There is something rotten in Ilium. Kurt Vonnegut’s 1952 dystopian novel Player Piano (1) takes us to a future in which highly efficient, automated machines have replaced most industrial workers except for a managerial class, largely consisting of engineers who maintain the machines. The city of Ilium is divided into two parts, one where the people live and the other where the machines and managers reside. You might not be able to smell the rottenness because it is most everyone’s job to maintain the city as a part of the “Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps,” and the cost of production is so low that people have everything need and to live, poverty isn’t the issue. They have everything they need except for fulfillment. It is the people’s minds that are rotting as they ponder their own existence in a world dominated by machines.
This world no longer has a use for the worker, the citizen, the middle class whatever name it’s given. Anything you, the worker can do a machine can do better, and you are reminded of this every day by society and the single omnipotent industrial corporation that oversees it all.
This struggle isn’t new; we have been thinking about it since we as humans stopped being hunter-gatherers and settled down in cities. We call this struggle Economics, the study of who gets what and why. We deemed there were two factors that played a role making things, labor, and capital. Along the way, we decided that it was fair for both the labor and the owner of capital to be compensated for their role in production. We call that capital-ism. We decided that because we found that incentivizing people to save and accumulate capital leads to advances in technology and greater efficiency.
Efficiency is essential in a capitalist economy. If you are not maximizing your efficiency, then you leave the door open for innovative operators to take whatever value you left on the table, a la Jeff Bezos “your profit margin is my opportunity.”
The problem lies in the tradeoffs between labor and capital. Humans are humans; they have two arms, two legs, a brain, and can only work so fast and for some long. Humans break just like machines do, but medicine, psychiatry, and human resources departments are much more expensive than calling in the mechanic and replacing a part. Machines, however, have perhaps an unlimited ceiling. Humans build machines to do things other humans cannot do as well, more recently humans are building machines to solve unforeseen problems, by themselves.
Seth Godin in his book Linchpin (2) gave a similarly pessimistic outlook on the future of labor and essentially theorized that the difference in value between the average worker and the best of the best has widened. The women at Google who has come up with the minimalistic and simple ideas for Google’s product is a Linchpin. She doesn’t know how to code, but they have machines and other workers for that, but they are just pins according to Godin. In other words, they are replaceable and thus earn lower wages. And this is a company that people would kill to work for.
Player Piano essentially describes what Karl Marx called a “manufacturing aristocracy,” (3) in which a small portion of people own the means of production and the worker is reduced to a commodity with low wages. It is hard not to ignore the signs that the United States today may face what Karl Marx described. The latest numbers from the Federal Reserve released Fall of 2017 (4) reveal that the Top 1% of Americans control 40% of the wealth, and the top 1% owns twice as much as the bottom 90%. What I think most people who view these numbers don’t understand is that it is not the wages people earn that have led to this, it’s the fact that the top 1% owns 50% of the capital; they own the half of Ilium that produces everything through stock and retirement plans.
Scott Galloway a Professor at NYU, recently wrote a book on how technology giants control our lives for better and for worse. (4) He uses Uber as an example, an extremely valuable service, yet he explains who see the financial gains: “Uber has figured out a way to isolate the lords (4,000 employees) from the serfs (2 million drivers), who average $7.75/hour, so its 4,000 employees can carve up $70 billion vs. 2 million on an hourly wage. So, Uber has said to the global workforce, in hushed but clear tones: ‘Thanks, and f*** you.’”
CEO of Ritholtz Wealth Management, Josh Brown wrote on his blog to “Just Own the Damn Robots.” (5) He explained that his friend in the grocery business decided that instead of trying to compete with Amazon and their ever optimized distribution networks, he was just going to sell his business and buy Amazon stock. Put another way Amazon said: “Your profitable small business is a basically market failure. But only for now, because we’ve got investors, motherfucker”
Player Piano, however, is less about the inequality that a capital-intensive environment produces. It is actually a little simpler than that. Economists of the early 20th century like John Maynard Keynes predicted that as productivity increased people would work less. (6) That has not happened. That has to do with two things: 1. Real wages have fallen off a cliff as labor has gotten less economical so that employers can afford low-value employees 2. People like to work. In fact, characters are so eager for something to do that they jump on any chance to fix something that’s broken.
There are few meaningful jobs for those who live on the wrong side of the bridge in Illium. Parents fear for their kid's suicide as their test scores don’t allow for virtually all of them to progress past the “reeks and wrecks” construction corps or the large standing army that does nothing but… stand.
Protagonist Paul Proteus, a former manager searching for his own identity writes this in a letter: “I deny that there is any natural or divine law requiring that machines, efficiency, and organization should forever increase in scope, power, and complexity.” Proteus writes that we need to stop the “lawlessness,” or that the laws should be for the people, not the machines. “Men, by their nature, seemingly, cannot be happy unless engaged in enterprises that make them feel useful. They must, therefore, be returned to participation in such enterprises.” Yet how you balance returning to enterprises where no enterprise seems to exist that is not already perfectly efficient is a hard question.
Aldous Huxley’s dystopian solution was drugs and genetic modification in Brave New World. (7) Andrew Carnegie said in the Gospel of Wealth (8) that rich “virtuous men” should give to public works and leave no inheritance. Philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville argued that materialism and equating our work with our status has lead to the industrial aristocracy in Democracy In America. (9)
Is striving for efficiency wrong? Is capitalism not an effective way to reward value creation? Most would argue, no, because it works. In Player Piano the only reason the United States survived “World War III” was because they embraced machinery and learned how to produce more efficiently than any other country. Comparatively, goods are cheaper in the United States to buy so we are richer; relatively, however our income distribution is among the worst in the world which makes us feel poorer.
Richard Wilkinson in his book, The Spirit Level (10) argues that there is a direct correlation between wealth inequality and what he calls the “human” wellness index which includes: life expectancy, kids' math and literacy scores, infant mortality rates, homicide rates, proportion of the population in prison, teenage birthrates, levels of trust, obesity, mental illness, drug addiction and social mobility.
Of developed countries, Wilkinson found that the United States both tops inequality and the worst rating according to the described index. The effect is clearly on display in Vonnegut’s city of Ilium.
The solution subtly hinted at by Vonnegut is the arts. The namesake of the book Player Piano is a poignant motif to the idea that something as simple as playing a Piano can be replaced by a machine… but it doesn’t have to, and maybe it shouldn’t.
1: Vonnegut, Kurt. Player Piano. Dial Press, 2006.
2: Godin, Seth. Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?; How to Drive Your Career and Create a Remarkable Future. Piatkus, 2010.
3: Marx, Karl, and Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. Monthly Review Press, 1998.
4: Galloway, Scott. Four: How Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google Divided and Conquered the World. Diversified Publishing, 2017.
5: Posted October 16, 2017 by Joshua M Brown. “Just Own the Damn Robots.” The Reformed Broker, 16 Oct. 2017, thereformedbroker.com/2017/10/16/just-own-the-damn-robots/.
6: Elliott, Larry. “Economics: Whatever Happened to Keynes' 15-Hour Working Week? Asks Larry Elliott.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 31 Aug. 2008,
7: Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World ; and, Brave New World Revisited. Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
8: Carnegie, Andrew. The Gospel of Wealth. Carnegie Corp. of New York?, 2001.
9: De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. EncyclopÃ¦Dia Britannica, 1996.
10: Wilkinson, Richard G., and Kate Pickett. The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. Bloomsbury, 2011.