A Satirical Take On a Post-Scarcity Society

An overview and reflection on Player Piano, a novel by Kurt Vonnegut

Player Piano

What does it mean to be human in a world where automation has devalued almost all human labor? This is the central theme of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1952 novel, Player Piano. In the beginning, we’re introduced to Paul Proteus, an engineering manager of a plant in futuristic New York who is a rising star within his company. This is partly because of his famous father who kickstarted the mechanization of the entire country. In this world, machines have gotten to the point where they do everything from mundane chores like house cleaning, to deciding your career path.

As a result, the world is divided into engineers who maintain and create machines, and the rest of the population who work in reclamation works or in the army. The latter two which serve no real purpose, other than giving people something to do. As the book progresses, we watch as Paul grows disillusioned with the state of things, and begins to contemplate a life without machines. He’s soon persuaded by one of his former colleagues to join a rebellion and become its figurehead. When the rebellion is in full swing, it soon gets out of control and we see the widespread destruction of even machines whose sole purpose was only to make orange juice. Yet, surprisingly, towards the end of the book, the same people who destroyed the machines are now trying to fix and repair them. At this point, Paul and his conspirators realize their rebellion is over and turn themselves over to the army.

While Paul’s story was the main plot line, there were also several sub-plot lines which provide for some interesting commentary. One was the American tour of the Shah of Bratpuhr, a spiritual leader of an un-mechanized nation. The goal of this tour was to convince the Shah of the value that mass mechanization can provide for him and his people. Throughout his tour, there are several funny mistranslations. He often calls workers on the side of the road “Takaru”, or slaves in his language. His translator tries and fails to correct him, stating that they are in fact citizens employed by the government. Although it’s quite clear that the mechanization has turned a large swath of society into indentured slaves. Another interesting scene is when the Shah asks a spiritual riddle to the giant computer brain EPICAC. In his religion, the entity that can answer the riddle will signify the arrival of an “all-wise-god”. In this case, the machine fails to provide an answer, and the Shah is dismayed to realize that it is, in fact, a false god. Despite all the technological advances, the computer is still unable to answer our deepest questions or give life meaning.

When you think about what the world will look like post-mechanization, there may be some obvious advantages. Dangerous work will be non-existent, and people may have more free time to explore their interests. Yet the implicit assumption here is that in this post-scarcity society, people will be able to create meaning for themselves. It’s clear however that the citizens of this world are not up to the task, as alcoholism and suicide are rampant.

The book draws an interesting parallel as well to the story of the Native Americans and settlers. After their lands were taken over, these once proud people felt displaced. No longer were great hunters given an opportunity to hunt and prove their worth. Leaders could no longer lead due to an imbalance that guns gave to the settlers. In this new world, their old values didn’t apply anymore. Similarly, in this futuristic world, the values of a pre-mechanized America were not compatible with the realities of an under-utilized workforce. Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher from the 19th century talks about the need for a revaluation of values. While this call for a revaluation of values was in the context of reevaluating Christian values, a similar case can be made in this post-scarcity society. The only way to prevent a stark class divide and massive inequity is to reevaluate all our closest held values and beliefs. Beyond this task, which in itself is a herculean effort, it would be almost impossible to stem the tide of automation and its consequences. Any attempt to regulate it will only lead to other countries adopting mechanization and leaving the laggard countries in the dust.

It’s quite clear that despite this book having been written almost 70 years ago, it has great relevance for our current society which is increasingly mechanizing its workforce. While it’s true that technology has often added more jobs than it’s replaced in the past, that may not always be the case going forward. As such it’s important to start thinking about what it means to live in a post-scarcity society. Specifically, looking at the values that we and society hold, and whether the institutions we have set up are conducive to those values.

There’s a high likelihood that the future will lead to widening inequality if we don’t navigate mass mechanization carefully. Individuals who find themselves displaced due to no fault of their own may struggle to find work and meaning. Those unable to find meaning will likely try to distract themselves whether through drugs, alcohol or some other means. Those who reap the windfall of this technological boom will be insulated from any of the fallout. While this may seem like a bleak vision of the future, it does not seem at all inconceivable.

The alternative path is a much harder one and which in itself will bring a lot of pain and turmoil but may at the very least lead to a brighter future. Specifically, the destruction and creation of new institutions and values. In a world where machines have mechanized most labor, does it make sense to have the educational institutions we have? How about the value systems and incentive structures, that may have served us well in the past but may not be suited for the future ahead? These are all important questions to ask, and while we may not always like the answer, Vonnegut does a brilliant job of painting a vision of a future where our values stay the same, but the environment changes drastically. Ultimately Player Piano leaves us with the sense that if we fail to address these fundamental issues than the future may indeed be quite bleak for the majority of the world.

 Data Scientist. I write about Data Science and other topics I find interesting