© 1952 Kurt Vonnegut
Not since the roaring twenties was American society so giddily obsessed with newfangled stuff than in the 1950s. Americans were awash in material prosperity, filling their homes with labor-saving devices — the future had arrived, buddy-boy, in gleaming chrome and with automatic controls. While some starry-eyed futurists looked forward to a world in which machines took care of all of the dirty work and left humans free to paint, compose, and ponder the mysteries of the cosmos, others saw a darker vision. Player Piano casts a critical eye against the future machines might create, where mankind lingers in despair not from want of food, but want of purpose.
In this world, the entire economy is automated by massive plants of machinery, one per city, and so extensive is machining that most of the population is functionally idle. Aside from an infinitesimally small group of people with jobs machines cannot usurp (among them, bartenders and barbers offering a friendly ear), the only truly employed people are the managerial elite, who run the machines and think up new ones.
Vonnegut escapes being predictable in that the misery of his novel is not a luddite view of poor, starving wretches denied wages because machines do their jobs more effectively. Indeed, the standard of living for Americans, from an economic point of view, has never been better. Taxes on capital support most of the population, who can have a world of consumer good before them for pennies. Their homes are filled with miraculous wonders that make our laundry machines and ovens look like Franklin stoves and washboards. Yet for all their material prosperity, the characters throughout the book are deeply miserable. The masses huddle in bars, drinking and talking about the good ol’ days, when a man’s work was worth something, while management tends to its machines and seeks relief from tedium in petty office politics.
Main character Dr. Paul Proteus is a late-blooming reactionary; having been accepted by the managerial class, indeed being one of its most promising up-and-comers, he finds no satisfaction in his work and often steals over into the other part of town to sit in a bar, drink, and listen to chatter. Eventually he becomes a key figure in a revolution against the machines, as disgruntled people attempt to seize control of their lives again, to restore dignity and purpose to their work.
Player Piano is one of Vonnegut’s earliest works, but for me the most poignant. There are obvious marks of a writer beginning his craft; the seams as Vonnegut switches from character to character are rough, and the revolution lacks a lot of dramatic punch. Vonnegut’s essential vision, however, has never been more potent; there are many elements of the story that seem prophetic, but Vonnegut’s predictions are more chilling than those of 1984′s or Brave New World‘s because his world is so ordinary, not nearly as removed from our own as are those two dystopian classics. Player Piano’s modernity is Plato’s republic, realized in full, with the Machine set as the ultimate ideal form. People are judged by this ideal their entire lives long; nothing matters except for the economy, and the computer analyzes them and determines their place within the economy, and by extension within society. They are constiuent parts serving it. In our own world, even those applying for a job in fast food must submit to lengthy psychological assesstments of dubious merit, which are graded by no one but a machine, and whost will not even managers can contest. We are beholden to systems that not even the operators understand fully, and no aspect of life escapes being reduced to the machine’s standardized level.
In the end, the revolution of Player Piano is one against anomie and emasculation, an attempt to restore the striving to life. It provokes questions. How close are we to Player Piano‘s despair? How engaged in our lives are we? Do we Live, or do we merely exist, producing and consuming — does the work of our hands makes a difference? It is difficult these days not to be overwhelmed by the machine. We rely on them for entertainment, for sustenance, for validation. But people don’t simply want to be administereds, clients of some system; this race that conquered the world is filled with restless energy that must find some creative outlet, and our souls contain greatness that cannot be contained by chronic subservience. Man yearns to be free, to act independently, to be the agent of his own prosperity. It is a yearning ignored in Player Piano, and increasingly overlooked in our own world of automated cars, canned music, factory food, and a state that wants to take care of everything.
Ultimately, Player Piano is less a triumph than a tragedy, an ominous suggestion of the world to come.
The Sea Wolf, Jack London, with a similar theme of man’s actualization in striving against the world on his own merits
Technopoly, Neil Postman, whose work was mentioned prior
Average is Over and The Glass Cage, two recent works on automation and social stratification by Tyler Cowan and Nicholas Carr
Compendium of the Social Doctrine, which calls for meaningful work.