I recently highlighted Kurt Vonnegut as an oasis of sanity and intellectual achievement in the metaphorical desert of Indiana. I just finished reading Vonnegut’s notable first novel, Player Piano, and I can’t help but note some notes. Vonnegut is a genius. While his later novels are even more sublime, Player Piano is damn clever and profoundly creative in many dimensions. The major plot twist is absurd and silly yet so clever and wicked that I’m left with the feeling of having just watched a master magician saw a woman in half with a chainsaw, no box, and then the show ends. Wait! What? What happened? How did that turn out?

Unlike many, many otherwise quality novels I read that flail trying to construct proper endings, this book ends perfectly. The unsettling lack of finality is perhaps the major theme of the work. This theme is given context in an overtly idealogical treatment and the whole time I was reading I kept thinking, wait, Vonnegut is not one of "those people" is he? But no, he turns out not to be. It is rather extraordinary when an author can so eloquently present all sides to a very complex situation and walk away at the end without having clearly invested any particular inclination with biased virtue or reproach.

What makes this book almost essential reading for 2016 is its shocking prescience. In a widely read recent article, The New York Times wrote about a 1998 book which seems to predict some important elements of 2016’s election. I have not read that book, but I would like to propose that Player Piano, published in 1952 (!), was no less predictive and important.

The main setting of the book is a future America (post 1952) where machines and automation have replaced most of the labor force. The only people who work are the engineering and the managerial elites. These elites are paid quite well while ordinary people are compelled to take government entitlements and live unfocused, unrewarding lives. While Vonnegut specifically focuses on basic machinery upgraded with basic automatic controls, i.e. the technology of his time, the profound societal change is still relevant for many other such industrial revolutions. For example, I have personally worked with machinists to help them learn how to transition from manual machine tools to computer controlled (CNC) machine tools. I have seen brilliant machinists walk away from that career late in life because they couldn’t adapt to computers radically changing their profession. That example is fairly similar to the exact kind of displacement found in the book, but just imagine all the common jobs of a couple of decades ago which are declining or gone from the modern economy like travel agent, taxi driver, newspaper people, etc. Also when reading I mentally substituted "some stupid app" for "automatic machine" and found myself nodding knowingly. Whenever Vonnegut mentions the engineers and managers that run the world, I could mentally substitute "Silicon Valley/Wall St." and it all made perfect sense.

Why is focus returning to this topic today? My theory is that in the early 2000s, military misadventures and construction related to the housing bubble masked structural problems in the labor market by providing more opportunity for low education males than perhaps society really should have. When these factors faded, the problem of working class America’s oversupply became more acute. These people were energized by promises to either make educational self-improvement more attractive or bring low tech jobs back to the USA. There are good reasons the low tech jobs should not be and are not coming back but reasoning that out with the disaffected is not easy. If you were uneducated and proudly anti-intellectual, why would you believe fancy educated people like this and this and this and this and this when they contradict your beliefs and hopes?

It’s not just uneducated anti-intellectual workers that are struggling to cope with a changing situation. The nature of employment broadly seems to be ever more grim and dissatisfying.

This is actually what the novel really sheds insight into. Vonnegut isn’t anti-progress exactly, but he correctly observes that a society whose people have no real purpose that they can believe in is not going to be very stable. The lack of a purpose, something to do with their time which they can be proud of, leads to an affront on people’s self-worth and dignity. They will be vulnerable to self-serving demagogues who promise to restore feelings of national and personal pride.

How do we find our way forward as a civilization if all of the occupations and traditions of that civilization require a thorough upheaval every century? We’ve barely adjusted to the fact that only a tiny fraction of the 19th century (or third world) agricultural labor force is required to produce record yields today. Just when our society’s labor allocation sensibilities have about got the hang of the internal combustion engine, huge changes loom yet again. We’ve mostly pulled through the revolution of transistors and semi-conductor electronics, but computers and robotics are still sowing structural confusion in our macroeconomic lives even as they gift us with near magical efficiency and economy. Transistors and computers have relentlessly created entirely new ways to think about publishing, medicine, politics, art, music, transportation, engineering, communication, social interaction… everything really.

If there is a grand conclusion to be inferred from the book, the 2016 election validates it: people left behind by changing technology must be looked after humanely. I’ll save my thoughts for how that might be possible for another time and conclude with some interesting passages from the book.


"These are dangerous times—more dangerous than you’d suspect from the surface. But it’s also the Golden Age…"

Thirty-six years to go?

