You will question what you think you know about what’s best for the American people after reading this book…
Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut, is a novel about a completely automated American society. Vonnegut creates this world through two separate plot lines. The primary being the experience of one of the society’s golden boys: Dr. Paul Proteus, a factory manager. The other, being an American tour given to a spiritual leader of a distant underdeveloped nation.
To quote Vonnegut himself, “This book is not a book about what is, but a book about what could be.”
Vonnegut’s predictions of “what could be” had me uneasy from the beginning. He published Player Piano in 1952.
There is no better time in history than now for me to have come across this book. And, I’d argue the same for many others.
Where should American society develop? Our current commander-in-chief will tell you we must revert back to what once was. My neighbor down the street, one of Mr. Trump’s loyal supporters would tell you, “America is on fire.”
Many Silicon Valley or entrepreneurial types will tell you we must embrace technology. We should encourage all automation and efficiency.
Vonnegut tells a story that will challenge what you think you know about what’s ‘best’ for American people. This book can challenge Americans on what they believe is best for the world.
Many dystopian novels take the reader far from current reality. The reality Vonnegut builds is so close to modern day, it’s unnerving. Through this book, he comments on automation, bureaucracy, patriotism, and many other topics well alive today. Through story, Vonnegut begs you to answer why we push so hard on development and innovation. A machine is built. Thousands of blue collar workers lose their jobs, along with a sense of purpose. Can innovation and development be harmful to the human experience? What’s the reason we want to continue to make life easier, and put a T.V. in every home? Because we will be happiest when all drudgery is extracted from our day to day? Are we sure?
We see trajectories of permanent job loss for factory workers. We see the fast-food industry finding ways to cut labor costs through automation. We could look at this and see progress. Or, we could look at this and see thousands of people without jobs, additional employable skills and lost purpose.
And, again, the best part of it all, is that he wrote this book in 1952.
I have a hunch, Vonnegut didn’t want his book read in the 50s. Rather, it’s best meant for a time like now. Like other Vonnegut books I’ve read, his assessments and commentary on American culture are timeless. He challenges patriotism and consumerism pointing to obvious questions that aren’t normally asked. The question he most draws attention to, why are things this way?
This book is a great story. As well, it’s a warning. I would hope public figures, entrepreneurs, and futurists would read this book.
In the next 50 or so years, Vonnegut’s America as described in Player Piano, could be a reality.