill, as performers worry that AI is stealing their work and giving less talented people the skills to snatch their audience. Living artists are being nudged down the music charts by a dead Beatle resurrected by AI.
Our cover argues that, despite this, things are looking up—for the top stars at least. On November 8th studios agreed to offer striking performers protection from robotic rivals. What’s more, far from diluting star power, AI will make the biggest celebrities bigger than ever, by allowing them to be in all markets, in all formats, at all times.
One of the paradoxes of the internet age is that, even as uploads to YouTube, TikTok and the like have created a vast “long tail” of user-made content, hits are more dominant than ever. The number of feature films released each year has doubled in the past two decades, but the biggest blockbusters have simultaneously doubled their share of the total box office. It is the same in music and publishing.
An early idea for the cover imagined an AI star on Hollywood’s walk of fame. The terrazzo and brass originals in LA contain an emblem such as a camera, a television, or a microphone, honouring the achievement of each star. For AI, we have a microchip, instead.
It was good, but we wondered if it would be recognisable to readers coming to this story fresh. Were we undercutting our message by focusing on the silicon instead of the star?
Another early attempt showed a pixellated personality being mobbed on the red carpet. The forest of lenses pressing in on an artificial image showed that stardom is manufactured—the very reason why AI can enhance it.
However, the design was too busy and cluttered. It’s good to have a person on the cover. As a rule, it is less good to have a crowd.
Eventually we decided on depicting a single figure on the red carpet. AI will give megastars the ability to be truly omnipresent for their fans. AI-powered dubbing is already allowing actors and podcasters to speak to foreign audiences instantly and in their own voice. In-demand actors may get more work because AI removes the perennial Hollywood problem of crowded schedules. Digital Botox will increase actors’ shelf-life and even enable them to perform posthumously.
As ABBA avatars sell out a London arena seven times a week, and Meta launches celebrity-voiced chatbots, the biggest stars are finding new ways to satisfy—and monetise—their fans.
Our cover in the Americas and Asia looked at Chinese power. As President Joe Biden prepares to meet Xi Jinping in San Francisco next week, the background is increasingly perilous. Fighting in the Middle East threatens to become another theatre for great-power rivalry. In the South China Sea, China is harassing Philippine ships and flying its planes dangerously close to American ones. In January a candidate despised by Beijing may win Taiwan’s presidential election. And the race for the White House will be a cacophony of China-bashing.
Our leader advertises a six-chapter special report on the People’s Liberation Army, by our Asia diplomatic editor, Jeremy Page. He argues that although the PLA is formidable, the West risks overestimating its strengths, triggering confrontations and, at worst, an avoidable conflict. Even without war, that misapprehension would incur huge economic costs, split America from its allies and undermine the values that make it strong. America needs a sober assessment of China’s power.
One initial idea for the cover showed cardboard cutouts of Chinese soldiers, suggesting that the PLA is a paper tiger. The image was clear and strong, but it went a lot further than the special report, which starts from the position that the PLA is a formidable enemy—but goes on to observe that it suffers from poor recruitment, missing technology and a lack of combat experience and joint-operational knowhow.
The special report takes great pains to be nuanced about the PLA. If we ran this idea on our cover, all anyone would remember was that we ridiculed it.
We have had a lot of fighting in the paper recently. The danger of focusing on the next conflict—this time between the PLA and Taiwan—is that we would seem like warmongers.
In another early cover we attempted to dispel that impression, using a collage. We had soldiers and fighter planes, but they were in the background to Mr Xi and set against a cut-out from the financial pages of a Chinese newspaper and the star from China’s flag.
It successfully diverted attention from the PLA, but at a cost of being less punchy. We looked for something less martial than the soldiers and more direct than the collage.
We toyed with photo of tank pilot, shot from the side and set against a red background. As an image, it was fabulous—like a Chinese propaganda poster. However some of us had a problem working out who the man was. One of us thought it must be the PLA’s tribute act for the German electronic band Kraftwerk.
We ended up being drawn back to the soldiers—on the logic that you should always choose the strongest image. This photograph works because one of the soldiers is making eye-contact. We used the title to see off the notion that we were rubbing our hands at the prospect of the next war.
Dealing with China requires a realistic view of its capabilities. Its strengths make it a formidable threat. But its weaknesses give the West time to counter them.