Thursday, January 31, 2008

Vonnegut's Player Piano

This post is about Vonnegut's 1952 novel Player Piano. In thinking about the novel, I decided to focus on one of the premises, namely, that ever increasing automation leads to mass unemployment. This might be seen as the easy way out since it's clear today Vonnegut was off in important ways, but I'm interested in the premise as an (explicit) engagement with ideas of the time—more evidence for Jameson's claim that “few other literary forms have so brazenly affirmed themselves as argument and counterargument.”1

Here's a great example from early in the text of Vonnegut's engagement with Norbert Weiner's Cybernetics or, Control and communication in the animal and the machine, published in 1948.

Katherine and Paul are taking. Katherine begins:

“It seemed very fresh to me—I mean that part where you say how the First Industrial Revolution devalued muscle work, then the second one devalued routine mental work. I was fascinated.”

“Nobert Wiener, a mathematician, said all that way back in the nineteen-forties. It's fresh to you because you're too young to know anything but the way things are now.”

“Actually, it is kind of incredible that things were ever any other way, isn't it? It was so ridiculous to have people stuck in one place all day, just using their senses, then a reflex, using their senses, then a reflex, and not really thinking at all.”


“To the people who were going to be replaced by machines, maybe. A third one, eh? In a way, I guess the third one's been going on for some time, if you mean thinking machines. That would be the third revolution, I guess—machines that devaluate human thinking. Some of the big computers like EPICAC do that all right, in specialized fields.”2

Of course the third revolution has arrived. The loan officer is one of the best examples of this. Deciding whether or not someone or some business was credit worthy used to be a job requiring significant skill and expertise. Now the vast majority of such decisions can be made faster and more accurately by statistics and information technology. In this case, a computed “credit score” has replaced human thinking to a breathtaking extent.

Of course, as I imagine most people have observed, there's nothing close to mass unemployment in the United States, even as population has doubled since Vonnegut wrote the novel in 1952. I don't have much more to say about the prediction except that I think current Science fiction reflects the consensus pretty well. Machines in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy do just about everything, but there's still plenty for humans to do on Mars and on Earth—to say nothing of the very premise of KSR's novel and so many like it: humans, finished expanding on Earth, find things to do outside its gravity well.

Like Vonnegut, I share the concern that the increasing use of “machines,” broadly construed, will lead to stratification in society. Yet, if I compare some European countries with America, I find very similar degrees of mechanization/computerization and very different degrees of income stratification. This inclines me to think that the performance of machines is as determinative as Vonnegut seems to be arguing.

1Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future (Verso, 2005), 2.

2Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano (New York: Scribner's, 1952), 13.