Kurt Vonnegut Warned Us About the Dangers of Automation
Last fall, I taught a seminar for first-year college students on automation’s projected impacts on society. We read think tank reports predicting that a third of now existing jobs will be replaced by robots in the next decade and a half. We also looked at a variety of techno-utopian and dystopian predictions, and works of fiction by authors like Steven Millhauser and Kurt Vonnegut. And we couldn’t have known it at the time, but looking back, it was the last period of techno-calm before the unleashing of ChatGPT and other Artificial Intelligence engines.
We also read David Graeber’s essay “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” which has this great opening where he reflects on childhood memories from the 1960s when he was promised a labor saving high-tech Jetsonian future, with jet packs, flying cars, and robots doing most of our labor for us; leaving us with increased leisure time. While flying cars never materialized, many other labor-saving devices have arrived. But instead of liberating us, as promised, our work days instead expanded, and job security has become precarious. It is true that many of these old jobs are now done by machines, but the promise that automation would result in less work for us was a lie; what happened instead was that unnecessary managerial work proliferated, generating meaningless endless assessment tasks and the creation of bureaucracies that self-replicate while most workers endure longer hours for diminishing pay.
But it was Vonnegut’s 1952 novel, Player Piano, that fueled our most interesting discussions. Player Piano, the author’s first novel, portrays a dystopia following a Third World War where automation makes most work unnecessary. It explores what happens to people in a world where technology eliminates the need for human labor and thought.
Player Piano depicts of future where most human labor is not longer needed as automated processes manufacture all goods and standardized tests select the few elite engineers who will run the massive, automated manufacturing plants, while the vast majority of society is kept alive with some sort of basic universal subsistence payment and made docile with television, alcohol, parades, and other diversions. This is a world where automation has liberated humankind from the need to toil but has failed to provide meaningful tasks for these supposedly liberated people.
Vonnegut describes these developments as forms of techno-colonialization, in which “ 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.” This technology creates permanent structural unemployment, and Vonnegut shows us how that can result in a more harshly bifurcated form of social stratification.
The technology running the machines in Player Piano isn’t of the variety dominating today’s high-tech factories. The novel’s machines instead record the actual movements of the skilled workers’ hands; they later emulate the human movements they have recorded—using a similar process as the one used to create the self-playing pianos that became popular in the early 1900s.
Vonnegut observed this sort of technological evolutionary path-not-taken while working at General Electric (GE) in the 1940s in their public relations department. As postwar automation rapidly progressed, industrialists experimented with a form of industrial automation known as the Record Playback System.
General Electric pioneered this system, which recorded, with great precision, the movements of skilled machinists producing parts. This system had advantages for small projects needing rapid production, but fell short in its reliance on a skilled worker to generate the master work that would be copied and reproduced by machines.
While at GE, Vonnegut was privately shown a prototype record playback system that mass produced mill rotor blades for gas turbines. He was told to not make information on these machines public, because, as Vonnegut later wrote, “ the workers’ union would put the ugliest possible interpretation on the development. [They’d] frighten their members with the prospect of being canned. Nobody cared to explain that to me. My duty was to write and release only stories which would make everyone think well of the company.”
Some GE managers and engineers privately expressed misgivings to Vonnegut, including worries about machines completely replacing the craftsmanship of skilled workers And yet no one publicly protested these developments, as the then-predominant view was that “all technological advances were by definition good.” Vonnegut later recalled how the unease of these GE engineers and managers inspired him to write Player Piano.
In our world today, AI now appears ready to replace everyone from fast food workers to the computer coders who replaced the skilled craftspeople who once manufactured goods. In some ways, the record and playback technology dominating Player Piano’s world has eerie parallels to the plagiaristic mechanisms running today’s AI technologies: These programs mimic the words, arguments, brushstrokes, and creativity of human labor as they adapt these products for their own uses.
Player Piano wasn’t the only novel where Vonnegut critiqued technology as a force beyond human control, In Deadeye Dick (1982), firearms are killing machines that humans had failed to control; Breakfast of Champions (1973) envisions robotized humans operating beyond the possibility of freewill. In the latter, he viewed American history as having “used human beings for machinery, and, even after slavery was eliminated, because it was so embarrassing, they and their descendants continued to think of ordinary human beings as machines.”
But it was God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) that provides his most relevant critique of automation in a capitalist society. Here, Vonnegut understood that labor-saving technologies don’t necessarily make human lives easier, and as labor-saving devices reduce the need for human labor, these technologies reveal fundamental questions about what people are good for.
Towards the conclusion of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Vonnegut’s alter ego, Kilgore Trout, philosophizes about a world where the newly unemployed are despised after new technologies make their labor obsolete. Instead of liberation, automation brings scorn for displaced workers. The situation, according to Kilgore Trout, presents “a problem whose queasy horrors will eventually be made world-wide by this sophistication of machines. The problem is this: How to love people who have no use?”
Vonnegut understood the ease with which American capitalism blames those who are surplus labor for their plight once they are no longer needed. This understanding is broadly missing in our modern world, and if AI rapidly displaces workers across a vast spectrum of jobs, we will be ignoring these truths at our peril.
In fact, we are already seeing how rapidly vicious attacks on AI-displaced workers can occur. During the recent debt default negotiations between President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the bipartisan willingness to link basic economic benefits to employment is just one expression of Trout’s recognition that “Americans have long been taught to hate all people who will not or cannot work.” And the ease with which our society angrily blames the unhoused for their fate makes it easy to imagine the sort of dark outcomes that rapid AI displacement could bring.
As such, I believe that the greatest immediate risk presented to humanity by AI is not some robotic control of military weapons, but instead its application within the logic of capitalism—an alignment that will further relegate human needs as secondary to market forces.
We simply do not know what comes next, and while things like universal basic income are occasionally dangled as possible solutions, capitalism cannot meet the crisis that will emerge in the next stages of automation, whatever they may be.
Vonnegut teaches us that technology can’t solve our problems and that caring about other people is our best hope. Questions of what we do with the new worlds created by AI will be political struggles that will need to address inherent human worth and the value and dignity of work. We will need to understand that these new machines will be incapable of caring about human suffering. Or, as Vonnegut put it, they won’t be able to find “reasons and methods for treasuring human beings because they are human beings.” These are uniquely human tasks, Vonnegut reminds us, they are why we are here.
David Price is a professor of Anthropology at Saint Martin’s University. For the last three decades he has used the Freedom of Information Act to document the FBI and CIA’s engagements with anthropologists, activists, and public intellectuals.
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