"Is he starving?"
"Of course not. Nobody starves."
"And he’s got a place to live and warm clothes. He has what he’d have if he were running a stupid machine, swearing at it, making mistakes, striking every year, fighting with the foreman, coming in with hangovers."
"You’re right, you’re right." He held up his hands. "Of course you’re right. It’s just a hell of a time to be alive, is all — just this goddamn messy business of people having to get used to new ideas. And people just don’t, that’s all. I wish this were a hundred years from now, with everybody used to the change."

2016 Election

Now you people have engineered them out of their part in the economy, in the market place, and they’re finding out — most of them — that what’s left is just about zero… What do you expect? … For generations they’ve been built up to worship competition and the market, productivity and economic usefulness, and the envy of their fellow men — and boom! it’s all yanked out from under them. They can’t participate, can’t be useful any more. Their whole culture is shot to hell.
… Things, gentlemen, are ripe for a phony Messiah, and when he comes, it’s sure to be a bloody business.
… Sooner or later someone’s going to catch the imagination of these people with some new magic. At the bottom of it will be a promise of regaining the feeling of participation, the feeling of being needed on earth — hell, dignity.
… Things are certainly set up for a class war based on conveniently established lines of demarcation.

Donald Trump

"…he had gone directly from a three-hour television program to the White House."

Working class hero Donald Trump

The break had done anything but teach him humility. He took it as evidence that his money and name could beat the system any time and, paraphrased, he’d said as much. … Paul supposed, gloomily, that beaters of systems had always been admired by the conventional.

Modern fitness trends

"…Paul drove up to his office building. He went up the steps two at a time — his only exercise…"


…a postwar development of three thousand dream houses for three thousand families with presumably identical dreams.

The war on hope

If we plot man hours worked against the number of vacuum tubes in use, the man hours worked drop as the tubes increase. And dope addiction, alcoholism, and suicide went up proportionately.

Technology overload

Paul wondered at what thorough believers in mechanization most Americans were, even when their lives had been badly damaged by mechanization. The conductor’s plaint, like the lament of so many, wasn’t that it was unjust to take jobs from men and give them to machines, but that the machines didn’t do nearly as many human things as good designers could have made them do.

Tech workers

The machines are to practically everybody what the white men were to the Indians. People are finding that, because of the way the machines are changing the world, more and more of their old values don’t apply any more. People have no choice but to become second-rate machines themselves, or wards of the machines.

Online education

"A lot different from my day," said Halyard. "By gosh, we had to get up every morning bright and early, climb the hill in all kinds of weather, and sit there and listen to some of the dullest lectures you ever heard of. And, of course, some poor fish would have to get up in front of us and talk every day of the week, and chances are he wasn’t much of a speaker, and anyway no showman."
"Yes, the professional actors and the television circuits are a big improvement, sir," said Buck.
"And the exams!" said Halyard. "Pretty cute, you know, punching out the answers, and then finding out right off if you passed or flunked. Boy, believe me, we used to have to write our arms off, and then we’d have to wait weeks for a prof to grade the exams. And plenty of times they made bad mistakes on the grades."

College degree inflation

"Call yourself a doctor, too, do you?" said Mr. Haycox.
… "[You’re a] real-estate salesman," said Mr. Haycox. He looked back and forth between Paul and Doctor Pond, waiting for them to say something worth his attention. When they’d failed to rally after twenty seconds, he turned to go. "I’m doctor of cowshit, pigshit, and chickenshit," he said. "When you doctors figure out what you want, you’ll find me out in the barn shoveling my thesis."

College sports

Roseberry frowned. "Well—there’s some pretty stiff rulings about that. You can’t play college football, and go to school. They tried that once, and you know what a silly mess that was."

Military and infrastructure

Those who couldn’t compete economically with machines had their choice, if they had no source of income, of the Army or the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps.


"Shah says, if these not slaves, how do you get them to do what they do?"
"Patriotism," said General of the Armies Bromley sternly.

No-fly list

"That’s all," said the police sergeant. He dropped the card into a slot, and the card went racing through a system of switches and sidings, until it came to rest against a thick pile of similar cards.
"What does that mean?" said Paul.
The sergeant looked at the pile without interest. "Potential saboteurs."
Wait a minute—what’s going on here? Who says I am?"
"No reflection on you," said the sergeant patiently.
"Nobody’s said you are. It’s all automatic. The machines do it."
"What right have they got to say that about me?"
"Oh, they know, they know," said the sergeant. "They’ve been around. They do that with anybody who’s got more’n four years of college and no job." He studied Paul through narrowed lids. "And you’d be surprised, Doc, how right they are."

Surveillance state drone

Looking up, they saw a robot helicopter in the sky, its belly and blades reddened by the fires below. "People of Ilium, lay down your arms," said its loudspeaker.