Death by Degrees | Comentale on Player Piano

Player Piano as Educational Dystopia

Ed Comentale

In a recent interview with Bloomberg News, billionaire investor Mark Cuban offered some surprising advice for college students and their future employers. “No finance,” he proclaimed, “that’s the easiest thing—you just take the data and have it spit out whatever you need. I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors.”

As any Hoosier knows, Cuban is the richest and most beloved alumnus of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. I’m not sure how he feels about his alma mater, but his comments seem to betray not just his degree but the entire higher education system, as it has turned in recent years to single-track professional credentials over breadth of knowledge and experience. Assessing the challenges of the current job market brought on by computer automation, Cuban also predicted an increased demand for the “freer thinker” and then dismissed the value of the “professional degree” by—gasp!—singling out English, philosophy, and foreign language majors as the future leaders of the job market.

With these claims, Cuban entered a debate over practical versus liberal arts that’s at least as old as IU’s original 1820 charter and has dogged trustee meetings ever since. It’s a lazy debate with high stakes and lots of room for grandstanding and self-promotion, one that’s fought across kitchen tables and senate chambers all across the US. But it’s a debate that really came to a head with the rise of automation and computer technology in the first half of the twentieth century, just in time to mess up the GPA of Indiana’s equally beloved dropout Kurt Vonnegut.

Now, Vonnegut was no dummy, but he famously blew it—twice!—as a college student. First, pressured by his architect father and scientist brother to pursue a practical degree, he ditched a budding career in journalism and took up chemistry at Cornell. Once enrolled, he adopted a “boozy” approach to his studies, joined a fraternity, spent too much time on the student newspaper, and ultimately lost his standing with the university, as well as his ROTC commission, which forced him to enlist as a private in WWII. Later, on a GI Bill, he sought to split the academic difference with an anthropology degree— “a science that was mostly poetry,” he claimed—at the University of Chicago. This stint was a bit more promising—much of his training provided material for his first few novels, inspiring his concept of the “karass” and his playful invention of new religions—but he failed to convince his committee to approve his first thesis and quit before they could weigh in on the second.1

Player Piano, his first novel, seems wracked by nothing so much as these collegiate misadventures. It depicts a world overrun by managers and engineers, a miserable technocracy in which all of human life—work, marriage, art, and friendship—has been manufactured by an inhumanly rational system. At heart, though, the book depicts an educational dystopia, one in which the education system itself has been fully mechanized, leaving little room for personal decision or creative path making. IQ tests measure proficiencies and etch them onto ID cards. National Classification Tests profile student personalities and prescribe degree programs. Lectures are prerecorded and televised; exams are taken on computers and graded by the same. Deemed impractical or wasteful, the humanistic disciplines have been completely wiped from this system. At a local college, the Social Sciences Building is torn down for a new heat and power laboratory, while the Historical Society Building makes way for an atomic reactor.

In Vonnegut’s account, such measures exacerbate age-old class tensions at the core of US society. Nothing more substantial than a degree separates those who work with their minds and those with their hands, but the distinction is policed everywhere by machinery, money, law, love, and ideology. In perhaps the book’s most quintessentially “Vonnegut” moment, a gruff farmer questions a couple of so-called doctors on the value of their degrees. “I earned that degree,” says a doctor of realty. “My thesis was the third longest in any field in the country that year—eight hundred and ninety-six pages, double-spaced, with narrow margins.” The unimpressed farmer replies, “I’m a doctor of cowshit, pigshit, and chickenshit. . . . . When you doctors figure out what you want, you’ll find me out in the barn shoveling my thesis” (155). Early in the novel, a laborer on a road crew spits in the eye of a pompous government official; later, the whole town riots, with workers drunkenly smashing the machines that separate them from the elites. One character predicts the rise of a new working-class messiah, a Trump-like showman who promises to make America great again by crushing the intellectual elite and restoring the nation to its undereducated underclass. In other words, a new idiocracy: “Sooner or later someone’s going to catch the imagination of these people with some new magic. . . . I think the first thing the revolutionaries would want to do is knock off everybody with an I.Q. over 110” (92–93).

Vonnegut, probably with his own collegiate woes in mind, seem most interested in the effects of this skewed educational system on the individual mind and spirit. His protagonist Paul Proteus links his vague disaffection at work to his limited options as a younger student, a narrow educational path that guaranteed prestige over happiness. Paul’s workday frustration masks a much greater sense of panic, a nagging fear of how ill-equipped he is to handle life’s challenges. Weighing what he learned in college, he finds that there is “far too little of him to get along anywhere outside the system” (146). The systematic emphasis on operational efficiency leads to “spiritual disaster” throughout the managerial community, an inability to evaluate life’s complexity and make confident choices about knotty ethical issues. Paul’s colleagues can barely explain, let alone defend their career choices and their faith in progress. Such men live in fear of all life outside of work; unable to make sense of their place in history, they find themselves, like Paul at the end of the novel, caught up in its vicious currents. “Everybody’s shaking in his boots,” says one entrepreneurial kingpin. “Show me a specialist, and I’ll show you a man who’s so scared he’s dug a hole for himself to hide in” (229).

