I’ve just finished reading Kurt Vonnegut‘s first novel, Player Piano, published in 1952 when Vonnegut was a sprightly young 30 years old, and I thought I’d give some of my thoughts, along with a couple of quotes gleaned from the pages.
The essential story-line follows the trials and tribulations of Dr. Paul Proteus, an engineer and manager in a heavily automated post WWII America, a time when the country is run by engineers and managers and machines have all but supplanted the regular Joes and Josephines from their jobs. In this book, Vonnegut is exploring the meaning of work in our lives, and what a vital role it plays in giving us meaning and purpose.
“Go to the library sometime and take a look at magazines and newspapers clear back as far as World War II. Even then there was a lot of talk about know-how winning the war of production – know-how, not people, not the mediocre people running most of the machines. And the hell of it was that it was pretty much true. Even then, half the people or more didn’t understand much about the things they were making. They were participating in the economy all right, but not in a way that was very satisfying to the ego.”
In the book, Dr. Proteus is the director of the Ilium Works, a collection of automated machines responsible for much of the upkeep of daily life: plumbing, electricity, etc. The country is stratified based on IQ tests performed in high school, and those not intelligent enough to attend college and achieve doctorates have two choices for the future: enlist in the army, or join the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps (the “Reeks and Wrecks”), a construction crew responsible for all the low skilled manual labor that needs to be done. These two groups, the highly educated engineers/managers and their poorly educated countrymen, inhabit two entirely different social spheres.
As the novel progresses, Proteus has a growing unease with his place in society and the privileges that are afforded him on the basis of his IQ, and he begins to encounter more and more the detrimental effects of automation on society, from the restrictions it places on people wishing to pursue their individual goals, to the quashing of innovation and creativity in the face of an overwhelmingly rigid system. And above all, there is the sense that removing labor from the lives of people in some way dehumanizes them. There are fundamental connections between the work we do and the purpose we feel in our lives.
Though this book is about 60 years old, the issues it addresses are still very much relevant today, in particular this idea that automation (then it was machines, today we could add computers to the mix as well) are creating a U-shaped curve of available jobs, with peaks for low-skilled and high-skilled jobs and a hollowing out in the middle.
Without going into too much detail, the novel begins to take a turn when Proteus falls in with the Ghost Shirt Society, a collection of malcontents from both sides of the societal spectrum. Their aim is to overcome the trend of automation and restore work to what they view as it’s rightfully respected place.
“The sovereignty of the United States resides in the people, not in the machines, and it’s the people’s to take back, if they so wish. The machines,” said Paul, “have exceeded the personal sovereignty willingly surrendered to them by the American people for good government. Machines and organization and pursuit of efficiency have robbed the American people of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
‘Player Piano’ has some very strong ties to another book i have been reading through lately, ‘Small is Beautiful‘. This book, written by E.F. Schumacher and published about 20 years after ‘Player Piano’, deals with many of the same issues, namely the value of work and the downsides of placing efficiency and economic growth as end goals. I’ll do a book report on ‘Small is Beautiful’ when I’m done with it, but for now I’ll share a couple of passages that seem highly relevant:
“The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.”
“What technology has enabled us to do: namely, to reduce the amount of time actually spent on production in its most elementary sense to such a tiny percentage of total social time that pales into insignificance, that it carries no real weight, let alone prestige.”