Vonnegut came to General Electric on the heels of the success of his older brother, Bernard, taking a job in the public relations department. Bernard’s work at GE will be discussed in more depth later, especially his close proximity to Nobel Prize winning chemist Irving Langmuir, however, for now it suffices to say that Bernard was everything which the Vonneguts’ father wished for his sons to become. He had a stable job in a science, working for a major corporation, and was on the cusp of becoming nationally renowned for his working under Langmuir. Kurt, on the other hand, was no scientist, as much as his father would have liked him to become one.[1] In a 1977 interview in The Paris Review, Vonnegut states,

I’m no scientists at all. I’m glad, though, now that I was pressured into becoming a scientist by my father and my brother. I understand how scientific reasoning and playfulness work, even though I have no talent for joining in. I enjoy the company of scientists, am easily excited and entertained when they tell me what they’re doing. I’ve spent a lot more time with scientists than with literary people, my brother’s friends, mostly. I enjoy plumbers and carpenters and automobile mechanics, too.[2]

While science and technology are subjects which Vonnegut finds enjoyable to think about, he didn’t practice them himself, thus making the job in the public relations department seemingly perfect. In a letter written as part of his application to General Electric in 1947, Vonnegut touts his scientific education, with three years of work in biochemistry at Cornell and mechanical engineering training received in the military.[3] He seemed to understand that having an understanding of science could only help him moving forward from the war, even if he was currently studying cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago.

However Vonnegut was massively uncomfortable during his time at General Electric, for two distinct reasons. First the specific environment which accompanies working at a company like GE, made him uneasy. Furthermore, his job in the public relations department, specifically working to promote the work of the company, only made matters worse, due in part to the specifics of him promoting corporate science as an enterprise. This will be covered in depth later. Second, the work that General Electric was doing, both in its industrial research lab, and on the factory lines, left such a lasting impact on Vonnegut, that he spent an entire novel working to spell out the dangers of machines doing the work of men, Player Piano. Moreover, a small piece of the individual is given up when working to create technologies for companies such as General Electric. In a speech given to students at MIT in 1985, Vonnegut states, “In order to survive and even prosper, most of you will have to make somebody else’s technological dreams come true-along with your own, of course. You will have to form that mixture of dreams we call a partnership-or more romantically, a marriage.”[4]

According to Kurt, one of the most influential events of his tenure at GE was watching the computer-programmed lathe slide back and forth over the steel blades, honing them to within microns of perfection. It was a small event but symbolic of much more. Craftsmanship was a mature talent, learned and passed through generations. And here was a device operating tirelessly, doing what took a person a lifetime to learn. For Kurt, it was terrible for the human beings who took pride in their jobs. Two forces were vying, technology and humanity, and General Electric was at the center of the contest. The conflict between technology and humanity gave him an idea for what would become his first novel, one with overtones of science fiction.[5]

Vonnegut maintained a belief that our world had become addicted to technology, a codependency that threatened to render Earth itself dysfunctional throughout his nearly sixty-year professional writing career. “That is the dilemma faced by the reluctant Luddite: which machines to destroy, and which to save.”[6] However, nothing is ever unequivocal with Vonnegut. For example, this Luddite is willing to use a typewriter-but it must be manual. Nineteenth-century machines are, apparently, traditional enough for Vonnegut—it is only his own century that appalls him.[7] That is not to say that Vonnegut does not embrace being termed a Luddite by his critics. In his autobiography, A Man Without a Country, he brags, “I have been called a Luddite. I welcome it. Do you know what a Luddite is? A person who hates newfangled contraptions.”[8] This aversion to technology “newfangled contraptions,” comes both from a fear of what a reliance on technology will bring to the world (a macro-level fear) and the worry that relying too heavily on technology would remove the individual identity from people (a micro-level fear).[9] The first fear is ever-present in Cat’s Cradle, with the world-ending technology of ice-nine realizing what Vonnegut calls a heavy reliance on “technology” will bring to humanity, while the plot of Player Piano surrounds the ways which automation technology removes purpose from people. This process starts when the mechanical genius of Rudy the machinist is captured on a loop of magnetic tape and transformed into the operating instructions for a unit of the automated assembly line. Rudy himself is thus rendered superfluous, becoming a drunk in the local tavern who listens in admiration to the player piano that has been the model for his own co-optation.

