Kurt Vonnegut S First Novel Spins The Chilling Tale Of Engineer Paul Proteus, Who Must Find A Way To Live In A World Dominated By A Supercomputer And Run Completely By Machines Paul S Rebellion Is Vintage Vonnegut Wildly Funny, Deadly Serious, And Terrifyingly Close To Reality Alternate Cover Edition Here When Kurt Vonnegut does dystopia as he does in his first novel, Player Piano , you know it s not an empty idea for him to rail against, but a way for him and us to work out the implications of a new reality, in this case, our desire to improve the world with technology In this early dystopian vision set in the near future after WWIII , the world is nearly completely automated like the player piano Society s needs are apparently met Far from bringing about happiness, automation only serves to alienate the upper class from the rest of society who no longer have any purpose The plot follows engineer Paul Proteus from dissatisfaction with the kind of life automation produces to outright rebellion This is a chilling and sometimes darkly funny satire of a world in which technology has the upper hand If humanity had purpose, it was usurped by the machines Vonnegut s humanism is evident along with an idiosyncratic style which will continue to characterize his work I m looking forward to reading Vonnegut In his first novel, published in 1952, Vonnegut envisages a dystopian future where nearly all jobs have been rationalised away by increasing automation But, just when things seem most hopeless, a saviour appears in the form of a brash, uncouth but lovable billionaire, who, despite having no previous political experience, rides a populist wave to become President He immediately expels all illegal immigrants and starts a war against an alliance of Middle Eastern and Asian countries Within months, America s downtrodden poor are again leading full, meaningful lives as fruit pickers, hotel staff, prostitutes and cannon fodder, and the country enters a new golden age. The Cybernetic ScriptOne of the most important but least discussed consequences of WWII is an ideology It is way of thinking that unites the political left and right, and even transcends the ideologies of Capitalism and Marxism with their apparent conflicts about the nature of human beings and their politics It is an ideology that became and remains the dominant intellectual force in the world in my lifetime This ideology goes by a name that is only occasionally used today and is probably recognised only by specialist professionals old enough to remember it Cybernetics.Cybernetics is the unnamed central character in Player Piano, where it goes incognito as know how developed during the war As a scientific discipline, cybernetics is about control Its vocabulary has largely been assimilated into general usage systems, feedback loops, requisite variety, algorithms sustainability In the year that Vonnegut was writing Player Piano 1951 , cybernetics was the fashionable inter disciplinary buzzword in fields as diverse as hormonal medicine, national government, industrial economics and computer design not to mention player pianos And of course, in Vonnegut s obvious subject Robotics The big names in the social sciences of the day von Neumann, Ashby, Weiner, Bateson, Deming, Beer, to name just a few all had cybernetic connections through the war effort.Vonnegut s prescience about the effects of cybernetic thinking for things like automated factories, computer assisted design, self driven cars, voice recognition and expert systems are at least as good as anyone involved in the discipline at the time But Vonnegut s real talent isn t predictive, it s prophetic And his insights aren t about science, they are about ideology He saw beneath the breathless press and stunning technological advances produced through cybernetics to how cybernetics was being used shape the manner in which human beings were to live with each other, whether they were conscious of this or not.Cybernetics was always than a discipline or method, or even a manner of thinking Through general, tacit, but very real agreement on the issues of importance to be addressed, the only issues, cybernetics became an ideology, a framework, a rationale, most crucially a rationalisation of the exercise of power by the people who had power These are the people Vonnegut identifies as the elite , technical managers and their distant superiors who tend the complex cybernetic control mechanisms.But Vonnegut is far too perceptive to categorise the world simply into managers and those they manage There is a reason why the very senior managers in Player Piano are kept vaguely in the background They are the only people not subject to cybernetic demands The only thing that cybernetics cannot be used for is the decision about what constitutes a successful result of the processes involved, about how to measure value Player Piano was born in a world of the McCarthy hearings alluded to in the phrase fellow travellers , the most blatant attempt to institutionalise the definition of success until recent times.Success is defined elsewhere than by the factory managers in Player Piano, in the higher reaches of corporate management, beyond the pay grade of a Proteus and his colleagues in Ilium incidentally the Latin for guts, including the highly