IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - December 2019 - 15

REVIEW ESSAY

Jared Moore

The Price of
Mechanization:
Vonnegut's Player
Piano in the 2010s

ew tech nolo g ic a l
means, through the
veneer of efficiency,
reinforce a hierarchy
that favors elites. A
few organizations dictate the forms
of inclusion. Automation spreads
human irrelevance; disaffection
follows. Opposition groups favor
hy p e r b o l e a nd institute their
own hierarchies.
This is the world of Player Piano,
Kurt Vonnegut's 1952 dystopic novel.
It details a more fully automated
United States, one where the scientific and organizational changes
brought about by a third world war
have led to a union between the
state and a handful of corporations.
Dr. Paul Proteus, the manager of one
such factory in Ilium, is a bystander
to the growing discontent. As the
Ghost Shirt rebellion brews, Vonnegut critiques not the facts of any
displacing technology, but rather the
social structures that hide behind
their use. At issue is not that the
"robots are taking our jobs," but that
the facts of automation conveniently
mask a consolidation of power.
Many current narratives of technology draw on Aldous Huxley's Brave
New World and George Orwell's
1984 to present a bleak future. Written in the 20th century, both of these
novels, like Player Piano, respond
to totalitarianism and the spread of
industrialization by imagining a dystopic technocracy. Nonetheless, they
fail to comment on the world as it

N

exists now. A single authority like
Orwell's Big Brother does not control all thought and action. Huxley's
eugenic hierarchy has not materialized. Vonnegut's imperfect and
corporate-driven oppression applies
with few facts changed.
Mechanization, in Vonnegut's
world, is reductive and hierarchical -
it leads to centralization. The National Manufacturing Council distributes
and produces cassette-like tapes
used to store automated acts - like
those to operate a lathe machine.
These tapes are "the essence distilled
from the" human [5, pp. 10]. A central
computer assigns jobs, education,
and social placement. One character fails to find a new role in the
face of displacement because "the
machines knew the Ilium Works had
its one allotted lubrication engineer, and they wouldn't tolerate a
second" [5, pp. 73]. Paul, as manager
of the works, must enforce "this
assurance of superiority, this sense
of rightness about the hierarchy
topped by managers and engineers" [5, pp. 6].

Digital Object Identifier 10.1109/MTS.2019.2948436
Date of current version: 2 December 2019

DECEMBER 2019

∕

IEEE TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY MAGAZINE

For all its proclaimed strengths,
in Ilium, mechanization falters. The
push for efficiency conveys the engineer's inability to accept the existing
world - "a man [sic] who's so scared
he's dug a hole for himself to hide in"
[5, pp. 229]. In contrast, the rebel
leader opposes the "intemperate faith
in lawless technological progress -
namely, that man is on earth to create
more durable and efficient images of
himself, and, hence, to eliminate any
justification at all for his own continued existence" [5, pp. 302]. Indeed,
those bully on technological progress espouse an, albeit limited, set of
values - those centered on efficiency.
Cognizant of the values imbued, we
see that technological artifacts are
important primarily because of the
ideas they reinforce.
Mechanization constrains the
opportunities to be human. The push
for efficiency, reductive in nature,
rejects what it cannot quantify. A
conductor complains not "that it was
unjust to take jobs from men [sic]
and give them to machines, but that
the machines didn't do nearly as

15



IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - December 2019

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - December 2019

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