A brief note on what Vonnegut means by the word “technology” and what how I will be using the term moving forward. As a writer who is greatly concerned about technology, Vonnegut is surprisingly lax in his use of the term, and is rarely specific in his imaginings of the ways which technology is used. For instance, what is remarkable about the world which he creates in Player Piano, is that Vonnegut works with and describes technology contemporary to its publication. EPICAC, clearly a close relative to ENIAC (the real life computing machine), was a late 1940s version of a computer, encompassing an entire room. Vonnegut often does not attempt to create technologies that could not exist outside of his own time and place, and when he does, in the case of ice-nine, he blackboxes the specifics of what makes them novel. Vonnegut uses the term “technology” in the broadest sense. As for myself, I will be discussing what I have deemed “automation technologies” in reference to the overwhelming sentiments expressed by Vonnegut in Player Piano about machines replacing human workers, and later will explore “world-ending technologies” which combines ice-nine from Cat’s Cradle, and Vonnegut’s general attitudes towards weapons of war.

Vonnegut is of two minds when it comes to accepting technology (and people closely associated new technologies) into our lives. There is a fear within him, about automation, about war, about “technology” encompassing every moment of our lives. I think I can say with some measure of confidence that had he lived a mere three months longer, Vonnegut would have been appalled at Apple’s release of the first iPhone in June of 2007. As a man raised in a household which revered scientists and engineers, there was a level of regret to his fears about technology. With technologies associated with war, especially, Vonnegut expressed a rational fear, that he hoped others would share.

But for me it was terrible, after having believed so much in technology and having drawn so many pictures of dream automobiles and dream airplanes and dream human dwellings, to see the actual use of this technology in destroying a city and killing 135,000 people and then to see even more sophisticated technology in the use of nuclear weapons in Japan. I was sickened by this use of technology that I had had such great hopes for. And so I came to fear it. You know, it’s like being a devout Christian and then seeing some horrible massacres conducted by Christians after a victory. It was a spiritual horror of that sort which I still carry today.”[10]

However fearful Vonnegut was of the weapons which we could create, he would never go so far as to believe all technology should be feared, despite his self-characterization as a Luddite. Vonnegut was a critic of science and technology because he both believed he understood science and technology, and maintained a certain fascination with those who partook in the enterprises he never had the talent to pursue. He was deeply upset by literary critics who took it upon themselves to both dismiss Vonnegut as a less than serious artist because of his technical education, and criticize technology with no technical knowledge themselves. “I know that customarily English departments in universities, without knowing what they’re doing, teach dread of the engineering, physics, and chemistry departments. And this fear, I think, is carried over into criticism. Most of our critics are products of English departments and are very suspicious of anyone who takes an interest in technology.”[11]

Vonnegut took his experience watching the computer-programmed lathe at GE, and transformed his discomfort with the loss of purpose that one feels when they no longer have meaningful work to do into his first novel, Player Piano.[12] Although in 1952, Kurt Vonnegut denied that Player Piano was a criticism of GE (Bernard was still employed by the company at that time) in later interviews, Kurt conceded that the book was about the House of Magic, as the industrial research lab at GE was affectionately called.[13] The book begins with a stark realization from Vonnegut, that no jobs are safe from machines, since “during the war, the managers and engineers had found that the bulk of secretarial work could be done…more quickly and efficiently and cheaply by machines.”[14] From there, Vonnegut’s imagined world, of managers and engineers, only gets more real, with a third industrial revolution following a third world war, a revolution where human work has almost entirely been replaced by machines.[15] The jobs which Vonnegut imagines being done by machines goes beyond assembly line work, creeping into teaching, games such as checkers, and even the engineers themselves. Checkers Charlie, a robot invented with the sole purpose of beating Paul Proteus at checkers, realizes a great fear of Vonnegut’s: machines being equal to humans in all ways. Paul’s imagining of “civilization as a vast and faulty dike,” with thousands of men “in a rank stretching to the horizon, each man grimly stopping a leak with his finger” harkens to later writings of Vonnegut, and his fears that people have become machines, rather than individuals, working an assembly line to maintain society.[16]