vulnerable testicles as well as another name for Troy, of the treacherous horse And however value is defined, it is not a process or a result to be tampered with in Vonnegut s world at the level of mere management professionals.A successful result of a cybernetic process might be defined in terms of efficiency, or speed, or innovation, or profit, consumer satisfaction, or literally anything the human mind might conjure Whatever it is, it is hard wired into the little tape loops that run each machine in Ilium s massive factories But nothing within the discipline of cybernetics gave a clue as to which of these measures of success was appropriate, or best, or acceptable This is the lynchpin of Vonnegut s narrative It is not mere Luddite sabotage of the machines that is the threat to Ilium s stability but rather changes to the criteria embedded in the tapes and the authority that creates them It is the control boxes that must be kept locked and secure These are the tabernacles in which the secret decisions about what constitutes value are hidden and from which these decisions invisibly control both the machines and the factory managers It is these tiny sanctuaries not the gigantic integrated chains of machines that are the driving force of Vonnegut s fiction.Except that this situation wasn t, and isn t, only a fiction The separation of the management of cybernetically controlled systems and the choice of their criteria of success, that is to say, their value, is the core of cybernetics as an ideology In both Player Piano and in the world as it has evolved, this separation has largely come to pass Politically, this has gone largely unnoticed by those most affected by the ideology Until of course very recently as demonstrated in the dramatic political events in Europe, North America, India, and, I think, even ChinaA key part of Vonnegut s narrative is the separation of what would come to be called the 99% from the corporate managerial class The most interesting part of the script is the malaise that affects the 99% ers This malaise is spiritual rather than material Although unemployed, the plebs are not homeless or starving But since the removal of the corporate ladder, which had given apparent purpose to life and by which they might have advanced a central element of the post war American Dream , they are dissatisfied and unruly The most hopeful aspect of Player Piano is that they don t seem to want the corporate ladder back As a prophet not a forecaster, Vonnegut got some things wrong What he mainly got wrong was the precise mode in which the cybernetic ideology was to play out He reckoned, along with many philosophers and social scientists of the time, that the managerial elite would dominate through their control of manufacturing and transport This is how the Robber Barons in the late 19th century and the Russian soviets had already done it.What no one, literally no one, at the time anticipated was that even the manufacturing elite wouldn t be high enough up the cybernetic food chain to set the criteria for success This would be left to the even remote Captains of Finance not the contemporary Lords of Industry Given that neither Karl Marx nor Frederik Hayek saw that one coming, we might want to overlook Vonnegut s slip.Vonnegut couldn t see the impending shift because Finance in America, as everywhere else, was still Capitalist Finance in 1951 Not for a decade did cybernetics under a new heading of Corporate Finance, as a real discipline and an ideology, become identifiable as a visible intellectual force And not for yet another decade was this force great enough to shift corporate power decisively from the capitalists who make things to the capitalists who finance things It is unarguable that today it is the likes of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley rather than General Motors or General Electric that dominate the world economy and a large portion of its social ambitions as well The transition is complete Same cybernetic ideology, just a different cast of corporate characters And Vonnegut wrote the script Unfortunately Trump not Proteus is leading the revolution And just when you thought it s safe to drink the Kool Aid Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut Player Piano is the first novel of American writer Kurt Vonnegut, published in 1952 It depicts a dystopia of automation, describing the negative impact it can have on quality of life The story takes place in a near future society that is almost totally mechanized, eliminating the need for human laborers The widespread mechanization creates conflict between the wealthy upper class, the engineers and managers, who keep society running, and the lower class, whose skills and purpose in society have been replaced by machines The book uses irony and sentimentality, which were to become hallmarks developed further in Vonnegut s later works Player Piano is set in the near future, after a third world war While most Americans were fighting overseas, the nation s managers and engineers faced a depleted workforce and responded by developing ingenious automated systems that allowed the factories to operate with only a few workers The novel begins ten years after the war, when most factory workers have been replaced by machines The bifurcation