Vonnegut’s central critiques in Player Piano are that automation technologies are often dangerous because they replace work that gives value to human lives and that technology is addictive. Academics have explored some of these same ideas in their own discussions of the place of automation in society. Social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff in In the Age of the Smart Machine (1988) makes the argument that the more automation we allow into our lives, the less we will know how to do ourselves.[1] She also questions if this is really the type of world we want to live in and thinks that we should consider the consequences that the technology that we create can have on our lives. In addition historian Langdon Winner, in Autonomous Technology, believes that technological innovation can be stopped by humanity at any time and that restraint is a part of the human experience with technology.

According to Vonnegut 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 Vonnegut, it was terrible for 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 Vonnegut the idea for what would become his first novel.[2]

Vonnegut took his experience watching the computer-programmed lathe at GE and transformed his discomfort with the loss of purpose that one feels when one no longer has meaningful work to do into his first novel, Player Piano.[3] Although in 1952, 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.[4] The book begins with a stark realization from the narrator, 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.”[5] From there, Vonnegut’s imagined world of managers and engineers, only gets more complicated, with a third industrial revolution following a third world war, a revolution where human work has almost entirely been replaced by machines.[6] He does not just imagine a world where the factory is the only setting where workers are being replaced; by the end of the novel the engineers themselves are being replaced by the very machines they create. Checkers Charlie, a robot invented with the sole purpose of beating Paul Proteus at checkers, realizes that machines have become 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 will become machines to maintain society.[7]

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 remove that purpose. It does not matter if a person is clothed, housed, and well-fed, if they have nothing which makes them want to get out of bed in the morning. Every person who lives in the Homestead drinks and loiters about all day, with nothing driving them. The military laborers (men who quite literally dig ditches for a living) have barely more sense of person than the people living in the Homestead. The EPCIAC 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.[8] As machines become more human, as in the case of the EPICAC, they present an ever greater danger. The philosopher of technology Langdon Winner explained Player Piano as follows, “human life is transferred into artifice. Men export their own vital powers—the ability to move, to experience, to think—into the devices of their making.”[9] The most interesting thing to note, however, about this novel and what it says about Vonnegut’s own views on culture and humanity is the ending where the overthrowers of technology return to technology 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.[10]

Vonnegut’s critique of industrialization recognizes that modern technology has made production so efficient that humans are increasingly becoming necessary not as workers who produce goods, but as consumers who buy them. Vonnegut was not a socialist; remember, this is the man who owned a car dealership during the 1950s. 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. There was much 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-automated within industry and the home. As the historian Mark Greif states, “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.”[11]

To better understand Vonnegut’s novel in its historical context, it is useful to see some contemporary examples of similar writers and commentators. He fits into a discussion during the 1950s and 1960s about machines replacing humans. 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.[12] Herbert Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964) makes the argument that consumerism is a form of social control, suggesting that the 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.[13] 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.[14] “Mechanization is increasingly reducing the quantity and intensity of physical energy expended in labor.”[15] Marcuse blames all of this on automation, for it “appears to be the great catalyst of advanced industrial society.”[16] Movies likewise supported Vonnegut’s concerns. Take, for example, Desk Set (1957), where computing technology dismantles social purpose by eliminating work. In the movie we are presented with a world where technology has advanced to the point where it is not just replacing working-class jobs, as we see at the beginning of Player Piano, but also eliminating the jobs of researchers and librarians, something which happens toward the climax of Player Piano.

On the other end of the spectrum are futurists like Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, and Isaac Asimov, one of the most renowned writers of science fiction in 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 of the power that robotics provides in replacing in human labor. Wiener, though, says “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.”[17] Wiener coined the term “cybernetics” in 1948 in his book Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.[18] 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 for society. Historian Ronald Kline discusses this connection in the first chapter of his book The Cybernetics Moment: Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age (2015). Kline believes that Vonnegut was reacting to a wider “cybernetics craze” which was occurring during this period in science fiction and disagreed with Wiener’s stance that having more free-time could lead to real life fulfillment. Kline is correct. Wiener makes some interesting points about a new emphasis on the arts when more menial tasks are completed by machines. However, Player Piano and The Human Use of Human Beings were published the same year, and it is hard to imagine that Vonnegut had much knowledge of the text.

Wiener’s ideas about automation paint a much more positive vision for this technology than Player Piano, 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.”[19] 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. This book is an argument for the “progress” of human society in all facets, not just in automation, and technologies related to corporate America and production. 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.

The progress narrative of science is one which some real-life scientists themselves hold fast to, such as Arthur H. Compton, who had the honor of writing the introduction to One World or None, the critical text released in 1946, after the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. The authors are concerned about nuclear weapons, but overall, they believe that atomic technology and weaponry is inevitable: “the worldwide growth of science and technology is the main line of the rapid evolution of man into a social being whose community is the world. The release of atomic energy is but a dramatic step in this evolution.”[20] 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, technological progress is not inevitable, but human use of existing technologies is. We are our own worst enemy. This is part of what makes Vonnegut’s perspective on technology so interesting because he overwhelmingly seems to hold the opinion that the biggest danger that technology presents comes not from the something inherent in the technology, but instead from those who use it. It is humans who allow for technology to get out of hand. This very aspect of Vonnegut’s views on technology makes him the most similar Irving Langmuir because they share in a belief that scientific and technological progress is inevitable, because there is something inherent in humans that makes it so.

[1] Shoshana Zuboff. In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power (New York: Basic Books, 1988):5.

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

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

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

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

[6] Ibid., 52.

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

[8] 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.

[9] Langdon Winner. Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought. (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1977): 34.

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

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

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

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

[14] Ibid., 1.

[15] Ibid., 24.

[16] Ibid., 36.

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

[18] “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.’ 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.

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

[20] Arthur H. Compton. “Introduction” in One World or None edited by Dexter Masters and Katharine Way (New York: McGraw-Hill Book CO, 1946): v.