Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut - And Us - On Lives Without Work

The novel was published in 1948, two years after ENIAC, the first programmable digital computer, was created.  The blurb on the cover of the edition I have was written no later than 1971, when computers were still room-sized, and refers to a "totally automated society of the future."  I discovered this book, found it remarkably pertinent, and used it as a source in Work's New Age,  The novel, Vonnegut's first, is Player Piano.  I believe it is still in print.

In Player Piano, Vonnegut dealt with the human side of people not needing to work.  He postulated a future where, because of technology, very few people's production was needed.  His imaginary city, Ilium, was split into three sections - one with the machines that had replaced labor in general, one with the few people needed to control them, and one, Homestead, where the massive majority of people lived.  Homesteaders were typically nominally employed either by the army, which had no weapons, or the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps, which nominally performed construction projects but in reality required little of its workers.  These former workers and their descendants spent much of their time in bars, playing games, and watching sports, and were totally sustained by the state.  The plot that arose in this dystopia involved people on the Homestead side, helped by some of the engineers, rebelling against the machines, destroying many of them nationwide, to create the need for jobs that would give their lives meaning.  The rebellion is unsuccesful.

This is the problem we face in Work's New Age.  What will people do as they discover their efforts are neither needed nor even wanted?  Community involvement, which seemed weak in Homestead, could provide purpose for many, but would that be enough?  Many can find major life directions in their own projects - building, writing, excellence in games, political volunteering, and a variety of others.  Yet there will be a large number who may seem to those in power to be superfluous.  Will they be maintained, as sort of wildlife, as in Player Piano?   Or will they end up in a scenario that formed the basis of the first Terminator movie, in which the machines and maybe their handlers decide the most effective course for the world involves murdering billions of people? 

These are serious questions.  Perhaps it is premature for us to be asking them, but with the problem - not enough people needed to work any more, and the number growing daily - clear to some and becoming clearer to others - it is not.  Will the United States become a collection of heavily armed enclaves, or a mass of deadly inactivity and disincentive?  We have the power to choose, and we - not to mention the likes of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney - need to start discussing and assessing the choices we will make.  The sooner we do that, the better we will become.     

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