Friday, August 16, 2013

Vonnegut as Jobs Prophet

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was one of the great 20th-century American novelists.  Even though much of his writing was science fiction, he wasn’t contained by that genre.  In the late 1970s, when I was in college, his books were staples of English literature classes, yet some professors considered his work too casual, and maybe too popular, for university study.

In 1952, only the year after the first UNIVAC computer, boasting almost 2,000 instructions per second, was delivered to the U.S. Census Bureau, Vonnegut published Player Piano.  This novel was set some time in the future, after a war which had somehow pushed automation so far forward that the vast majority of people were not needed for work.   That predated by 12 years the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution’s letter to President Johnson alerting him to upcoming mechanization-caused joblessness, and was 21 years before the start of the Work’s New Age era in 1973. 

So how prophetic was Vonnegut?  Here are some structures of his future American society:

-          Cities were divided into three parts, one where the former workers lived, one for companies and those still employed by them, and one almost exclusively for the nearly-all-producing machines themselves.  Only rarely did people from the first and second sections travel to the other one.

-          The former workers were officially employed by either the Army or the “Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps.”  Most soldiers had no access to weapons, and the “Reeks and Wrecks,” as they were called, had job titles but little if any real work to do.  Boredom was a real social problem.

-          The idle people, often quite hostile to others, were engaged mostly in drinking and various small-scale recreational activities.  Many spent time talking wistfully about the jobs they had had and the trades they had practiced, with a lot of pride in their work.  Those not working often sought out ways in which they could contribute, such as by offering to repair a damaged car driven by one of the first-part residents.

-          Everyone was provided for, with “warm clothes” and “a place to live,” and there was no starvation.

-          The advent of widespread machine takeover of jobs had been followed by riots, which were suppressed.  Eventually there was also a nationwide revolution in which the former workers destroyed many of the machines, which failed as well.

So how do our current situation, and where we seem to be headed, match up with Vonnegut’s world?  One thing he did not anticipate.  Many of today’s job-cutting machines, in contrast to that Univac I which took up 943 square feet of floor space, can be held in a hand, so there is no need for large districts dedicated to them.  How about the other features?

-          Cities are, in a sense, becoming divided between modern-day business zones where many remaining cubicle workers report, and where people live.  It, strangely, has not happened that those employed in offices live nearby, even though their home neighborhoods also have high aesthetics, generally new buildings, and low crime rates.  Yet unemployment now varies greatly between residential sections, from 3% to 70% or more, so we could say our cities indeed have two divisions.

-          Government jobs without real work were a feature of the Soviet Union, but that has not seriously happened much here.  Unless you count a tiny minority of those in the Occupy protests, we have seen remarkably little public hostility from the unemployed.  That may change.

-          In Vonnegut’s story, joblessness came more suddenly than it has in real life, with our 40 years since work was easy for most to get, plus the next 10 to 30, compressed into five or ten.  As a result, stories of good jobs are now passed mostly from generation to generation.   On contributing skills, communities currently provide some outlets but not enough.

-          The social safety net, stronger now than in 1952, is designed to provide clothing, food, and shelter for everyone, and usually succeeds.  As more and more people are unneeded by the workforce, though, the number needing such benefits is increasing, and, with costs rising, we are already seeing discussion about who should be helped and how. 

-          Few have rioted against machines, though the Luddites in the early 19th century did.  Although I have written and spoken about the possibilities of unemployment-driven roving gangs and civil disorder, a broad-based organized attack on automation, or globalization or efficiency for that matter, seems very unlikely to me.  In Player Piano, all seemed to agree that joblessness had one cause, which people could put their hands on and physically destroy.  As per last week’s post, we are only in the stage of proposing explanations for the lack of work, which in fact has multiple causes of which many are unsuitable to rebel against.

Despite these differences, on one thing Vonnegut would have agreed.  The historical transition he foresaw has materialized.  We know neither how it will play out nor how can we make the most of it.  In the meantime, his books should be considered just fine for college courses – especially in the business department.     

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