Lee on Literature: Player Piano

Automation, mixed into a flawed human world, often creates more instability than stability. In early August, for example, the financial traders of Knight Capital Group Inc. lost $440 billion within hours due to misprogrammed, high-speed, automated stock market trades that went awry. ---This instability caused by automation seems counterintuitive: Should not speed, accuracy and efficiency enhance human life and productivity? Kurt Vonnegut explores this exact premise in his first published novel, Player Piano (1952), a book that offers warning to modern financial institutions, regulators and citizens alike, whose lives are increasingly intertwined with complex and automated global financial systems.

Player Piano is the story of Paul Proteus, an elite engineer living in a postwar industrial society strikingly similar to a futuristic Schenectady, NY. In this near-future world, a small social elite of engineers/managers (including Proteus) run a society where they produce all goods and services using automated machines. The First Industrial Revolution has replaced manual labor; the Second has replaced repetitive thought; while the Third Industrial Revolution is eliminating thinking altogether via the EPICAC XIV. Labor is obsolete, so all non-elites (nearly everyone) are employed by the government in the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps or the armed forces. There are few other jobs. Wages are so low, opportunities so few, that even the well-above-average college student who scores just below the very top cutoff of the General Classification Test is thrown into the common pool of labor. As a result of scarce opportunity, "the foundation of self-respect, the feeling of being needed and useful" is almost completely lost in society. Compounding the doldrums is the proliferation of cheap consumer goods, especially televisions, which are paid for with lifetime payroll deductions, along with housing and insurance premiums (health, life and old age). Nearly every aspect of life is automated, including the piano at the local bar. Leisure and security should result in happiness for all, especially the privileged Proteus, but instead they sow seeds of rebellion.

The story opens with Proteus being seriously considered for a promotion, contingent upon his performance as Blue Team leader at the national corporate retreat at Thousand Islands. While his elite competition prepares teams for sports, skits and rallies, Proteus slowly becomes disenchanted through frank conversations with his friend Finnerty (a revolutionary dropout from the elite) and his wife Anita (a sexy social climber, the only way women are allowed to advance in this male-dominated, futuristic world). Proteus buys a farmhouse, hoping to retreat to an isolated, primitive life, but his wife resists and coaxes him to Thousand Islands. Here, Proteus “snaps” during leadership and networking exercises, speaks his mind, gets tossed from the elite gathering, and joins the Ghost Shirt Society rebellion. Proteus proposes that “men and women be returned to work as controllers of machines, and that the control of people by machines be curtailed.” He also notes that “machines, organization and the pursuit of efficiency have robbed the American people of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Proteus is arrested and put on trial for sedition, but his stance simply inspires the masses, leading to a widespread social revolution, complete with riots in the streets, pain, disorganization, stupidity, unpredictability, imperfection and unfairness—all elements that define humanity. Vonnegut counterbalances his dark plot with a comic character, the Shah of Bratpuhr, who concludes that Americans worship “baku”—false gods.

These same false gods thrive today in the world financial markets. Increasingly, small groups of speculators, using automated trading and "dark pools" (large private exchanges by institutional investors) pull larger and larger amounts of capital into pure automated speculation. This causes instability in many forms: wildly fluctuating gasoline prices, flash drops of the stock market (2010) and near-worldwide financial collapse from the burst of a relatively small US real estate bubble (2008). While automation/mechanization helps to reduce the trading cost for the average investor, this benefit is quickly overwhelmed by the volatility and fallibility of the new trading environment. As Vonnegut prophesied in Player Piano, "Those who live by electronics, die by electronics."

Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), the story of a traditional Hindu mother, Mrs. Sona Choudhury, raising her family amidst the cultural revolution of 20th-century India.

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