Vonnegut’s main argument is that people of all walks of life draw some measure of purpose from the work they do every day, and machines replacing those jobs removes purpose from life. It does not matter is a person is clothed, housed, and well-fed, if they have nothing to do all day, nothing which makes them want to get out of bed in the morning. Every person who lives in the Homestead drinks and just loiters about all day, with nothing driving them. The military labors (men who quite literally dig ditches for a living) have barely more sense of person than the people living in the Homestead. The EPIAC machine, the computer which runs Ilium and is the ultimate piece of machinery, has the sole purpose of assigning people to their proper place in society.[17] According to Vonnegut, automation technologies are sucking the souls out of people, especially once those machines become a little more human, and a little less machine like, as is the case of EPICAC. “Mary Shelley wrote prophetically at the dawn of technological system thinking. She does not treat the monster as a machine, but neither is it human despite its articulate and moving speech. Still less is it an animal. Neither its creator nor any other person in the story give it a name of its own.”[18] The most interesting thing to note, however, about this novel and what it says about Kurt’s own views on culture and humanity, is the ending, where the overthrowers of technology, return to technology in order to rebuild society. It suggests that there is no escaping the machines which we have built, that we are trapped in a cyclical system where we will inevitably be controlled by technology.[19] In Player Piano, it would seem, that technology has become the religion.[20]

Vonnegut moves the critique of industrialization from the Marx-Engels critique (focused on production and on the dehumanizing conditions to which workers were exposed in attempts of nineteenth-century factories) to the realm of consumer capitalism, recognizing that modern technology had made production so efficient that humans are more and more becoming necessary not as workers who produce goods, but as consumers who buy them. Vonnegut also extends the argument of Marx by suggesting that this is a second industrial revolution. The book romanticizes labor, depicting even work on a factory assembly line as spiritually fulfilling without paying attention to the fact that much of such work is degrading, mind-numbing, and anything but inspirational. However, it should be noted that Vonnegut is not alone in this period, in his views on technology, especially literature which glorified the worker. By the cusp of the 1960s, the technological discourse had changed both in its mechanical and organizational dimensions. In America, high technology had come home from the factory and had been domesticated. The dishwasher, laundry machine, electric refrigerator, and countertop appliances gave the kitchen or back pantry the hands-free mechanical processes of the factory. The technology-as-organization narrative of the discourse of man, meanwhile, became through the 1950s an increasingly domestic fear that Americans were being over-organized and under-autotomized within industry, and the manager-driven corporation, not to mention the overdeveloped home sphere of ‘quality of living’ comforts. “At this point, the discourse of man on its technological side merged or collapsed into one of the best-studied and most familiar aspects of the ‘fifties’-the fear of organized conformity and tepid lifelessness amid a new managerial middle class.”[21]

