Vonnegut’s Prophecy: The Danger of Automation

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Book cover for "Player Piano"

The player piano, a recurring symbol in Vonnegut's novel, represents the mechanization of society.

Ben Ewing, Writer

Since before H.G. Wells ever wrote “The Time Machine,” science fiction figures from iconic author Isaac Asimov to the epic “Star Trek” franchise have presented fantastical glimpses into the land of our future.

An astounding number of these far-fetched notions, such as mobile communications, advanced robotics and space travel have come to fruition before our very eyes. While many of these prophetic musings excite our ambition, others still offer insightful criticism of current cultural attitudes, growing only more caustic as time progresses.

One such intriguing piece of sci-fi literature, written by beloved counter-culture satirist Kurt Vonnegut, is becoming particularly topical in recent years. “Player Piano” is a dystopian novel dealing with mass automation and the effect that the apparent superiority of machines can have on humans, from common laborers to tradesmen and doctors, as they find their livelihoods swallowed up by mechanization.

Although all of the citizens in Vonnegut’s future United States have their material needs met by an obliging and bountiful government, the people suffer a critical blow to their sense of purpose. As workers are made obsolete by more reliable and efficient machines, a rift is formed between the society’s “haves and have-nots,” those with the intellectual disposition to remain employed and those without.

The novel’s protagonist, Dr. Paul Proteus, is a Head of Industry in the town of Illium, and a well-respected member of the social elite; however, when Proteus communes with an old friend and dissenting co-worker, he begins a tumultuous fall from grace, bringing much of his corrupt  society down with him.

As Proteus weaves his way through the whimsically dark plot of the novel, Vonnegut paints the “writing on the wall” and makes it painfully obvious that such a moral conflict is closer than any of us could imagine.

Will Man always be the most formidable machine on Earth, and what will become of him if he devises a machine greater than himself?

Some would argue that although physical and logical tasks could theoretically be done best by automatons, culture, philosophy, art, personal relationships and the broad spectrum of emotion will remain uniquely human phenomena.