Player Piano: A Glimpse of The Present?

Kurt Vonnegut had a way of telling stories with unbridled optimism tinged with a hint of skepticism. Player Piano, his first published novel, is a great example of a career coming into focus, because not only is this a brilliant take on self-worth, it offers insight into what makes people tick.

Vonnegut’s sharp satire cuts right through padding, jumping directly to the action. He wastes no time in setting up the world and its residents. We’re introduced to Dr. Paul Proteus and his growing unease about the society he lives in and the culture he’s part of. We’re introduced to his gold-digging, cheating wife who wants only the “best” for him. We’re introduced to the rebellion, who has no idea what to do with the power it wields. We’re introduced to the machines and how they’ve made everything “better.”

The Social Condition

But more importantly, we’re introduced to what can only be termed as the “social condition.” Vonnegut takes on what most men go through their whole lives and articulates it so effectively, so brilliantly, and with so much ease, you are left wondering why you didn’t think of it earlier. For example:

He could handle his assignments all right, but he didn’t have what his father had […] what so many had: the sense of spiritual importance in what they were doing; the ability to be moved emotionally, almost like a lover, by the great omnipresent and omniscient spook, the corporate personality. In short, Paul missed what made his father aggressive and great: the capacity to really give a damn. (65)

As a thirty-year-old man in the middle of his career, I’ve often thought about where I’m headed, trying to figure out what it truly means and why I’m not moving forward as much I would’ve liked. Vonnegut articulated my feelings exactly as they are, and it’s not just me, it’s also millions of other men and women.

The idea to “really give a damn” is particularly striking in contemporary society. Our sense of self-worth is often tied to what society dictates to be true – go to school, graduate from university, find a job, get married, have children, die. Cultures have grown around this mandate, often taking away agency from men and women who don’t want to play the game by society’s rules anymore. It takes away their dignity, their self-worth, and most importantly, they lose control over their lives, rendering them susceptible to ridicule and scorn from their closest allies.

This video is when I fell in love with Kurt Vonnegut.

But that’s only a part of Vonnegut’s argument in the book. See, he also brings up religion, which he clearly wasn’t a big fan of it. He offers up the basic argument that it’s used as opium for the masses, giving them an idea of self-worth based on worship and the promised after-life. The critique is then followed up by religion being replaced by the free-market economy which made people “worship competition and the market, productivity and economic usefulness, and the envy of their fellow men.” (93) He points out how industrialization and automation have “yanked [their worship] from under them” and that their whole “culture’s been shot to hell.” As Nietzsche argued in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, there is no place for God in modern society; It’s been replaced by money.

The book was published in 1952 but is now more relevant than ever with AI and robots on the horizon. Will men’s sense of self crumble at the prospect of being replaced by machines? Thing is, it’s already happened and happening more frequently these days. Men [and women] have already lost meaning in an increasingly mechanized world. While it’s not quite as bad as the dystopia presented in Player Piano, some would say our society is much more vain and unforgiving than his.

Masculinity is also something Vonnegut addresses quite expertly in the book. This quote for example:

“Funny what I expected from this reunion, what I guess everybody expects from affectionate reunions,” said Finnerty. He had a candor about his few emotional attachments that Paul found disquieting. He used words to describe his feelings that Paul could never bring himself to use when speaking of a friend: love, affection, and other words generally consigned to young and inexperienced lovers. It wasn’t homosexual; it was an archaic expression of friendship by an undisciplined man in an age when most men seemed in mortal fear of being mistaken for pansies for even a split second. (88)

Men nowadays are afraid of being even slightly affectionate towards their friends, scared of showing love for the people they care about, fearful of donning specific colors, apprehensive of saying certain things, just because it’d make them look weak or god forbid: “gay.”

Busy Work?

Vonnegut also talks about how men’s purpose has been replaced with meaningless “busy work.” He reflects Nietzsche’s stance on the matter, noting how modern capitalism has stripped us of purpose in an increasingly uncaring, unsympathetic world. Nietzsche argued that men are bound by the shackles of culture and society that are stopping them from achieving their full potential. In Vonnegut’s world, this culture is of basic income and uselessness in society fully controlled by machines. He shows this through the eyes of a visiting foreign ruler who points out how Americans are nothing but slaves at the hands of the State.

How would it feel to know you’re not in control of your life or your decisions? That your “choices” have been optimized and already taken for you by machines? That you’re always in debt despite having the best “quality of life?” What really happens when there is no meaning or purpose behind any of your actions? Simple answer: you’re nothing but a slave to the system, a statistic without consequence.

But then, quite interestingly, it contradicts Bertrand Russell’s view towards work. He argued that technology will give us more leisure time in the future, letting us divert our energies towards other endeavors, primarily towards improving ourselves. Vonnegut disagrees, showing how technology will ultimately imprison us by stripping us of agency and dignity, treating us more like children than adults.

At the same time, he also argues that the remaining few favored by the system will be given a sense of purpose so strong they’ll be ready to lay down their lives for it. Yet, they’re nothing more than a number in the system that ultimately treats them the same way it does others. It’s best illustrated by the resistance offered by the realtor when the protagonist decides to buy a farm: “This pipsqueak of a man in a pipsqueak job had pipsqueak standards he was willing to lay his pipsqueak life down for.” (155)

Revolution, or The Lack Thereof

Of course, the story involves a revolution, with Vonnegut noting that “sooner or later someone’s going to come up… with new magic… the promise of regaining the feeling of participation, the feeling of being needed on earth – hell, dignity.” (95)

In what can only be termed as foreshadowing for Vonnegut’s views towards humanity, the revolution is an abject failure. People still prefer the novelty of machines over human interaction, even at the expense of their self-respect, dignity, and purpose. Near the end, he shows us people lining up for candy from an automated machine. These are the same people who fought the State to regain control over their lives from machines, only to throw it away because hey-look-this-is-cool.

And of course, he also illustrates that nothing lasts forever and nothing has any meaning whatsoever. What’s a small revolution to an overarching system? What’s a little rebellion against society? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. People will carve their own way forward, whether at the expense of machines taking over or restoring their dignity to its place.

Ultimately, revolutions represent symbols, and it’s best to die as a symbol. As the protagonists march towards certain death, they point out how “this isn’t the end […] nothing ever is, nothing ever will be – not even Judgment Day.” (348) It’s a cycle of futility, and it will never end. With that, Vonnegut ends his first book and begins his lifelong career as a cynic, observing humanity with nothing but optimism mixed with skepticism.

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