Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636
Kurt Vonnegut's dystopian novel Player Piano is set in a future post waves of industrial revolution, where all the workers have been replaced by machines that are more efficient. The only human capital consists in highly skilled 'Doctors'—of Real Estate, of Engineering, etc. However, these are all people who lack physical prowess and have never done the kind of work that machines have rendered obsolete. The protagonist of the novel, Paul, who has never done manual work in his life and has also never known the war (which immediately precedes the events of the book) regrets the kind of life he leads, even though he is highly successful at Ilium Works:
"Paul wished he had gone to the front, and heard the senseless tumult and thunder, and seen the wounded and dead, and maybe got a piece of shrapnel through his leg. Maybe he'd be able to understand then how good everything now was by comparison, to see what seemed so clear to others—that what he was doing, had done, and would do as a manager and engineer was vital, above reproach, and had, in fact, brought on a golden age. Of late, his job, the system, and organizational politics had left him variously annoyed, bored, or queasy."
In this conversation with his secretary, Katharine Finch, Paul and Katharine wonder if there will be yet another industrial revolution; in the dystopian future of the book, there have already been two:
“'Do you suppose there'll be a Third Industrial Revolution?'
Paul paused in his office doorway. 'A third one? What would that be like?'
'I don't know exactly. The first and second ones must have been sort of inconceivable at one time.'
'To the people who were going to be replaced by machines, maybe. A third one, eh? In a way, I guess the third one's been going on for some time, if you mean thinking machines. That would be the third revolution, I guess— machines that devaluate human thinking. Some of the big computers like EPICAC do that all right, in specialized fields.'"
When one thinks about the Turing Test and all the research into Artificial Intelligence which has followed from it, this quote seems all the more timely, even decades after the book was written.
The author has a character say this in sincerity; it can be read as a wry and bitter remark on the role on culture in the brave new world created after the second industrial revolution:
"Books costs less than seven packs of chewing gum. And there are picture clubs, too—pictures for your walls at amazingly cheap prices. Matter of fact, culture's so cheap, a man figured he could insulate his house cheaper with books and prints than he could with rockwool. Don't think it's true, but it's a cute story with a good point."
This is from a dialogue with a young woman whom the Shah propositions; she explains that she is in dire straits because her husband has been censured by the state for having written a difficult and anti-machine book. One of the U.S. officials accompanying the Shah suggests that her husband sounds like a potential saboteur and that perhaps he is in need of psychiatric help:
“'Doesn't he believe in psychiatry?'
'Yes, indeed. He watched his brother find peace of mind through psychiatry.
That's why he won't have anything to do with it.'
'I don't follow. Isn't his brother happy?'
'Utterly and always happy. And my husband says 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. That was the trouble with his book. It raised those questions, and was rejected. So he was ordered into public-relations duty.'"