of the population is represented by the division of Ilium, New York into The Homestead, where every person not a manager or an engineer lives, and the other side of the river, where all the engineers and the managers live 2014 1391 431 9786001170539 1395 20 Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut was his first novel, first published in 1952 Early fiction from Vonnegut is told in a straightforward fashion than Vonnegut readers will be accustomed to from his later works, but his imagination and wit are still unmistakable This is a dystopian work describing a United States after a third war where machines have taken the place of 90% of industrial workers Government work available to displaced workers comes from either the Army, emasculated and bureaucratic, or the reconstitution and reclamation corps, the Reeks and the Wrecks, a civil organization where workers have military esque occupational titles such as asphalt layer first class and senior street sweeper Funny and thought provoking this ushered in a long and prolific career for Vonnegut. It s been almost thirty years since I read Player Piano, and all I had retained from that first read was the name of the main character, a faint recollection of the novel s focus on a future world heavily reliant on automation, and a vague sense of not liking the book all that much despite Vonnegut being one of my favorite authors I had hoped to like the book better as a seasoned adult, but instead I found re reading Player Piano to be a tedious chore which surprised me, as this year I have returned to Slaughterhouse Five, Jailbird and God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, and enjoyed all of them.I began the year with Vonnegut s recently published Letters and liked it so much that I wanted to go back and revisit some of these novels I read way back in high school Alas, Player Piano did not have much to offer me this second time around The story is set in a not so distant dystopian future, a society run by managers and engineers where machines and computers have been perfected and attend to much of life s needs Regular folks like you and me unless you happen to be a manager or an engineer lead mundane lives outside the enclaves of these giants of industry in a way Margaret Atwood has created a similar society in her Maddaddam trilogy with her Compounds populated by elite genengineers while the rest of the population lives in the chaotic pleeblands , but their dreary lives have been robbed of satisfaction because machines have taken away most of what they have done in the past to find meaning in their lives.For a dystopian society, the world of Player Piano is a fairly mundane place, with no Thought Police or Hunger Games, but the effect on the everyday citizen is still soul crushing It s a little like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit meets the world of Fahrenheit 451, minus a fire department whose job it is to burn books Interestingly, however, Vonnegut has written his book before either of those two novels Paul Proteus leads the perfect life He is head of the Ilium Works, married to a beautiful wife and being groomed to take over Pittsburgh humorously, in 1952 an author might have seen Pittsburgh as the future locus of industry and technology But despite having it all, Proteus feels like something is missing, and it is his dissatisfaction leads him regularly to visit Homestead, the gritty town on the other side of the river to see how the other half lives, and his pretty little wife just doesn t understand these longings he has for breaking out of the mold and doing his own thing Proteus will remind you a bit of Guy Montague, and you ll probably feel a sense of familiarity with the world of Player Piano Vonnegut isn t the first one to explore these themes, and he certainly wasn t the last, but after having read so many similar books and watched numerous episodes of The Twilight Zone about similar characters searching for a way out of the grey flannel rat race, it all feels rather dreary and dull, even if Vonnegut is doing it so much earlier than many of these other authors.And therein lies perhaps the best reason to continue reading this book, even if it isn t one of Vonnegut s best If anything, it can be delved into as a sort of artifact and a pretty interesting one at that It is, after all, Vonnegut s first novel, published just seven years after he is released from a German POW camp He s been to graduate school at the University of Chicago and not done so well there, and then he s been to work for GE and experienced firsthand its monotonous bureaucracy, and he works all of these threads into the story which introduces many of his themes that he returns to again and again in his later works the worth of the individual in a society that values conformity, the role of free will versus determinism, an ironic understanding of the absurdity at the core of human life, a concern with progress that fails to take into account the needs of the people it is supposed to be serving, and a tremendous love of humanity tempered by the sure understanding that we human beings are hella stoopid.But what s missing from Player Piano is that Vonnegut voice and style that readers have come to expect from him Here, in his first novel, he goes for