IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - December 2019 - 16

many human things as good designers could have made them do" [5,
pp. 253]. Importantly, critiques
like this do not oppose the technologies themselves, but the rather
how humans use them. A blue collar worker opposes m a c h i n e s ,
which he calls slaves, because "anybody that competes with slaves
becomes a slave" [5, pp. 280]. In
Player Piano, the society's failure,
as with the ensuing rebellion's, is an
entirely human one: it stems from
the hubris of prediction. This is
James C. Scott's complaint against
central planning in Seeing Like the
State. It is what Shoshana Zubhoff
repeatedly addresses in The Age
of Surveillance Capitalism by asking, "Who decides? Who decides
who decides?"
This lack of explicit human space
troubles the Ilium residents most.
Having embraced "productivity and
economic usefulness," when displaced by automation, "they can't
participate, can't be useful anymore"
[5, pp. 90]. Even when afforded food,
shelter, and basic means, the people
grow disquieted, "to be so well-integrated into the machinery of society
and history as to be able to move in
only one plane" [5, pp. 35]. The wellfunctioning "machinery of society"
clearly omits something uniquely
human, but the residents cannot easily define the omission. Slowly inoculated by technological advance, "they
couldn't remember when things had
been different, could hardly make
sense of what had been, though they
didn't necessarily like what was" [5,
pp. 29]. Autonomy dies not overnight, but over generations, as its
believers grow weary and die.
Some characters seek such alternatives, but find their efforts futile and
absurd. Paul can think only of "idleness, which [he] could afford, but
which, he was sure, was as amoral
as what he was quitting" [5, pp. 147].
Another worker quits the job assigned

16

the engineers and managers flout the
system purported to determine value
does not suggest that an alternative
society, one more truly meritocratic,
would prevail. Player Piano's society
omits exactly that which causes it to
break down: human accountability
and the recognition of values.
In Vonnegut's 1952 and in our
2019, a critique grounded only on
the manifestation of a hierarchy -
on the automatic lathe machines
or on the iPhones - misses the forest for the trees. To borrow from
the legal scholar Tim Wu, "it is the
underlying structure of the organizations that determines the openness
of the medium" [6, pp. 155]. This is
why the Ghost Shirt Society fails in
their rebellion. As the disaffected
masses seize power, the leaders recognize they have no control, that the
rebellion "has all the characteristics
of a lynching... the good die with the
bad - the flush toilets with the automatic lathe machines" [5, pp. 330].
Theories of justice and freedom, like
Elizabeth Anderson applies to the
corporate world, explain the disaffections of Player Piano's working
class. With these in mind, we recognize that the rebellion offers nothing
but a reconstitution of a hierarchy.
So too today. The United States as
we know it has unfolded differently
than Vonnegut's projection of "what
could be" [5, foreword]. Autonomy
is vanishing in both, but through different mechanisms. In Vonnegut's
future, central planners chose a
monopolization of resources for its
efficiency, while in our present, an
abnegation of central planning in
deference to the perceived benefits
of a free market has led to similar
monopolies by a few corporations.
Other values like privacy disappear
as well. In both our world and Vonnegut's, the artifacts of technologies
mask the underlying problems.

to him and welcomes the money from
his wife's sex work. She defends his
choice by noting "that he's one of the
few men on earth with a little selfrespect left" [5, pp. 245]. Vonnegut
highlights the illogic and the absurdity of acts against the machine.
Even the Ghost Shirt Society, which
leads the rebellion against mechanization, enforces a hierarchy - an
inversion of the existing one. Grasping for alternatives, residents fail to
escape the "machinery of society;" privacy becomes a commodity instead of a right; the paradigm
of "lawless technological progress"
goes unchallenged.
Even though Player Piano's society presents as utopic, efficient, and
dehumanizing, humanity still arises
in it. This is an essential difference
to 1984 or Brave New World. In all
three, the main characters show
human traits at odd with the totalizing society, but only in Player Piano
are these traits the norm; in 1984
and Brave New World humans have
become machines, but in Player
Piano they have not. Instead, organizational structure adapts.
The leaders of one organization,
the National Manufacturing Council,
acknowledge that "the modern world
would grind to a halt if there weren't
men with enough advanced training to keep the complicated parts of
civilization working smoothly" [5, pp.
154]. In order to maintain the current hierarchy that positions them
on top, the Council inculcates future
generations with tautological narratives: "The whole story. That's the
way it is" [5, pp. 220]. Even though
this narrative spouts the meritocratic nature of the hierarchy - that
the computer decides - nepotism
occurs. Just so when a manager disregards the low test scores of another manager's son, whom he tells,
"with the blood you've got in your
veins, you've got more than what it'll
take to do the job" [5, pp. 193]. That
IEEE TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY MAGAZINE

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∕

DECEMBER 2019



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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