A while back, I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, and had honestly meant to write a critique/review of the novel. Time passed, and the draft got lost along the way somewhere. The idea was revived when I was thinking last night about how all of our productivity is wasted.
My first impression was that Piano is vaguely reminiscent of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Vaguely.
Vonnegut paints a dystopian picture of a future where machines handle nearly every task known to man, which sounds pretty nice, at first. The kicker is that if you’re not smart enough (and the machines will determine who is smart and who not), you might be lucky to be able to service the machines – so long as there isn’t a machine for that, yet – and nothing more. Of course, were you not an Engineer or a Doctor, you would join the Army or you may join the R&R, both of which are essentially “make work” programs that do little in the way of making work. Both the Army and the R&R appear to be the opiates, keeping the common man dependent upon the State.
Now, the commoner earns very little money for the very little work that he does, and what little he earns is spent on drink, or on trinkets for his mistress. But the businesses who own & operate the machines are heavily taxed in a sort of State-Socialist wet-dream. From these revenues, the powerful government is able to provide everything for the commoners. Besides the serious misgivings I have about the economic framework of Vonnegut’s fictional future (i.e., nobody earns anything, yet businesses are heavily taxes and the State provides nearly everything?), I have a more serious point to address.
Player Piano embraces vulgar primitivism; it is a romanticism of times past – arduous times when men were unaided by machines. The common complaint from the citizens and rebellious engineers is not John Galt’s desire for freedom, rather it is a more ethereal plea for a “meaningful” life. Unfortunately, according to Vonnegut’s characters, the only activities which are capable of imbuing a life with meaning seem to be extramarital affairs, and back-breaking or mind-numbing labor.
There is nothing more anyonmyzing, more emotionally bankrupting, than being just one of a thousand human cogs in a machine, is there?
In the absence of a need for hard labor, would we toil nonetheless? Would we still show up to work in factories and office-buildings and strip malls? Is it really part of the human condition, to swap one monotony for another?