Player Piano – by Kurt Vonnegut


Whenever I go to a National Trust estate, I look for a book to buy there, with the intent giving it away after reading it. This is my ritual.

During/after reading it, I enjoy taking notes, extracting the takeaways from the book, ideas that can be helpful for me in various situations in life. This is my design.

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut describes a post World War III American society where machines were created to perform most people’s jobs, where engineers and managers are the only striving professionals and the rest of the population, the majority, have jobs that either can’t be automated or can’t be automated efficiently, jobs that, unfortunately, do not offer people much activity nor satisfaction.

(Meaningful work)

  • “What do you expect?” he said. “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 from under them. They can’t participate, can’t be useful anymore.”
  • “If they were so fond of the old system, how come they were so cantankerous about their jobs when they had them?” said Paul.
  • “Oh, this business we’ve got now – it’s been going on for a long time now, not just since the last war. Maybe the actual jobs weren’t being taken from the people, but the sense of participation, the sense of importance was. Go to the library sometime and take a look at magazines and newspapers clear back as far as World War II. Even then there was a lot of talk about know-how winning the war of production – know-how, not people, not the mediocre people running most of the machines. And the hell of it was that it was pretty much true. Even then, half the people or more didn’t understand much about the machines they worked at or the things they were making. They were participating in the economy all right, but not in a way that was very satisfying to the ego.”

There is also no real opportunity of personal evolution between the two layers of society, as people’s potential for progress is determined by algorithms that the machines hold and apply on the results from various tests people are subjected to and the decision is not re-visited. People’s IQs are stored in public records and their fate sealed.

“Used to be that the richer you were, the better you were. The criterion of brains is better than the one of money, but – he held his thumb and forefinger about a tenth of an inch apart- about that much better.”
“It’s about as rigid a hierarchy as you can get. […] How’s somebody going to up his I.Q.?”
“And it’s built on more than just brain power – it’s built on special kinds of brain power. Not only must a person be bright, he must be bright in certain approved, useful directions: basically, management or engineering.”

If machines would ever revisit their data, it would be only to ensure nobody attempts to change their fate in some way.

“[…] eternal vigilance was the price of efficiency. And the machines tirelessly riffled through their decks again and again and again in search of foot draggers, free riders and misfits.”

This made me think of the studies showing how important it is for an employee to feel they are engaged in meaningful work ([1], [2], [3]) and how meaning is often more important than happiness. What the majority of people in Kurt Vonnegut’s world no longer have is:

  • opportunity for progress
  • achievements, rewards
  • challenges
  • autonomy

(Take responsibility)

Not everything is perfect on the high-class side of society, as Paul, one of the well placed managers, with a great career advancement opportunity ahead, the son of the first Director of this new automated world, starts to doubt that this model of society is working, as he becomes more and more aware of his unhappiness and that of the majority of the lower class. He buys the only remaining, old-school, farm in the area, thinking he could give up on his current life style and convince his wife, Anita, to join him in living a simple life again. (They won’t.)

(Paul talking to Anita) “In order to get what we’ve got, Anita, we have, in effect, traded these people out of what was the most important thing on earth to them – the feeling of being needed and useful, the foundations of self-respect.”

(Paul taking Anita to see the lower class side of town) “[…] so we could both get the feel of the world as a whole, not just our side of the river. So we could see what our way of life has done to the lives of others.”

The choices we make today, the ambitions we hold, the values we nurture, will build the world for our next generations. This also made me think of the concept of ecology I’ve learned about in the Kutschera-Rezonanz Practitioner training, i.e. every choice we make must honour the balance of the ecosystem we are in, not just our immediate desires.

(Corporate personality)

As we witness Paul’s evolution, a sort of awakening, the corporate world and personalities unravel as well. There is a bit of ridicule in the description of the ritualistic team building for the selected managers and engineers, the dynamic between them at various events.

“When Paul thought about his effortless rise in the hierarchy, he sometimes, as now, felt sheepish, like a charlatan. He could handle his assignments all right, but he didn’t have what his father had, what Kroner had, what Shepherd had, what so many had: the sense of spiritual importance in what they were doing; the ability to be moved emotionally, almost like a lover, by the great omnipresent and omniscient spooke, the corporate personality.”

“The crowd had miraculously become a sort of homogenized pudding. It was impossible to tell where one ego left off and the next began.”

Ego and competition in the corporate world are an unavoidable subject. We all set goals and off we go to achieve them, trying to be better than what we were last week, last month, maybe even yesterday. Is this really so? Or are we hoping to be better than Mr.X and Mrs.Y and …?

“Paul had never known what to make of Shepherd, had found it hard to believe that any man really thought as Shephard did. When Shephard had first arrived in Ilium, he had announced to his fellow new arrivals, Paul and Finnerty, that he intended to compete with them. Baldly, ridiculously, he talked about competitiveness and rehashed with anyone who would listen various crises where there had been a showdown between his abilities and those of someone else, crises that the other participants has looked upon as being routine, unremarkable, and generally formless. But, to Shephard, life seemed to be laid out like a golf course, with a series of beginnings, hazards, and ends, and with a definite summing up – for comparison with other’s score – after each hole. He was variously grim or elated over triumphs or failures no one else seemed to notice, but always stoical about the laws that governed the game. He asked no quarter, gave no quarter, and made very little difference to Paul, Finnerty or any of his associates. He was a fine engineer, dull company, and doggedly master of his fate and not his brother’s keeper.”

