Though a vocal critic of science and technology throughout his career, Vonnegut was not simply anti-science or anti-technology. He had two main criticisms of technology. The first is that an overuse and overreliance on technology is dangerous, and addictive. The second is that technology can have unintended consequences. In fact, Vonnegut is criticizing not technology itself but rather the human use of technology. Understanding Vonnegut means understanding his own proficiency with science and technology. His scientific training allowed him to understand scientific concepts in broad terms, but he lacked the skill to actively practice science; remember, he failed out of Cornell in chemistry. This gave Vonnegut a more egalitarian view of scientists and engineers, lumping them together with skilled blue-collar workers like mechanics and carpenters. In Vonnegut’s view, there was something similar about all of these people; they were tinkerers. As an anthropologist of the corporate scientific culture, Vonnegut came to General Electric working in the public relations department.[1] In a 1977 interview in The Paris Review, Vonnegut states,

I’m no scientist 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]


In a letter written as part of his application to General Electric in 1947, Vonnegut touts his scientific education, with two years of work in biochemistry at Cornell and mechanical engineering training received in the military.[3]

Truly understanding what Vonnegut thought about science and technology is difficult because he offers conflicting perspectives and opinions on almost every subject he touches.[4] Vonnegut spent most of his career critiquing the military industrial complex, nuclear weapons, evolutionary biology, automation, and quantum physics, but he claimed to very much like science.[5] He came from a family that lauded scientific and technical thinking, and he had a fairly strong background in science, which he never seemed to feel ashamed of or tried to hide. Neither of those aspects of his life directly conflict, but they do present a conundrum. He was raised with the expectation that he would become a scientist like his older brother. Indeed, he greatly admired Bernard, both as a man, and as a scientist.[6]

While he himself was not a scientist, and did not seem to hold the necessary talent for practicing science, Vonnegut resembled scientists of this era. He loved understanding the way the world around him worked.[7] He loved cars, and airplanes, and used to build models in his parents’ basement as a youth, and he owned a Fiat dealership later in life and enjoyed working with the mechanics on the cars. [8] Some of his best friends were scientists and engineers, as well as carpenters and plumbers.[9] Vonnegut did not seem to make a distinction between tinkering and practicing science in the ways he talked about the two groups of people. It should be noted that there is much epistemological work in philosophy of science today, which is trying to bridge the gap between the idea of scientific theory and tinkering.[10]

Vonnegut clearly made a distinction between the hard sciences and the human sciences. After serving in the military, Vonnegut went to the University of Chicago to work on a master’s degree in cultural anthropology, but he apparently did not view it as a science in the same way that he saw biology, chemistry, and physics as science. Science, to Vonnegut, was about understanding nature and all its complexities. There are several passages in his novels that seem to speak with a genuine appreciation of science, highlighting the wonder in nature as expressed by Jonah at the end of Cat’s Cradle and in Paul Proteus’s curiosity about machines in Player Piano. While Proteus expresses cynicism and fear behind what machines can do, he nevertheless finds new technology interesting, much in the same way Vonnegut did.

Understanding humans, on the other hand, was something else entirely. It was, ultimately, what Vonnegut set out to do with the rest of his life after leaving General Electric, and understanding science and technology were a large part of that. But for Vonnegut, science and technology reflected on humanity, rather than acting as the mechanism within which to study them. Vonnegut’s chief criticisms of science and technology have always been the ways in which people use them, rather than about the inventions themselves. In Player Piano, the EPICAC is not necessarily the enemy of people, but once it is used as a means of pigeon-holing people and defining their worth, it does become dangerous. In Cat’s Cradle, ice-nine is not itself dangerous, it is just a substance that raises the freezing temperature of water. It is only when people get involved, that its deadly uses are uncovered. Humans are messy and unpredictable. Vonnegut finds nature curious but easier to define, which is why he separates his study of humans from his understanding of the study of science.

Vonnegut maintained a belief that our world had become addicted to technology, a codependency that threatened to render humanity itself dysfunctional. The perceptive literary critic Hartley Spatt commented: “That is the dilemma faced by the reluctant Luddite: which machines to destroy, and which to save.”[11] 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.[12] 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.”[13] 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).[14]

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 him 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.”[15] The same decade that Vonnegut began his literary career, C.P. Snow gave a lecture titled The Two Cultures, with its central thesis being that intellectual life in the western world is divided between the sciences and the humanities, and this division is ultimately a major issue.[16] Knowing how Vonnegut felt about disciplinary boundaries, I believe he would agree with this sentiment.

[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] He will even conflict himself within single paragraphs of writing. See “Letter to Charles McCarthy” from 1973. Vonnegut contradicts both his own ideas about what it means to be an American, and how he personally views himself within the space of the two-page letter.

[5] A Man Without A Country, Cat’s Cradle, Galapagos, Player Piano, and Slaughterhouse-Five offer just a few examples of these critiques.

[6] Kurt Vonnegut. Fates Worst than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s. (New York: G.P Putnam Sons, 1991): 117.

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

[8]Charles Shields. And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, a Life. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2011)

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

[10] Journals such as Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Mathematics & Technology Education, and the Journal of Chemical Education have dedicated numerous articles to the discussion in recent years.

[11] 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.

[12] Ibid., 120

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

[14] “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

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

[16] Charles Percy Snow. The Two Cultures. (London: Cambridge University Press, 1959)