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Player Piano

In Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut portrayed a vision of a world in which robots make everything. Human beings relegated to the sidelines, do either nothing or road construction, the one operation purposely not automated so it can provide work for the masses. Vonnegut wrote in Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, that Player Piano is “a novel about people and machines, and machines frequently got the best of it, as machines will.”

In the novel, machines have largely replaced human beings in the workplace. The small upper class of wealthy managers and engineers stand below an even tinier class of wealthy investors who profit from the displacement of workers, the output of the devices their corporations own, and the banks that underwrite the whole venture.

Vonnegut published Player Piano in 1951. He was way ahead of his time, to say the least.

Automation is inevitable. Most modern corporations, with very few exceptions, have to keep up with the competition. The growth of automation is insidious. A CEO representing a set of investors can’t just say, wait, we have to make sure we have meaningful work for people because our society is going to prioritize gainful employment. No. He or she will direct the R&D department and the division heads to keep up with the technology. Period. That means that more and more of our society will be automated, robotized.

Many readers of this column will think of themselves immune from the creep of technology. But it’s already happened. The machine has already increased your productivity as a worker. Most of us can’t imagine doing our jobs without a computer. Picture for a minute how many other people would be needed for your job if you had to make every calculation, script, and file by hand.

Even my ironworker friends have seen their profession automated. We have cranes and backhoes. We no longer rivet things together, we make those connections with screws machines drive. One day not long ago, my ironworker buddies and I talked about how “they” would never robotize the functions of a worker who tied rebar. I’ve recently seen an advertisement for a machine that automatically lays in and ties rebar for a bridge deck.

If you can imagine something can be made faster and more efficiently with a robot than with a human being, it will happen. McDonalds is rapidly automating its operations, as is every fast-food joint in their competition.

We already have banking services that don’t need a human being involved—there’s nothing that stands in the way of you and your money. Or, I should say, not even you stand in the way of your bank account and the people who want your money. Any ATM will do. We pay bills and move cash in our accounts by computer. Even credit cards, which are a standard automated enterprise already, have now been given back to the holder to pay with. That is, you no longer give your card to the cashier. Instead, you insert the chip—one more move of the cashier done away with.

Convenience, sure. But do we really want it? On the other hand, do we want to return to the days when my grandfather sprayed individual Chevrolet fenders moving on an automated line, one after the other, all day, for 35 years? Probably not.

The thing is we Americans have not thought about the ways that robots have taken the most lucrative or jobs and are now after the lower-paid ones. We have not thought, in our parochial devotion to property rights, how to distribute the wealth robots create.

Other societies have. The French and Germans have had a 35-hour workweek for quite some time. The Scandinavian countries have gone to a 32-hour work week. But if you tell an American, hey, we are going to cut your hours to 32, give you four weeks off a year, and manage your health insurance, they will have a fit, feeling their financial security and freedom of choice is under threat. (And they would be hard pressed to figure out what to do with a month off work. The sad fact is that most Americans don’t use the vacation time they have.)

But the idea behind a 32-hour work week is not to pay someone for just 32 hours but to make sure that a worker is getting monetary credit for producing in 32 hours what they used to do in 40. Europeans have thought about spreading the wealth. They are doing some 21st-century thinking. Americans are still stuck in the 1890s.

Technology advances according to our aspirations. Some people believe the tech is already way ahead of the mindset. I say we invite this into our lives while our attentions are focused elsewhere. My home is being automated even as I write. We no longer put checks in envelopes. We no longer use the telephone to call long distance. We don’t have to walk to the neighbor’s house to say hello. We use the internet and the text to communicate more now than when we did use checks, telephones, and feet.

The quality of communication, well, that’s suspect. We probably converse with each other less through our devices, even if we are closer to one another than ever before. But I relish the fact that I can think of someone, write them a little text that I’m thinking of them, and know the sentiment has worth.

I’m acutely aware of the changes and shifts in our lives. We recently bought a Roomba. The little device runs around the house randomly, brushing and sucking up our little bits. I haven’t touched a vacuum cleaner in weeks. I’m not sure how much the thing saves me. I have to sort of follow it around, get it out of corners, and empty the bin every ten minutes. But it’s doing what we once paid housekeepers to do, and that which we use to do ourselves.

Another Christmas arrival was the Echo Dot. It’s a little home-command module that can do everything from adjust the lights and heat to tell the Roomba to get off its ass. This too has replaced people in my life. I can order anything on Amazon merely by saying, “Alexa, I want . . .” I no longer have to get on the phone with a sales representative. There aren’t employees in a store due to my needs and wants. Gone is the Sears in my life. And soon, because of me and a whole lot of other people, there will be no Sears, once one of America’s largest employers.

I’m all for telling the large corporation that they must distribute some of the gain they get in employee productivity to the employee. I believe that the vast wealth flowing to the top ought to be tapped for the benefit of the masses. I want to see us think in 21st-century ways about wealth, its distribution, and how the upper class owes its prosperity to those who support it.

Being wealthy is not a right. It is a privilege. We all pay for our privileges, as we should. It’s just that the same ethic we apply to the regular, walking-around person be applied to the investor and upper class. After all, what’s the good of profit if there is no society?

Read Player Piano. It’s a fine book that’s more relevant now than when Vonnegut wrote it. It depicts society as it’s become and where it’s going. We don’t want to find ourselves in a Player Piano world and say we weren’t told it would be this way.

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