plodding linear narrative, third person narration, and pedestrian character development, three techniques that he abandons over the next ten years There is plenty of black humor at work here, but he has yet to embrace his pared down style, the digressive randomness and the bleak whimsy that begin to appear in his next Sirens of Titan and which he has mastered ten years later in Cat s Cradle Nonetheless, the reader can see a hint of what is to come in later books, especially in the subplot weaving its way through the novel with the comic figure of the Shah of Bratpuhr who is taking a tour of the United States accompanied by a State Department handler He visits Ilium, takes a tour of a planned community, meets the president, and visits the Carlsbad Caverns to view the massive supercomputer, EPICAC XIV The Shah, drinking heavily from his flask of sacred liquor of Sumklish, is curious about all the sights of America, but calls EPICAC a false god when it can t provide the answer to his riddle, and, to his handler s consternation, keeps referring to the common Americans he meets on his journey, as Takaru, slaves No, his handler tells him, No Takaru Ci ti zen Ahhhhh, said the Shah Ci ti zen He grinned happily Takaru citizen Citizen Takaru And lines like that one right there are proof of why, even if this book is a bit of a drag to read, Vonnegut is such a great writer, and why even his weaker books should be read again and again and again.Here s my review for Slaughterhouse Five Bless You, Mr Rosewater Jailbird In a world where actuaries in Japan are getting fired by the hundreds because an algorithm now does their job, where s utterly creepy house robot Echo can organize your life and transfer info on your every move to God knows who, and where Google has created AIs that live on the Internet and talk to each other in an encrypted language so sophisticated that humans can t figure out what they are saying, Player Piano is eerily prescient.In fact, as someone who works for a major insurance company and who knows just how ridiculously dependent we are on your technology working well and how much we want our employees to be devoted body and soul to the company, this book felt disturbingly familiar from the very first page.In a not so distant future, everything has been automatized and machines do all the work, nobody starves and the only jobs still available are the ones that can t be replaced by machines and the army But of course, a chasm exists between those who do simple manual work and the engineers and managers who overlook the exactitude of all those machines, effectively creating a polarized society.Paul Proteus, an important engineer and manager of Ilium Works, can feel that something is not quite right with his life and with the world, but does not know how to deal with his malaise His old friend and colleague Ed Finnerty has acknowledged that this way of life is hollow and unfulfilling a long time ago and resists the systematic automation of everything by not fitting into the mold of the brilliant engineer that he is.One day, Paul is asked to betray his integrity for a better job and a secure social position and he finds himself incapable of doing it He decides to rebel against this life that now feels so meaningless, but it s not as easy to escape the corporate beast as he seems to think Especially when computers have a record of your entire livesIn a parallel story line, we accompany the Shah of Bratpuhr s visit to America, his incapacity to perceive people who are not in charge as anything other than slaves despite his translator s best efforts , and his amusement at the exotic and illogical American way of life.The idea of the corporation as a Church, its employees as its worshipers and its executives as clergy is obviously not a new one, but it gave me a uncomfortable shiver The corporate retreat, which is essentially a brain washing vacation meant to cultivate your bond to the company and with your colleagues, the long ridiculous titles meant to glorify the simplest of jobs, executives than executants I see these things going on every day at work, and it s creepy Add to that a President who is an actor, because charisma is important than political skill for that job shudder I see human labor, skill and intelligence devalued a little bit all the time, whether because we have become too reliant on our GPS to know how to read a map, or because products are now manufactured to break in a year or two so that we must buy a brand new one that turns out to be cheaper than repairing the old one It makes me uncomfortable on so many levelsSome people seem to think that Vonnegut has not yet sharpened his trademark wit and dark humor to their full potential when he wrote Player Piano , but I found him to be just as brutally funny, vitriolic in his commentary and thought provoking as in his later works He had his finger on the simple reality that without a sense of purpose and usefulness, humans will loose their sense of identity and their spirits, and he wrote a great book about it.Of course, he missed the mark on a few things the Rust Belt s downfall, for instance And the very old fashioned gender roles made me roll my eyes a few times But dismissing this work just because a few things are not perfectly predicted would be a