Chief among the ‘listicles’ that pass through my social media feed are the lists with bold bullet-pointed predictions about the Great Utopian Future. These lists are heavy on the ‘sweep of change’ rhetoric and seem to delight in the prediction that certain industries will decline and fall. Never cataloged in those lists are the predictions about the number of people who will be swept out of a job by the future.
Dystopian views of a future in which man is first displaced and later dominated by machines are not difficult to find, however. The drivers of the tech revolution seem to subscribe to both futures; a utopia for the smart and socially connected, and to offset the dystopian outcomes and inevitable job losses, free money for everyone else. The premise of Universal Basic Income is that everyone should be paid something, even if they can’t contribute to the economy once machines start doing more and more of the work.
I was reading yet another set of bold predictions when I was reminded of a book by Kurt Vonnegut, the great science fiction writer and contrarian. I read it long ago, during a teen ‘Vonnegut phase.’ I poured through the Vonnegut catalog, and his classic, Player Piano, imagined a similar dystopian utopia.
Player Piano was released as a novel called Utopia 14 in 1954, and was considered science fiction, so, you know, not real literature. Vonnegut was writing in obscurity, and so his book was not widely read. It took decades before he was recognized as a major literary figure and his novels properly published.
The story centers around an engineer in a future world where machines do most of the work and society has been divided into three broad camps; the useful people who design machines and service them, the bohemian artists who exist on the fringes, and the useless people who act busy but aren’t.
The useless people have jobs, mainly puttering around for the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps, but they are known to all as the ‘Reeks and Wrecks’. One of the more adept engineers, Dr. Proteus, has an existential crisis regarding what machines are doing to people, so he organizes a rebellion, and this leads to his eventual arrest. After he helps the Reeks and Wrecks throw off their machine-dominated lives, he watches in horror as the very people who were displaced put the machines back together in order to start doing the work for them again.
It seems people don’t really want to work, even if work gives their lives purpose and meaning. Humans are caught between the desire to conserve energy and the need to be useful. Evolution is far from perfect.
I take the long view that utopias and dystopias are mostly in the mind. Predictions of the future are notoriously wrong and so only the broadest themes are useful as a guide. Broadly speaking, people adjust to and absorb changing technologies to their tastes and needs, and the people who want to work and find great meaning in tasks that make up their working lives will find ways to keep adding value. Those that find the workplace to be a bore or an activity for suckers aren’t contributing now, and they won’t in the future either. Work is like exercise and eating right; some do it and reap the rewards and some don’t and pay the penalty.
In any future, character is destiny. Habits and values matter. Meaning is subjective and cultures vary widely on what is a purposeful life. Human nature is both unchanging and highly adaptive. Technology empowers people to be what they are, good or bad.
In most ways, we choose our future, we always have, and always will.
Player Piano is still in print and available here: Player Piano
May 2023: These days, ChatGPT is said to be the tech that will unemployed millions, and millions of needed workers have yet to return to the office since Covid began. The future, it seems never arrives the way you expect it will.