Shepherd’s case made me think of the Four Stages of Competence – here is description aimed at an individual going through the stages and here is a description aimed at a company going through these stages in pursuit for innovation.


(What’s your revolution about?)

“There’s something about war that brings out greatness. […] Just one damn fool thing for a couple of seconds and you’re great. I could be the greatest barber in the world, and maybe I am, but I’d have to prove it with a lifetime of great haircutting and then nobody’d notice. That’s just the way peacetime things are, you know?”

Paul is not the only manager doubting the system, yet he ends up being the chosen image for the revolution that has been planned against the system, the machines, the high-class in charge of maintaining this status quo. The revolt is eventually defeated and the lower class people, after destroying as many machines as possible, they end up putting them together or trying to build new machines from the scattered parts of what they’ve previously destroyed. Is this to say that maybe it’s not the machines they hate?

(I love you when I’m better than you)

Now, I see the next quote as showing how difficult it can be for a person to offer appreciation/”love” to someone else if they don’t perceive themselves superior to the other person. And it becomes even more difficult when, for valid or perceived reasons, the other person seems to be on an advantageous position for themselves. Such situations stir up fears and shake up beliefs built on the certainty of dependency, not on the conscious choices of love made from happiness, confidence and appreciation. As a result, the mind needs to cope with this cognitive dissonance, so it will create a narrative that will bring back the feeling of superiority.

“The expression “armed to the teeth” occurred to Paul as he looked at her over his glass. With an austere dark gown that left her tanned shoulders and throat bare, a single bit of jewlery on her finger, and very light make-up, Anita had successfully combined the weapons of sex, taste and an aura of masculine competence.”

“[…] she quieted, and turned away under his stare. Inadvertently, he’d gained the upper hand. He had somehow communicated the thought that had bobbed up in his thoughts unexpectedly: that her strength and poise were no more than a mirror image of his own importance, an image of power and self-satisfaction the manager of the Ilium Works could have, if he wanted it. In a fleeting second she became a helpless, bluffing little girl in his thoughts, and he was able to feel real tenderness towards her.”

(I hate that part of myself that does not match the image I want to show to the world)

Anita does not have university studies and got married to Paul based on a, later revealed, false pregnancy. Due to her position in society, she escaped the scrutiny of the machines and avoided the faith of the lower class.

“Of all the people on the north side of the river, Anita was the only one whose contempt for those in Homestead was laced with active hatred…. If Paul were ever moved to be extremely cruel to her, the cruelest thing he could do… would be to point out to her why she hated [Homesteaders] as she did: if he hadn’t married her, this was where she’d be, what she’d be.”

This phenomenon is not reserved to the people in the high class, we find it present in all layers of society, either in relation to the high class or various levels towards it. Further more this makes me think of how one may dismiss the value they get from people whom might actually show interest in them, appreciate them, share their world, understand it, strive in it, in favour of a pursuit for the attention of others who don’t reciprocate. And that, just to satisfy an ego thirsty for superiority.

“There are a few men in Homestead – like this bartender, the police and firemen, professional athletes, cab drivers*, specially skilled artisans – who hadn’t been displaced by machines. They lived among those who had been displaced, but they were aloof and often rude and overbearing with the mass. They felt a camaraderie with the engineers and managers across the river, a feeling that wasn’t, incidentally, reciprocated. The general feeling across the river was that these persons weren’t too bright to be replaced by machines; they were simply in activities where machines weren’t economical. In short, their feelings of superiority were unjustified.”

* the author did not anticipate the self-driving cars or maybe he did and considered it would be too inefficient of a process to make it happen. 🙂

(Being human beings)

The Shah, a leader from a different culture, is being shown the wonders of this new society in the hope he would be interested in building similar machines in his country. On his tour, he is taken to the most impressive institutions and machines that can provide answers to (almost) any questions in matters of seconds. Yet, he could not successfully interact with the machine and find out the answer to an old sacred riddle. The Shah also wanted to ask the machine what people are for. He didn’t find out. Neither did we.

He is also taken to see a typical family and he learns that now, with the machines doing so much of the work, people have more time to enjoy life. Yet, when he asks how they enjoy life, he does not get a clear answer and it seems to him that watching TV is the main activity.

Although at the heart of the revolt is the belief and desire for …

“The main business of humanity is to to a good job of being human beings, not to serve as appendages to machines, institutions, and systems”,

there seems to be no solution in sight that can reconcile the needs of the lower class and the ambitions of the high class.

(The end)

These are a few snippets of ideas from the book and things it made me think of.

One thought on “Player Piano – by Kurt Vonnegut

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s