Humanity vs. The Machines

Well, I just finished reading Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, after reading this, which compared the world in which we are currently living to Vonnegut’s early 1950s vision.

I love dystopian novels. I regularly re-read Brave New World, and occasionally will re-read 1984 just to reacquaint myself with Orwell’s world. Brave New World is the better predictor of the human future, a world of meaningless hedonism and consumerism, than Orwell ever wrote. I also think Zamyatin got the role of science in organizing society better in We, which is such a bracingly strange novel that I had to read it three times just to finally grasp how the narrative works.

None of these novels by itself adequately predicts the future — assuming that was their job. Orwell was worst, since he looked into a world of Stalin and Hitler and saw only the darkness of party-states seeking to annihilate humanity. That has not happened, nor is it likely to. Not so brutally. Better is Huxley’s humanist scientism (also at work in We), which rather than investing the future of humanity in a sole, ruling political party that monopolizing anything resembling meaning, is a life given over to pointless, never ending pleasure. I’d rather live in Huxley’s world, not because I’d love to drink soma all the time and have “everybody belongs to everybody” sex (making the sign of the T right now), but rather the World Controllers of Huxley’s novel appreciate there is at least some room for malcontents and the maladjusted — “Thank God for islands!” I believe is what Mustafa Mond says.

Mostly, what I really appreciate about these novels is their pessimism. There is no not loving Big Brother, no not acting like a child, no not appreciating the gifts of the One State in the great glass city. If Ayn Rand makes any kind of mistake, it’s believing heroic human beings can triumph in the face of such things. We can’t. We can only perish. Or find some corner to be human in.

Which is why I’m going to put Player Piano on my list of books to reread on a regular basis. There is so very much prescient about this 1952 novel. Vonnegut conducts a thought experiment — what if machines made most human labor redundant? What would happen? And there’s an amazing amount he gets right.

The managers and engineers are the privileged class (which is true of all the mid-century dystopian novels save for 1984, which privileges the party hacks), and make inordinate salaries (the lead character, Dr. Paul Proteus, makes around $50,000 a year as the chief of the Ilium Works, I think, an exorbitant sum when considered in the early 1950s) when compared to the take-home pay of most “employed” either in the Army or the Bureau of Reconstruction and Reclamation in fairly pointless, make-work jobs. There is the class division, the sense of privilege on the part of the managers (who, at the same time, realize their jobs will eventually face being made obsolete as machines get better at planning and managing), and the use of a compulsory summer camp (“The Meadows”) to foster group cohesion and class identity among the managerial class. (Which also allows constant opportunities for networking, though Vonnegut doesn’t call it that.)

There’s even an amazingly funny bit at Cornell University dealing with the professionalization and gross ostentation of college sports. An athlete being recruited to play football there, for the princely sum of $36,000 a year, asks if he can also take classes (wanting something other than a future filling potholes with the Wrecks and Reeks when he his football career is over), and is told, “We used to allow that sort of thing, but it didn’t work out so well.”

At stake is the dignity of human labor, and what happens when whole swaths of people no longer have meaningful work to do. At first, it seems like the labor being denigrated is solely that of people who work with their hands, who run machines, who work on assembly lines. They have become meaningless, pointless people, who know they have become meaningless. They exist solely to consume, being provided all they need through their make-work jobs (all paid for out of deductions, so most only take home $30 a weeks).

But the labor also denigrated is that of the managers. It doesn’t seem that way at first — after all, they have all the power. But most don’t really know anything. And they know so little of the world, of art, of history, of anything of real value. (Everything of that nature is eventually demolished to make way for factories and power plants.) At the same time, however, their positions and lives are given inflated pseudo-value through a credentialing process that even requires secretaries have doctorates. (One character, a property managers, is a “Doctor of Realty,” for example.)

Because the whole point of Vonnegut’s novel is that when the machines are allowed to structure society, human beings will always be bent so they can be made of greatest use to the machines, or broken, and thrown away. To compete with machines in this way is to become their slaves.

There’s a lot Vonnegut couldn’t see. He didn’t imagine the transistor, or the integrated circuit, so vacuum tubes make his player piano work. A giant computer, EPICAC, fills up some substantial portion of New Mexico and plans America’s industries. And government. The gender roles are still very much grounded in early 1950s bourgeois norms — men work, women are wives (or secretaries). And no one, and I mean no one, seems to have ever envisioned the mobile phone.

Vonnegut is also writing a mid-century novel. So he sees the New Deal welfare state logically extending itself to “caring” for those displaced by providing them a very generous social welfare in exchange for their pointless jobs filling holes or guarding the far flung bits of America’s global empire. He couldn’t imagine, as a hypothetical (cough cough), a world in which human labor is made redundant  by machines but then the same people made pointless are blamed for their circumstances, and not given anything except payday loans. (I think Ayn Rand would have needed to write THAT novel…) It is still a novel of management triumphant (and yes, Rand wrote those TOO), and would need some rapacious financiers making a lot more than $50,000 a year in order to work for today. At least Player Piano’s managerial class perceived themselves as having an obligation to those they’d made redundant (though Proteus comes to understand that as the condescending liberalism which it is). Which is more than we can say for ourselves today.

Finally, the novel ends badly. An uprising rapidly spreads, breaks the machines, but is quickly crushed. Ilium is besieged. Eventually, Proteus and several of his co-conspirators prepare to hand themselves over to the authorities, having done what they could, having stood their ground and failed. It ends the way it should have. The only other possible, and realistic ending, was one in which some amount of dissent and non-conformity to the economic order would have been accepted or tolerated — a kind-of “Galt’s Gulch” or St. Helena of artisan crafts people who lived on their own, made the things they used and consumed, and where an alternative meaning to human existence could have been constructed. A small thing, but a real thing.

That, however, would have been predicting hipsters. And I’m not sure Vonnegut was up to that.

One thought on “Humanity vs. The Machines

  1. Have you read Time Will Run Back by Hazlitt? It’s interesting although it’s purpose is primarily to teach economics.

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