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“Player Piano” (Revisited) in the Age of AI


September 18, 2023

If one judges futuristic novels of the past narrowly in terms of whether they got their predictions right, Kurt Vonnegut’s brilliant first novel, Player Piano, was not perfect. Upstate New York did not become the hub of engineering innovation. He thought of vacuum tubes not chips as the key tech breakthrough. That he was right about the coming of electric cars and large data farms is far from what makes the book so important, though. Even compared to Brave New World and 1984, Vonnegut chillingly foresaw trends involving social structure, social ills, and tech innovation—including drug use, income inequality and artificial intelligence—which were on no one’s screen when the book was published in 1952.

But as the world of artificial intelligence unfolds, and with it the ever-increasing power of a technological elite, Player Piano merits revisiting—as both a guide and a warning.

The title is a metaphor for a society in which virtually all manufacturing and household tasks are automated. Engineers are royalty who direct the economy; politicians are figureheads. The great majority of the population are consigned to the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps, aka the Reeks and the Wrecks. Most do no useful work—or any work—at all but enjoy universal medical and dental services and are guaranteed “food, housing, clothes, and pocket money in their old age.” The decision as to who joins the fraternity of engineers is made strictly by a single “classification” test administered in adolescence and judged by machine. Even engineers can find themselves demoted, as innovation continues and they become redundant.

All is not well, however, in this version of a worker’s paradise—as protagonist Paul Proteus, a lead manager/engineer at the vast Ilium Works (modeled on General Electric, where Vonnegut once worked in PR) discovers when he wanders from his side of the river to Homestead, the neighborhood where non-elite live in Levittown-type homes. In a saloon there, he met men whose sons had failed their tests and had only the Army or Reeks and Wrecks as life choices. Despite lifetime economic security they were prone, says one key skeptic who plots a futile rebellion, to “dope addiction, alcoholism and suicide. Organized vice and divorce and juvenile delinquency all parallel the growth of the use of vacuum tubes.” Or, as we have learned, lives without purpose lead to deaths of despair and anger. “It hurts a man a lot to be forgotten,” says one character.

There is much more with which we have become sadly familiar, including a sort of debate/passion play performed annually at the engineers’ island retreat. In it, John Averageman is interrogated, first by the character identified only as Radical. The two establish the fact that, when John worked as a machinist, his weekly pay was $145; as a member of the Reeks and Wrecks, it is just $30. “I think it’s clear,” says Radical, “that the American standard of living has tumbled eighty percent.”

The rebuttal, judged to carry the day, comes courtesy Young Engineeer. “When you had this large income,” he asks Averageman, “did you have a twenty-eight-inch television set? Or a laundry console or a radar stove or an electronic dust precipitator?” The reply: “No sir, them things were for the rich folks.”

It’s a debate, of course, we are still having, about how to calculate standard of living.

As much as the engineers defend the world they’ve built, however, some see writing on their walls. Protagonist Paul Proteus reflects on an historical series of industrial revolutions—the first that “devalued muscle work, then the second one that devalued routine mental work.” Will there be third? “I guess the third would be machines that devaluate human thinking . . . the real brainwork.” Says our engineer hero: “I hope I’m not around to see that final step.” It is exactly that about which we worry and wonder as we lurch into the AI era.

Like Orwell and Huxley, Vonnegut weaves a plot of failed rebellion against the regime, though with a surprising twist—but along the way manages to weave a subtle narrative about marriage, friendship and what constitutes professional integrity. Player Piano is, in other words, a good yarn as well as prescient commentary. Vonnegut’s hope, expressed in its forward, remains our charge and challenge: “to stay alive and free.”