Player Piano

Book Reflection

At my husband’s recommendation, I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano. Perhaps one of the most striking things about this 1952 tale of dystopia is how it seems to embody some of the ideals of the agrarian author Wendell Berry.

In his crisp, succinct language, Vonnegut describes the hollowness experienced by those living entirely dependent on machinery. The common man has only two career options available: to join the army or to join the reconstruction corps. Both offer only mundane tasks that cannot provide satisfaction to the worker. Their work serves little more purpose than to prevent loitering and looting. They have no true need for work as much of their needs are computed by machines and then manufactured by other machines. They have readily available any thing they desire – as long as what they desire can be massed produced. They have achieved what Wendell Berry calls in his essay Feminism, the Body and the Machine, “the higher aims of technological progress,” which he defines as money and ease. Although surrounded by money and ease the people of Vonnegut’s tale find little satisfaction. They cannot find a place or purpose for themselves.
Vonnegut suggests that the common man has accepted innovation without consideration — a thing Berry cautions again. In Feminism, the Body and the Machine, Berry says “The question of the desirability of adopting any technological innovation is a question with two possible answers – not one, as has been commonly assumed. If one’s motives are money, ease, and haste to arrive in a technologically determined future, then the answer is foregone, and there is, in fact, no question, and no thought. If one’s motives is the love of family, community, country and God, then one will have to think, and one may have to decide that a proposed innovation is undesirable.”
In Player Piano, man’s blind acceptance of technology resulted in his slavery. Machines became more efficient and precise than men and eventually supplanted men. Not only could the machine perform the task more rapidly and with fewer errors, it did not require lunch breaks, bathrooms, or coffee. The machine was the ideal slave. But by being so, it enslaved man. “Any one who competes with slaves becomes a slave,” writes Vonnegut. Man could not achieve the iron perfection of the machinery and thus were subjected to fruitless, menial tasks.
The idea of being enslaved by machines – and by the mass-produced efficiency they provided – is repeated throughout the novel. It’s particularly evident when the Shah of Bratpuhr tours America’s grand mechanized society. Much to the exasperation of his host, the Shah insists on referring to all common Americans as slaves. Rather than refuting his opinion, the Shah’s visit reinforces his view of man provided for by machines and engineers as slaves. Their status being determined solely based on their IQ and a college degree. Those with intelligence and appropriate lineage were admitted into colleges and eventually became part of the higher class – those of managers and engineers. Those who were not able to earn degrees were condemned to a position of slavery.
Vonnegut’s book cries for modern man – whether it’s the man of the 1950s or of 2010 – to carefully consider technology before accepting it. Not all innovations, his story warns, leads to joy. There is a danger in pursuing only ease, money and efficiency.

Book Review in Brief:
In his first novel, Kurt Vonnegut creates a society where the majority of work is completed by machines. The elite rulers are either engineers or managers responsible for the machines and the common man is left without a role. Readers follow engineer Dr. Paul Proteus as he learns of the unintended consequences caused by this society.
While Vonnegut’s tale occasionally displays its age, it also provides plenty of fodder for our current generation to consider. His commentary on technology, the role of man, and life in general remain fresh.
In conclusion, I would recommend reading this book, but I would not place it amongst my top 10 favorites.

About beewhisper

Christian, Mama, Wife, Gardener, Beekeeper
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