Automation presented a difficult set of problems during the twentieth century, most of which we are still struggling to grapple with. First and foremost, and the issue closest to Vonnegut’s heart in Player Piano is the issue of how to weigh increased production that comes from automation with the displacement of workers. Vonnegut’s chief concern is that work gives purpose, no matter what the work being done.[22] There were some critics contemporary to the period in question who would agree with that sentiment. Chief among them was Herbert Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964). The main argument that Marcuse is trying to relay is that consumerism is a form of social control, suggesting that that claim that we are living in a democratic system is masking the reality of an authoritarian system where a few individuals dictate our perceptions of freedom. Within that discussion is a criticism of the technological structures which need to be put in place in order for this new industrial consumerism to exist.[23] To this end, with mechanization comes the “the suppression of individuality” where the person is lost to the greater enterprise, where freedom becomes less free.[24] “Mechanization is increasingly reducing the quantity and intensity of physical energy expended in labor.”[25] Marcuse blames all of this on automation, for it “appears to be the great catalyst of advanced industrial society.”[26] Movies, such as Desk Set (1957), back this idea that automation (or in the case of the film, computing technology), actively work to dismantle human purpose that work and labor used to give to people. Within Desk Set, we are presented with a world where technology has advanced to the point where it is not just replacing people with working-class jobs, as we see at the beginning of Player Piano, but now researchers and librarians run the risk of losing their jobs to machines, which begins to happen toward the climax of Player Piano. The new prosperity of the 1950s occurred within the context of a consumerist ethic that derived its energies from the creation of a never-ending and unquenchable desire that, by its very nature, made true satisfaction impossible.

On the other end of the spectrum, Vonnegut has to contend with Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics as well as Isaac Asimov, the most renowned writer of fiction of science and technology of the generation preceding Vonnegut. In Asimov’s I, Robot, a collection of short stories first compiled in 1950, there is a shared theme of the interaction of humans, robots, and morality, and combined they tell the story of Asimov’s fictional history of robots. Asimov presents a very positive view of technology and the helping power robotics replacing human labor. On the other hand, “the premise of cybernetics was a powerful analogy: that the principles of information-feedback machines, which explained how a thermostat controlled a household furnace, for example, could also explain how all living things-from the level of the cell to that of society-behaved as they interacted with their environment.”[27] Weiner coins the term in 1948 in his book Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.[28] However it is his text The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (1952) which acts as a counterpoint to Player Piano because his central thesis is that automation holds real benefits to society. Wiener is taking the plot of Player Piano and telling it as a positive story, where the people in “The Homestead” have leisure time to pursue a higher order of activity, rather than lowering themselves to the manual labor that the machines can do for them.  The thesis of the book is that “society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part.”[29] This idea of message transmission between humans and machines, a sort of co-op of living in harmony with machines, fits with the general theme of the 1950s, that we all come together to create progress. When it comes down to it, that is what the entirety of this book is, it is an argument for the “progress” of human society, in all facets, not just in automation, and technologies related to corporate America and production. It should be noted, though, that Vonnegut and Wiener do agree on one key technological issue, they are both skeptical of automatons, Wiener because humans tend to treat machines badly and if you have machines which can learn and think and interact in a nearly human way, they can escape our control, or we might even become entirely dependent or controlled by them. There is danger in trusting too much in machines because they have not yet learned to think abstractly. This is very different from Asimov and his positive outlook on artificial intelligence.

Popular views of progress often equate it with increasing complexity as well as with motion and speed. Technology, like culture, is Lamarckian rather than Darwinian: that is, society and culture retain, as an inherited trait, technological and cultural innovations whereas humans can neither biologically inherit nor build on previous generation’s accomplishments. There is no absolute barrier to what they may accomplish through technology, but clearly there remains an absolute barrier to what humans can do physically in addition to the seemingly insuperable barrier to what they may become morally. Progress in technology thus does not equate with progress in humanity, despite the fuzzy popular linking of the two. “Technology represents intelligence systematically applied to the problem of the body. It functions to amplify and surpass the organic limits of the body; it compensates for the body’s fragility and vulnerability.”[30] Far from losing confidence in science and technology, citizens of the developed world have come to expect ever-higher standards of accuracy and protection. Vonnegut maintains a view of progress as but an illusion of motion going somewhere (Cat’s Cradle), a delusion of society advancing (Player Piano), or a series of chimerical detours through life (Slaughterhouse-Five). For Vonnegut, the progress of technology, in the broadest sense of the term, is not something which is inevitable. However, once certain technologies have been created, such as the automative technologies in Player Piano, and we come to rely on them, it is inevitable that we will continue to use them, that breaking from the cycle of their use is impossible, in his view. We are our own worst enemy.

