I became a big fan of dystopian novels ever since I read George Orwell’s 1984 in high school and fell in love with the darker themes in fiction writing, which was a new concept to me at the time. Luckily, there was no shortage of writers who had gloomy futures for humanity, and soon after 1984, I had finished Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. But there would be a large interval before I picked up another dystopian novel, this time in college, as I quite accidentally happened upon the first novel written by one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut. Entitled Player Piano, the novel spoke to me amongst the smorgasbord of dystopian stories as it centered on the profession of engineering.
On the surface, the story follows America, which, following a third world war, emerges from the rubble as a highly automated nation with machines doing most of the work previously done by humans. The engineers of these machines and supercomputers are depicted as the upper class while the lower class consists of individuals who are unable to compete with the machines and are assigned to do menial labor or to the army. All middle management decisions are made by machines and a national standardized test places individuals strictly into workplaces. Everyone is employed, given health care, social welfare, housing, means of transportation, and are given the latest home appliances and electronics manufactured by the machines. This world created by Vonnegut places a high emphasis on efficiency and exactness of industry; the purpose of America seems to be to churn out products machined with strict tolerances controlled by the precision of machines.
In a sense, it is socialism operating on automated systems with a few managerial persons (all engineers) on top of the ladder. So far, all seems rather utopian, but the heart of the dystopian nature, I think, is quite nuanced and subtle, and can be summed up with two quotes in the book said by two different individuals at different points in the plot: “... somebody’s just got to be maladjusted; that somebody’s got to be uncomfortable enough to wonder where people are, where they’re going, and why they’re going there,” and “Men, by their nature, seemingly, cannot be happy unless engaged in enterprises that make them feel useful.”
The first quote is part of a dialogue where the wife of a disgraced author is defending her husband’s unpublished work as he is accused of writing stories that “sabotage” the machines, for which he is forcibly transferred to a different job. In short, the things that this author was attempting to do — to question the established system — was forbidden in this world. But more importantly, under the rule of machines, humans had begun to emulate these robots’ characteristics and started to distance themselves from any ideas or behaviors that were not in accordance with the norms outlined by standards and policies enforced by machines. In other words, human culture was shifting to machine culture. Here, we begin to see the dystopic bits of society emerging from the surface; creativity, imagination, and free-thought are given boundary conditions. But this time, these constraints are not enforced by humans but by the machines themselves.
The second quote calls into question the very concept of automation. It implies that we cannot be happy if we allow robots to take over our jobs, no matter what the benefits are. Although the citizens at the lower rungs of society have the latest gadgets, medicine, housing, food, etc. all provided by machines, they are not satisfied with their lives because they are not satisfied by their work; their work, and by extension their usefulness to society, define them.
With industry experts preparing the world for the fourth industrial revolution and the automation of services, our current reality mirrors many aspects of the world depicted in Player Piano. As an aspiring engineer, I admit that I may be biased in my approval for such a mechanized society, but I do believe that we must heed to the warning signs as automation continues to encroach upon the familial territory of good old human labor.
We must prepare our civilizations for the eventualities of a fully-automated one — one that is much more so than that of Player Piano — and the consequential effects it will have on society. In fact, with AI, machines will take over engineers and scientists too, and before long, we will have to face a world that simply works and grows at maximum efficiency and capacity, all without the need for human intervention. At that point, everything — from the nature of human existence to the very concept of capitalism — will have to be redrawn. Of course, such a world is very far off, but, as reality catches up to the imaginations of our novels, we must stay vigilant to the changes upon our world, or risk being swept up in a dystopia.