mistake I recommend it to everyone. I just remembered that I did not review Player Piano I did not have the time to do it when I finished the novel one month ago and then I forgot I am not going to write a full review because I lost the momentum, but I have a few comments First of all, If you never read Kurt Vonnegut I would not start with this one It is very good but I believe it would be better savored by readers that already enjoyed other works by the author This is his first novel and his fragmented writing style and satire is not fully developed The humor is subtle and some of the plot is a bit dated I started with Slaughterhouse 5 and continued with Th Cat s Cradle That order was fine for me Player Piano imagines a world where most jobs became obsolete due to the extensive use of machines to replace the use of less productive humans There are many important issues discussed here but the ones that seemed most in tone with the current world were about the corporate personality and about the pitfalls of standardizing the evaluation of people in schools jobs or as human beings Kurt Vonnegut is gradually becoming one of my favorite writers He was a genius. Disappointed in this one, it was underwhelming I hadn t read Vonnegut in a long time and was excited to read this Unfortunately I found the characters rather unlikable, obnoxious, one dimensional caricatures, while the narrative operated like a chess game in which I could guess most every move before it was made I also found the messaging heavy handed Yeah, I agree or at least am concerned with most of the themes brought up, but it was done with a lack of subtlety that grated on me.In terms of the societal and cultural critique I generally align with many of Vonnegut s positions The critique encompasses worship of technology, efficiency, productivity, growth, meritocracy, materialism above all else There is critique of elites hoarding opportunities, classism, all powerful and dictatorial corporations that strip away our rights couching it under the guise of freedom and progress , the rules and rigidity of corporate management and bureaucracy, marriage of corporations and police state In this atmosphere the powerful use their moralizing as a cudgel on poorer people the underclass to strip away their humanity sound familiar Warps into a vulgar sort of anti humanism camouflaged by grandiose and caricatured moralizing In this book elites tell themselves they are heroes, moral heroes, saving the rest of humanity while in actuality most of their actions and motives are self serving and based on consolidating or increasing their power Vonnegut makes commentary on all that The one aspect he doesn t touch on is the environmental aspect and worries from an unrestrained system that cannibalizes everything in sight, and for me I see that as one of the most important issues that could lead to global civilizational crisis But it s completely understandable that he doesn t hit this aspect because I don t think it was in the cultural zeitgeist of the times, it would take a few decades before this concern would really start to blossom in the culture.There is a strong critique of techno utopianism here, and that s cool I m fine with that, although Vonnegut comes across as pessimistic than me on technology Technology is mere tool, it is how humans use and apply it that matters Technology, with proper policy and decent thinking, can benefit broad swathes of humanity I don t fear machines, I don t fear technology, but I worry about the humans behind the machines who leverage these things for their power The question is will the powerful keep co opting technology in order to keep funneling and consolidating power and control for themselves, further walling themselves off from the rest of society or will we have sensible policy and management of these technologies that allows a diverse range of people to benefit I think we need to work hard to make sure society as a whole benefits.I don t know a lot about the Frankfurt School, I ve only read a few articles But I wouldn t be surprised if Vonnegut was strongly influenced by their ideas and cultural critique because his own critique pretty much mirrors many of their views In their views there is a cultural and spiritual sickness plaguing the modern world, with a cult of instrumental reason driving the way is easy to critique materialism, and the cult of materialism Unfortunately I think it is valid, there is a spiritual and cultural vacuum and this materialism is filling the void in our culture and our lives Materialism wouldn t matter as much if we had solid foundations in spirit and culture I do think the pendulum may be starting to swing the other way against hyperconsumerism, but it s hard for me to say for sure In the end I just don t think hyperconsumerism is sustainable, not just in regards to the environment, but not sustainable in the economic, societal, and cultural aspects.I do appreciate this book for its themes, its prescience, and its relevance to today s problems I love Vonnegut in general but like I said, in spite of the themes I was disappointed with story telling, characters, and ideological heavy handedness The themes do pose very important questions, questions that we will keep struggling to answer in the coming generations.