[1] “I’m technologically educated-I’m educated as a chemist, not as a writer. I was studying chemistry at the time and was from a technocratic family. During the Depression we really believed that scientists and engineers should be put in charge and that a technological utopia was possible. My brother, who is nine year older than I am, became a distinguished scientist. He’s Dr. Bernard Vonnegut, who got a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The flashiest thing he discovered was that silver iodide will make it snow and rain. That’s his patent. He is actually a leading atmospheric chemist now.” Kurt Vonnegut in August 1980 interview with Robert Musil in The Nation

[2] David Hayman, David Michaelis, George Plimpton, and Richard Rhodes. “Kurt Vonnegut, the Art of Fiction” in The Paris Review No. 69 (1977): 39

[3] Kurt Vonnegut to General Electric. April 26, 1947

[4] Kurt Vonnegut, “Speech at MIT” (1985), in Fates Worse than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s by Kurt Vonnegut (New York: G.P Putnam’s Sons, 1991): 118

[5] As noted before, from a historical standpoint, Vonnegut is writing science fiction, this is not a genre classification

[6] Hartley Spatt. “Ludic Luddite” in At Millennium’s End: New Essays on the Work of Kurt Vonnegut edited by Kevin Boon (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001): 120

[7] Ibid., 120

[8] Kurt Vonnegut. A Man Without a Country. (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005): 55

[9] “Critics feel that a person cannot be a serious artist and also have had a technical education, which I had.” Kurt Vonnegut. A Man Without a Country. (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005): 56

[10] Robert Musil. “There Must be More to Love than Death: Interview with Kurt Vonnegut” in The Nation (August 1980): 69

[11] Kurt Vonnegut. A Man Without a Country. (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005): 56

[12] It’s no longer enough to be just smart in the world of Player Piano, you have to be the right kind of smart

[13]“Kurt Vonnegut Interview.” Playboy. July 1973

[14] Kurt Vonnegut. Player Piano. (New York: Dial Press, 2006): 2

[15] Ibid., 52

[16] Kurt Vonnegut. Player Piano. (New York: Dial Press, 2006): 152; “Kurt Vonnegut Interview.” Playboy, July 1973

[17] Adam T. Bogar. “Can a Machine Be a Gentleman? Machine Ethics and Ethical Machine” in Critical Insights: Kurt Vonnegut edited by Robert Tally Jr (Amenia, NY: Salem Press, 2013): 248

[18] Edward Tenner. Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1996)

[19] Kurt Vonnegut. Player Piano. (New York: Dial Press, 2006): 341

[20] Jerome Klinkowitz. Kurt Vonnegut’s America. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2009): 19

[21] Mark Greif. The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015): 228

[22] Vonnegut likes to point to assembly line work as being meaningful, even though he has no conception of what those jobs actually entail

[23] Herbert Marcus. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964): 9

[24] Ibid., 1

[25] Ibid., 24

[26] Ibid., 36

[27] Ronald R. Kline. The Cybernetics Moment: Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015): 1-2

[28] “Cybernetics, the “new science” with the mysterious name and universal aspirations, was interpreted even more broadly. In 1969, Georges Boulanger, the president of the International Association of Cybernetics, asked, “But after all what is cybernetics? Or rather what is it not, for paradoxically the more people talk about cybernetics the less they seem to agree on a definition.” He identified several meanings of cybernetics: a mathematical theory of control; automation; computerization; a theory of communication; the study of analogies between humans and machines; and a philosophy explaining the mysteries of life. To the general public, Boulanger noted, cybernetics “conjures up visions of some fantastic world of the future peopled by robots and electronic brains!” His favorite definition was the “science of robots.” 11 Cybernetics was a staple of science fiction and a fad among artists, musicians, and intellectuals in the 1950s and 1960s. Writer James Baldwin recalled that the “cybernetics craze” was emblematic of the period for him.” In The Cybernetics Moment by Ronald Kline (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015): 7

[29] Norbert Wiener. The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 1950): 16

[30] Shoshana Zuboff. In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power. (New York: Basic Books, 1988): 22