Player Piano and Technology | Van Kooten on Player Piano

Should We Be Worried?

Rick Van Kooten


Ah, to return to the days of the skinny black tie, white shirts, and horn-rimmed glasses of the Houston-we-have-a-problem-era engineers! First a digression on the difference between scientists and engineers, from personal experience: as an undergrad, I was in an “Engineering Science” program that straddled both fields. Despite this increased scope, I was disheartened when asking “why?” by a response (from engineers) of, “Don’t worry why; it is a rule of thumb that just works.” That directed me towards physics for the “why.” Don’t get me wrong, I truly have great respect for engineers who take components/concepts (often provided by the scientists) and combine them in innovative and creative ways to design spectacular constructs for use by society—taking science and turning it into technology.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, set in the 1950s, hearkens back to these days, but a dystopian society in which the working class has been displaced by automation overseen by engineers and managers who are the only citizens with significant employment, with the rest assigned to inane, keep-busy jobs, taking away their pride and any kind of work ethic. Vonnegut’s brother worked as a scientist at General Electric, and Vonnegut himself worked as a publicist at GE, so he was familiar with the working environment of a large tech company. Apparently Vonnegut became inspired by an automated machine at GE that cut rotor blades for jet engines:

One day I came across an engineer who had developed a milling machine that could be operated by punch cards. Now at the time, milling machine operators were among the best-paid machinists in the world, yet this damned machine was able to do as good a job as most of the machinists ever could. . . . The implications were sensational. (Two Conversations, p. 200)

This is exactly how Vonnegut describes the fairly simplistic automation of the novel, i.e., a magnetic tape holding a recording of the movements of a master machinist turning out a shaft that then controls a machine duplicating the actions flawlessly for thousands of shafts. Paul Proteus, the novel’s main character, meets that same master machinist, Rudy Hertz, years after the recording, in a bar. Rudy deposits a nickel into the titular player piano and ironically exclaims,

“See—see them two go up and down, Doctor! Just the way the feller hit ’em. Look at ’em go!”

The music stopped abruptly, with the air of having delivered exactly five cents worth of joy. Rudy still shouted. “Makes you feel kind of creepy, don’t it, Doctor, watching them keys go up and down? You can almost see a ghost sitting there playing his heart out.” (p. 32)

Rudy himself is one of the “ghosts in the machine” who was instrumental in the machines’ having displaced and disenfranchised his colleagues.

The downfall of this society is the attitude of the oligarchs, described by the novel’s Finnerty: “If only it weren’t for the people, the goddamned people . . . always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, earth would be an engineer’s paradise” (p. 332). Although this may be a misguided engineer’s paradise, it is not utopia for the rest. There are countless examples where humans can continue controlling the machines as tools and avoid the trap of machines controlling humans.

In such a science fiction novel (and, yes, I categorize this as science fiction, despite Vonnegut admitting that he did not know that he was a science fiction writer until after the first reviews of Player Piano, and much later remarking, “I didn’t know that [it was science fiction]. I supposed that I was writing a novel about life.”), one inevitably compares the novel’s future with the current day. In the above example, yes, there are computer-controlled milling (“CNC,” or computer numerical control) machines, among many, many others, but they should be and are considered simply more sophisticated tools for humans to program and use. A modern five-axis CNC milling machine in the hands of a skilled machinist like Rudy with appropriate training would handily turn out complicated parts virtually impossible to make by a human without the computer control. The novel only addresses control of machines via mimicry of human actions, the simplest possible implementation. Although other human-machine actions existed at the time, such as machines acting as extensions of humans, or machines and communicators and translators, etc., Vonnegut focuses on mimicry potentially to emphasize the direct replacement rather than improvement of human work.

Another example is that of “Checker Charley,” Berringer’s computerized checker player that is used to challenge Paul’s hold as checker champion of the company. Although the machine fails miserably, likely due to subtle sabotage by Finnerty, it is still a machine challenging a human. Fast-forward to today and we have computer programs souped-up to guarantee at least a draw against any human in checkers; Deep Blue, the IBM computer that first won against a world champion chess player (Kasparov); and in a most recent significant advance for artificial intelligence, Google’s DeepMind AI defeated a top-ranked human in the game of Go, a feat considerably more difficult than for the game of chess. So why bother playing? In an interesting development, “Advanced Chess” is becoming more popular, where a human chess player works with the chess-playing computer tool to determine the best possible move. Computer programs can catch subtle blunders, whereas humans excel at longer-term strategy. One can consider it enhanced chess play.

