I just read Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut‘s first novel. His trademark style is only visible if you squint and hold the book sideways, but it is still a splendid book and worth a read.
There’s a problem with it though, and it’s a problem I see everywhere. It’s not really a criticism of the book or of the author, but of a commonly held idea trodden into the carpet of the society in which it was written.
The story is set in a dystopian America in which tasks originally intended to improve quality of life have become automated. That is, machines take care of almost all manufacturing and service tasks. The only positions occupied by human beings are those in higher-echelon engineering and management, positions reserved for cherry-picked citizens of a certain IQ (and even these function beneath the tactical leadership of a supercomputer called EPIAC). The employed and unemployed seldom socialise. The unemployed majority either join the army or live invisible and aimless lives in an urban reservation called Homestead.
In some ways, the book should have pride of place in the Escapological library. It’s protagonist, Doctor Paul Proteus, wants to escape his tedious career among the managerial caste and bring about something of a proletarian revolution. Great! His solution, though, is to destroy the machine society and to return to a state of employment for everyone. And here lies my problem with it.
It is based upon the idea that to be unemployed is the ultimate disgrace.
It is based upon the romance that primitive graft is the only place to find dignity.
Well, it isn’t. If society were fully automated and human application were no longer required, we would find dignity in the new challenges: finding a way to support a society without mass employment, and ultimately finding something to succeed the consumer society. Given that unemployment in the Western world is increasing (due to automation or other factors) I think it is time we started thinking about it.
Why can’t we be allowed to do nothing? Why is it not decent to be idle?
Do we have the imagination to do something other than prop up a consumer economy? Can we, as a society, say “Good riddance” to grunt work – just as we saw an end to prepubescent chimneysweeps – and get on with something worthwhile, or at the very least, accept our bounteous inheritance as idlers?