This note is the twenty-third letter in the 104-days-of-summer-vacation series. You can also follow the full twitter thread here, and leave any thoughts and comments that might come up!
In Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut paints a terrifyingly real picture of industrial capitalist America gone all in on automation, a world where there is nothing for most people to do. In Player Piano’s world, humanity trades off agency and work, for a centrally planned but highly convenient form of life.
The book itself follows Dr. Paul Proteus, an engineer and manager working in the last few remaining jobs and grappling with the question of human irrelevance in a world of automation. It’s a theme that hits close to home, especially with the current frenzy around AI, AI safety and alignment(see: Superintelligence).
In a particularly memorable scene, a doctor named Harrison expresses a distaste for machines, and when pressed on why, he asserts, “Machines are slaves and they compete with people”.
Anybody that competes with slaves becomes a slave
And in another scene near the climax of the book, a revolutionary Paul proclaims,
The main business of humanity is to do a good job of being human beings, not to serve as appendages to machines, institutions, and systems.
Player Piano depicts a world, where on the surface everything had gone right. A supercomputer precisely controlled every aspect of production, and ensured everyone had access to life’s creature comforts. Manufacturing was completely automated and resulted in no deaths, injury or menial labour of any sort. And for those who wanted to work, the Army or the Reclamation and Reconstruction Corps offered some solace.
Player Piano had no AI alignment problem, no existential risk, no major suppression of freedom of speech, and no dictatorial system, there was still a functioning democracy. And despite all that, the lack of meaningful work in Kurt Vonnegut’s world still left people decidedly unhappy.
Because if a machine can do everything you do, and do it better, what’s the point of doing anything at all. One answer might be a greater focus on paratelic experiences, but whether social structure could be reframed into a purely paratelic endeavor is still an open question.
I think this is the key takeaway for me from this book, even if we execute technological post-scarcity right we still have some major philosophical and social questions to answer. How do we live in the world where there is no pursuit of happiness, because everyone is given everything they need?