Finally, there is the supercomputer controlling this society: the EPICAC XIV, an amusing name spoofing ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), one of the earliest electronic general-purpose computers, dedicated in 1946, and “ipecac,” a drug used to induce vomiting. In Player Piano, President Lynn declares that “EPICAC XIV was, in effect, the greatest individual in history, that the wisest man that had ever lived was to EPICAC XIV as a worm was to that wisest man” (p. 120). Nowadays, instead of such massive computers residing in Carlsbad Caverns, they occupy huge glass-walled enclosures at national laboratories/centers or football-field-sized arrays of servers at Google. However, as always, humans are continually involved, even with the best artificial intelligence (AI) machines, in a practice coined “human-in-the-loop” computing, where humans are still and should be relied upon for the smaller fraction of less mundane decisions not made by the AI. The human judgment can then be added to the model, but never eliminated. With the AI, human capabilities are enhanced. The military uses advanced computing to make sense of the fire hose of data from sensors and other sources of digital information, but as policy always takes care to include that human-in-the-loop who can handle the pre-digested summaries from the computer as a tool to make critical decisions. A true no-brainer to prevent hitting <return> on a keyboard to enable some Skynet-esque (of Terminator fame) program to take control.

The automation of the novel also seems stagnant, apparently hitting some ideal plateau and not needing any further improvement. Little direct progress has been made since the war, only an increase in efficiency. In reality, engineers and scientists would not sit still, but would continually use these increasingly advanced tools for increasingly sophisticated work. For this reason, it would be almost unimaginable that someone like the novel’s Bud Calhoun, the ultimate creative genius and gadgeteer, would lose his job. Indeed, he was one of the few happy ones following the revolution, immediately jumping in to repair and redirect the broken machines. He would always be looking for new and improved solutions. I love Bud, engineers love Bud, everyone loves Bud. It is also unclear why Vonnegut “picks on engineers” and leaves scientists out of the equation. It is the latter that are the underlying engine of providing new technology, and perhaps Vonnegut wanted to dwell on this society that the oligarchs falsely believed had already reached perfection.

The crux of the matter, though, is Vonnegut warning us of the “intemperate faith in lawless technological progress” (p. 301) and the consequences of technology, as expressed by Professor Von Neumann in the Ghost Shirt manifesto he writes for Proteus. This name is very likely a nod to John von Neumann, one of the fathers of the digital computer, who also worked on computer prediction of weather patterns at the Institute for Advanced Study, in turn impacting the work at GE of Vonnegut’s scientist brother, Bernard. The manifesto continues with the telling, “Without regard for the changes in human life patterns that may result, new machines, new forms of organization, new ways of increasing efficiency, are constantly being introduced. To do this without regard for the effects on life patterns is lawlessness” (p. 302). Clearly Vonnegut believes that technological progress needs to be accompanied by social progress. Even if he does not hate technology itself, Vonnegut was apparently suspicious of it; he did use a computer for word processing, but called the Internet “a particularly habit-forming, hallucinatory, pernicious form of LSD” [interview]. It is more of a case of society needing to have a healthy relationship with technology. Automation in manufacturing and the subsequent loss of jobs without enough emphasis on retraining and education has led to the understandable dissatisfaction of a large swath of blue-collar America, particularly apparent today.

Paul Proteus also cites Norbert Wiener, an intriguing MIT mathematician who coined the term “cyber” in “cybernetics” as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.” Wiener publicly denounced scientists working on weapons research as “morally irresponsible” and was a major influence on Vonnegut. Interestingly, Wiener was furious about Player Piano, possibly thinking that the novel was a frivolous analysis of the then state of society.

Today’s STEM fields are emphasized so much in our educational system, but they need to be tempered by ethics and training in social awareness, calling for the engineer/scientist to be more of a renaissance woman/man. Paul Proteus realizes other missing aspects when talking to his wife Anita: “No, no. You’ve got something the tests and machines will never be able to measure: you’re artistic. That’s one of the tragedies of our times, that no machine has ever been built that can recognize that quality, appreciate it, foster it, sympathize with it” (p. 178).

It is thus necessary for humans to remain squarely in the loop as computers and AIs develop at breakneck speed. Social science and development is a requirement as well for healthy progress driven by technology, needed to avoid Vonnegut’s admonition (my favorite quote in Player Piano), “Those who live by electronics, die by electronics. Sic semper tyrannis” (p. 60).