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retro reads :: Player Piano and why it’s relevant today

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slaughter house five by kurt vonnegut wasn’t assigned to me in high school but if it had been, as with most books on the class reading list, i probably wouldnt have read it anyway. although i often prefer male authors to female, the hyper-masculine stories about war and hunting don’t appeal to me. i once heard hemingway described as a boy’s writer and that’s how i saw vonnegut, fairly or not.

it wasn’t until my early 20s that i deemed the widely-praised bestseller a cultural necessity. reluctantly, and only with a sense of duty, as opposed to pleasure, i hunkered down and slogged my way through it. 10 years later i couldnt summarize the plot or the name of main character; and i’ve since moved on without any interest in rereading, or picking up another book by the author.

that was, until i read an article mentioning player piano, vonnegut’s first novel. the description didnt fit my image of him, which now seems absurd after a quick online search to refresh my memory of slaughter house, but to my misinformed self i wasnt expecting a book that could stand side by side with the science fiction classics of philip k. dick, william gibson, and ray bradbury.

set in an unspecified future, in an upstate new york town of Ilium, a place not unlike others in this dystopic america, player piano is a story of the struggle between man and technology: a workforce increasingly made up of machines displacing and degrading human labor.

this classic theme seems more relevant today than it did back when vonnegut penned the speculative tale nearly 60 years ago. in the midst of our technological revolution, fear of instability and cultural decline is working itself out in our news media. at the time of my reading, time magazine’s cover featured, in large bold type, the year 2045 over a photo of a hairless person with a cord plugged into the back of its head. it was, in part, a profile on ray kurzweil, possibly one of the more outspoken and recognizable touters of the singularity movement: a belief that in the near future people will create machines smart enough to create smarter versions of themselves. when this happens, human civilization as we know it will come to an end. in the same issue there was an article about social media and the rewiring of children’s brains; that same week the cover story of the atlantic was ‘artificial intelligence?: why machines will never beat the human mind,’ by brian christian, a journalist who took part in an annual turing test, an event where humans determine if a new crop of computers can act “more human” than an actual person. and, just in case we hadnt yet had our fill, leading up to the IBM supercomputer, Watson’s, appearance on the quiz show Jeopardy!, the airwaves, newspapers, and websites were teaming with commentary and interviews. one on NPR warningly called the dark side of watson, featured computer programmer martin ford who wrote a three-part series in the atlantic on artifical intelligence. the story presumes that “just as many jobs are being shipped overseas to cheaper workforces because they can be done by computer, Ford predicts the next step in that process: those same jobs will be done by artificial intelligence.” ford doesn’t have a specific date in mind but concludes that “one thing we can say though is that things are moving at a faster and faster rate. Technology — and in particular, information technology — is accelerating … and it’s going to have a very big impact at some point, a disruptive impact, I think.”

on the coattails of these provocative stories was the new yorker’s adam gopnik with an essay on the myriad of new books about technology and the transformation of our society. in the article he coins the terms “Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers.” according to gopnik who has now increased our lexicon by three:

The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.

in the dystopian future of player piano all three perspectives are represented. separated from those whose lives have been destroyed by a river and armed guards, the elites hold that everything is the the way it should be; the former workforce, its numbers decimated by machines, live in abject poverty and with an overwhelming sense of alienation, see the advancement of technology only for its catastrophic consequences; and the conflicted protagonist, paul proteus, a man born into privilege and kept there by name and blood, senses something fundamentally wrong but, unlike the dejected anarchists with nothing to lose, doesnt quite know what to do about it.

neither orthodox nor overwhelming in its approach, player piano, much like other works of classic scifi, infuses a religious element into the story. early on is a thinly-veiled buddha analogy. like siddhartha, who would later become more commonly known as buddha, paul crosses the river from his cushy engineering life to a dive bar in Reeks and Wrecks territory—the name given to the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps, the organization of manual labor—where he hopes to keep his identity under wraps so as not to invoke the wrath of forgotten victims. having been shielded from the horrors of his time, like the BC-era spiritual leader, when paul goes out into the world, beyond the well-guarded gates, he has an eye-opening experience. now seeing the destruction done to his fellow man he can’t go back to the way things were, even with his upwardly mobile wife planning every action and reaction for him. delivered with growing indifference, paul’s gestures come across empty, dispassionate. further fowling up the goodwill of his superiors is his continuing friendship with former engineer ed finnerty, believed to be involved with a group of saboteurs.

paul has one hesitant foot in the Reeks and Wrecks and the other, uncomfortably, in the life he’s always known. ultimately, he needs to make a choice, or have one made for him, because in this divided society the two cannot coexist—and therein lies the problem.

player piano is based on the age-old theme of haves vs. have-nots. the underdog, the irrelevant workers left without occupation, dignity, and purpose by a country that no longer deems them necessary, cuts to the core of our anxiety. vonnegut’s world is thoroughly enjoyable with its comical moments and strong characters but perhaps becoming a bit too familiar.


adam gopnik :: the information
adam gopnik discussing his article on WNYC’s brian lehrer show
the dark side of watson on NPR’s all things considered
brian christian’s mind vs. machine in the atlantic
wired for distraction?
in time magazine
2045: the year man becomes immortal, a profile on ray kurzweil and the singularity movement, in time
player piano
at dial press
vonnegut’s official website


Written by Gabrielle

March 6, 2011 at 7:06 pm

2 Responses

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