By: Ian Schneider
Novels have the potential to provide insights on the world, both good and bad, that would normally pass by unnoticed when taking in society as a whole. Throughout everyday life, citizens are forced to engage with all aspects of society at once, often dulling our awareness to the extent or severity of issues. Novels are specific and analytical, utilizing their own context and narrative to present a problem and possibly even a solution. This quality is most rampant in the science fiction genre, where often the story serves as a platform to critique humanity’s harmful practices and warn of their impending consequences. While reading Player Piano I realized that these warnings can make for more than just interesting stories. Books, pieces of innately human media, have serious implications on policy. Science fiction has often served as a prescient predictor of future technologies, so why dismiss their prediction of political or social structures? As the world of Player Piano that Vonnegut wrote about over 60 years ago becomes only more relevant, I find myself imbued with an urgency to examine what kind of policy can be created to prevent ourselves from falling into the same trappings he presents.
Player Piano, Vonnegut’s premier novel published in 1952, takes place in a post-WWIII America, where the war effort has facilitated a transition of the country’s economy and hierarchy into a pure technocracy. Everything is run by engineers and managers, with the most able and intelligent being at the forefront of progress in society. Always striving for greater efficiency, jobs that require ‘reflex’ instead of ‘thinking’ have been replaced by machines. Those who have been removed from the workforce are forced to either enlist in the Army or the Reconstruction and Reclamation services. Companies are taxed for the wages they save by not having real employees and the money is reinvested in social programs which provide for insurance, food, housing and other services. As a result, a massive welfare state is created to keep the lower and middle classes afloat while the upper class reaches new strati from the profits of continued mechanization. In this new world, the most heinous crime is sabotage: attempting to destroy a machine and therefore interrupting economic efficiency. As long as you play your role in society, everything will be taken care of.
Read in 2019, Vonnegut’s vision of the future seems scarily accurate. One of the most relevant aspects is the emphasis that his America places on higher education; anyone without a Doctorate isn’t considered intelligent enough to contribute to the economy. Things haven’t reached that level of specialization yet, but it serves as a useful analogy for the increasing separation between an educated elite and everyone else caused by the necessity for a college education in order to obtain a high paying job in almost every field . The irony in the book, which is not lost on today’s society, is that those with Doctorates have some of the easiest jobs, simply directing what machines do.
So what does this all mean for policy? Player Piano actually provides its own solutions to increased mechanization: immense corporate taxes and robust welfare programs. Similar to the path we are already on, more jobs are becoming replaced by machines (or outsourcing) and concepts like Universal Basic Income are floated around to pick up the slack . The problem that Vonnegut is tackling is not traditional poverty. He is more concerned with a spiritual poverty—bankruptcy of the soul. In his vision of the future, people are discontented not because they are unable to get the means to live but because they have no reason to keep living. In his trademark tone of sentimentality, Vonnegut appeals to the need humans have to be needed. Throughout his transformation from engineer to Messiah, the novel’s main character Paul Proteus stumbles across various people who all have the same problem: they just want to work a real job.
What can be done to prevent our own increased mechanization, and should there be anything done at all? Should we all become Luddites and destroy the machines before they become our production overlords? Or should we allow machines to take our place, and sit back in our lives of leisure? The first jobs to go are the ones already going; manual labor and technical jobs. After self-driving cars are perfected, taxi and bus drivers are sure to be on their way out. Self-checkout stations are already competing with cashiers; just wait until the introduction of the automated register. With the increasing complexity of artificial intelligence, who’s to say that all of our jobs couldn’t be replaced? Labor of the mind is in no way superior to labor of the hand, we just haven’t found a way to replicate it yet. In twenty years, this article could be written in a fraction of the time by an android. Much more efficient work that way. As a society, we need to decide if we are prepared to lose our jobs to mechanization, and how we should go about preventing it if we are not.
Recently, the topic of job loss due to mechanization was broached by the European Union.They suggested a tax on the potential wages taken up by robots, but even that was eventually softened and not passed. In Silicon Valley, as mentioned before, an expanded social safety net and Universal Basic Income are touted as potential solutions to help soften the burden on those who find their job replaced by a more efficient machine. After reading about the anti-utopian world in Player Piano, however, I’m not convinced that a bigger welfare state is the answer. One of the passing characters in the novel puts it best when he says “You know, used to be you could go to sea on a big clipper ship or a fishing ship and be a big hero in a storm. Or maybe you could be a pioneer and go out west and lead the people and make trails and chase away Indians and all that. … Now the machines take all the dangerous jobs.” There is a glory and sense of purpose in doing a job well done, even a menial job, that is being robbed from people. This might seem like the philosophizing of the privileged, complaining about welfare while never having known what it means to depend on it to survive, but I’m not arguing against the function of welfare. A quality of life assured by the government is important to make sure that employers aren’t the sole arbiters of happiness and prosperity, but it isn’t a solution to the feeling of worthlessness that comes along with being phased out of the economy by a mindless machine. We can’t get rid of welfare, but we also can’t depend on it to solve the human and sociological issues that mechanization poses.
In order to save the spirit of the American populace, legislation against the continued mechanization of labor is paramount. Just as the Butlerian revolution in Dune destroyed and outlawed the use of computers after finding they had become mentally enslaved by them, we must prevent ourselves from becoming a society of humans who exist for the maintenance of machines. It is immoral and unfair to pit human their labor against a machine. We might be comfortable giving certain jobs away now so we can have cheaper, mass-produced TV’s and cars, but when does it stop? If some jobs can be automated, all jobs can be automated. A welfare state done properly should do more than provide for every citizen; it should provide a place for each citizen. I don’t mean to get rid of all machines. Vonnegut confronts the absurdity of getting rid of all machines by having those in charge of the anti-mechanization riot attempt to preserve machines that make food and supplies only to be undermined by the rioting masses, hungry for the destruction of anything mechanical. Progress and technological advancement are fine, but we must think of individual citizens first before we think of the products they produce. If that means sacrificing efficiency, so be it. As a planet, we could probably stand to slow down production a smidge.
No self-respecting capitalist would cooperate with demands like this, so government intervention seems to be in order. Potential legislation could limit mechanics in production to things that can be manipulated directly by humans, or only allow the introduction of robotics while the unemployment is at a certain, very minimal level, and mandate their removal if the level rises. Other legislation could prevent the termination of any job due to technological innovation, and institute a fundamental Right to Work. Just because we discover a way to build microwaves that allows us to make them 10x faster and with 5x less manpower doesn’t mean that we have to. We must place the rights and quality of life of people over the continual progress of science. Or, we could overproduce ourselves to death, rendering more and more of the human race obsolete one innovation at a time.