I can easily recognize the coping mechanisms adopted by the professionals in Player Piano in my own recent graduates. Paul and his colleagues alternately drift off into fantasies of a more “authentic” life or build up an armor of personal “apathy” that devalues their significance and hollows out options. Paul himself seeks substance in the action novels of the past, where men work with their hands and live vigorously out of doors. He invests himself in hipster crafts and retro styles and even dreams of owning a pre-industrial farm. When things get really bad, though, and he feels completely powerless, he turns to an old refrain: “To hell with it!” This becomes his muttered response to all of life’s pressures, a way of emptying them in order to make them bearable. The negative spell of apathy, though, works perhaps a little too well. Once Paul decides to believe that there is no difference between staying or quitting, he loses all ability to make any choice at all. Such a stance turns out to be not rebellious, but excusatory. In fact, it allows him to excel at his job, better able to withstand its pains and insults.

Can you really blame our graduates, though? By and large, Vonnegut’s characters have been cheated out of being needed and useful, stripped of any opportunities to exercise their human faculties. Their plight is less the result of any nefarious plot of one class against another than the by-product of a technological, economy-driven regime that viciously dissolves the world’s traditional systems of meaning and value. The machines in Player Piano, especially the demonic EPICAC XIV computer at its core, ground every aspect of the social order into “unnamed units of measure.” They reduce the whole world—thought, feeling, personality, love—to abstract dust, bits of data, particles and quanta, that only have meaning in relation to their own processing (75). To borrow from media theorist Vilém Flusser, where once stood stable regions of personal value and communal belonging, a great void now opens, an empty universe without human dimension or interval, one that can no longer be grasped by human hands, represented in human language, or understood by the human mind. The experience of such a world is uncertain and unsettling, with little ground for human operation or bearing, so people cling even more desperately to the technology that can process and pattern the particles for them. Vonnegut’s characters can only bow down blindly before the work of EPICAC as it shuttles electrons “through a maze of electromagnetic crises to a condition that was translatable from electrical qualities and quantities to a high grade of truth” (18). Ultimately, Flusser explains, this regime divides society into functionaries and visionaries, bureaucrats and messiahs—the only types who occupy Player Piano’s institutions—structurally positioned half persons who exist only to maintain the system as a whole. The Eastern Division has two bosses: one embodies the “knowledge and technique of industry,” and the other personifies the “faith, the near-holiness, the spirit of the complicated venture.” “The two were inseparable,” we’re told, “though their personalities met at almost no point. Together, they made an approximately whole man,” “each unable to do a whole job without the other” (44; 83).

But who was the “whole man” dissolved by the professional system? What was the “human” in the “humanities” that was split apart by the increasing purposefulness of higher education? Vonnegut’s novel suggests several possible answers, brief glimpses of humanistic behavior—“atavistic tendencies,” he writes—that continue to haunt the machinery of the modern world and that will become the guiding principles of his future work. These include:

    • useful work, or “the uplift of creativity,” as a general human tendency to tinker and feel useful in one’s tinkering, whether in developing a machine for catching mice or fixing a fuel pump for a man whose car broke down on the road (70);
    • art or craftsmanship, which is related to the above, but decisively expressive and decorative, and thereby impossible to mechanize or measure, as in the work of a bartender or barber or interior decorator, or even an administrator who can personalize an exchange “above and beyond the Manual” (151);
    • camaraderie, the need to feel part of a community of shared values and beliefs as such might be expressed in group singing or parades as well as political activism, and which is later encapsulated by Vonnegut, positively, in the concept of the “karass,” and, falsely, as the “granfalloon”;
    • meaning making, a drive to make sense of one’s world and one’s place in it as a search for genuine “high-grade truth” or “spiritual uplift,” expressed in symbolic forms, such as speeches and histories as well as myths, plays, and fiction; either way, “It’s the symbolism of the thing!” and the symbols, whether true or false, help one navigate (289);
    • wastefulness, inefficiency, and sloppiness, as that which gums up the works, both in terms of physical capacity and in thought as a time-consuming deliberation of possibilities, because the “virtue of inefficiency” is that it allows the human mind to imagine “more durable and efficient images of himself” (303) (see Finnerty, the “coarse mess” of the human, who can see other futures and alternate realities [41]);
    • choice, as such entails “a purely internal matter” that has “nothing to do with machines, hierarchies, economics, love, age” (310) and thus represents a break in time, a pause for “careful consideration,” and an opportunity to choose “new controls” before one is swept up by the currents of history again (302–303).

Together, these values can help guide a modern humanistic education, but the capstone for Kurt is ultimately “know-how,” which he sees as not only quintessentially human but also deeply American. In Player Piano, know-how is credited with saving democracy during the last world war, and know-how now seems to be strangling it. Know-how, though, stitches together the broken pieces of human identity, as it is knowledge in the hands, mind, and body, both idea and action, and for this it is ultimately self-correcting and progressive. Know-how represents a more compassionate form of engineering, both engrossing and critical, experimental and purposive, and thus proves both reconstructive and utopian. Know-how survives the riots at the end of the novel and becomes the foundation for any future educational program. The last scene brings together experts from engineering, science, history, literature, anthropology, and religion, all in the name of know-how, and it is this know-how that leads the work of rebuilding society.

1. All details in Charles J. Shields, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011), 35–48, 86–91.