BlackOxford's Reviews > Player Piano

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut
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it was amazing
bookshelves: american

The Cybernetic Script

One of the most important but least discussed consequences of WWII is an ideology. It is way of thinking that unites the political left and right, and even transcends the ideologies of Capitalism and Marxism with their apparent conflicts about the nature of human beings and their politics. It is an ideology that became and remains the dominant intellectual force in the world in my lifetime. This ideology goes by a name that is only occasionally used today and is probably recognised only by specialist professionals old enough to remember it: Cybernetics.

Cybernetics is the unnamed central character in Player Piano, where it goes incognito as 'know how' developed during the war. As a scientific discipline, cybernetics is about control. Its vocabulary has largely been assimilated into general usage - systems, feedback loops, requisite variety, algorithms. sustainability. In the year that Vonnegut was writing Player Piano (1951), cybernetics was the fashionable inter-disciplinary buzzword in fields as diverse as hormonal medicine, national government, industrial economics and computer design (not to mention player pianos). And of course, in Vonnegut's obvious subject: Robotics. The big names in the social sciences of the day - von Neumann, Ashby, Weiner, Bateson, Deming, Beer, to name just a few - all had cybernetic connections through the war-effort.

Vonnegut's prescience about the effects of cybernetic thinking for things like automated factories, computer-assisted design, self-driven cars, voice-recognition and expert systems are at least as good as anyone involved in the discipline at the time. But Vonnegut's real talent isn't predictive, it's prophetic. And his insights aren't about science, they are about ideology. He saw beneath the breathless press and stunning technological advances produced through cybernetics to how cybernetics was being used shape the manner in which human beings were to live with each other, whether they were conscious of this or not.

Cybernetics was always more than a discipline or method, or even a manner of thinking. Through general, tacit, but very real agreement on the issues of importance to be addressed, the only issues, cybernetics became an ideology, a framework, a rationale, most crucially a rationalisation of the exercise of power by the people who had power. These are the people Vonnegut identifies as the 'elite', technical managers and their distant superiors who tend the complex cybernetic control mechanisms.

But Vonnegut is far too perceptive to categorise the world simply into managers and those they manage. There is a reason why the very senior managers in Player Piano are kept vaguely in the background. They are the only people not subject to cybernetic demands. The only thing that cybernetics cannot be used for is the decision about what constitutes a successful result of the processes involved, about how to measure value. Player Piano was born in a world of the McCarthy hearings (alluded to in the phrase 'fellow travellers'), the most blatant attempt to institutionalise the definition of success until recent times.

Success is defined elsewhere than by the factory managers in Player Piano, in the higher reaches of corporate management, beyond the pay grade of a Proteus and his colleagues in Ilium (incidentally the Latin for guts, including the highly vulnerable testicles; as well as another name for Troy, of the treacherous horse). And however value is defined, it is not a process or a result to be tampered with in Vonnegut's world at the level of mere management professionals.

A successful result of a cybernetic process might be defined in terms of efficiency, or speed, or innovation, or profit, consumer satisfaction, or literally anything the human mind might conjure. Whatever it is, it is hard wired into the little tape loops that run each machine in Ilium's massive factories. But nothing within the discipline of cybernetics gave a clue as to which of these measures of success was appropriate, or best, or acceptable.

This is the lynchpin of Vonnegut's narrative. It is not mere Luddite sabotage of the machines that is the threat to Ilium's stability but rather changes to the criteria embedded in the tapes and the authority that creates them. It is the control boxes that must be kept locked and secure. These are the tabernacles in which the secret decisions about what constitutes value are hidden and from which these decisions invisibly control both the machines and the factory managers. It is these tiny sanctuaries not the gigantic integrated chains of machines that are the driving force of Vonnegut's fiction.

Except that this situation wasn't, and isn't, only a fiction. The separation of the management of cybernetically controlled systems and the choice of their criteria of success, that is to say, their value, is the core of cybernetics as an ideology. In both Player Piano and in the world as it has evolved, this separation has largely come to pass. Politically, this has gone largely unnoticed by those most affected by the ideology. Until of course very recently as demonstrated in the dramatic political events in Europe, North America, India, and, I think, even China

A key part of Vonnegut's narrative is the separation of what would come to be called the 99% from the corporate managerial class. The most interesting part of the script is the malaise that affects the 99%-ers. This malaise is spiritual rather than material. Although unemployed, the plebs are not homeless or starving.

But since the removal of the corporate ladder, which had given apparent purpose to life and by which they might have advanced (a central element of the post-war American Dream), they are dissatisfied and unruly. The most hopeful aspect of Player Piano is that they don't seem to want the corporate ladder back!

As a prophet not a forecaster, Vonnegut got some things wrong. What he mainly got wrong was the precise mode in which the cybernetic ideology was to play out. He reckoned, along with many philosophers and social scientists of the time, that the managerial elite would dominate through their control of manufacturing and transport. This is how the Robber Barons in the late 19th century and the Russian soviets had already done it.

What no one, literally no one, at the time anticipated was that even the manufacturing elite wouldn't be high enough up the cybernetic food chain to set the criteria for success. This would be left to the even more remote Captains of Finance not the contemporary Lords of Industry. Given that neither Karl Marx nor Frederik Hayek saw that one coming, we might want to overlook Vonnegut's slip.

Vonnegut couldn't see the impending shift because Finance in America, as everywhere else, was still Capitalist Finance in 1951. Not for a decade did cybernetics under a new heading of Corporate Finance, as a real discipline and an ideology, become identifiable as a visible intellectual force. And not for yet another decade was this force great enough to shift corporate power decisively from the capitalists who make things to the capitalists who finance things.

It is unarguable that today it is the likes of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley rather than General Motors or General Electric that dominate the world economy and a large portion of its social ambitions as well. The transition is complete. Same cybernetic ideology, just a different cast of corporate characters. And Vonnegut wrote the script. Unfortunately Trump not Proteus is leading the revolution.

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And just when you thought it's safe to drink the Kool-Aid:
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Reading Progress

January 15, 2017 – Shelved
January 15, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
January 24, 2017 – Started Reading
January 25, 2017 – Shelved as: american
January 25, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-29 of 29 (29 new)

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Lisa Great write-up, michael, of an excellent novel. An absolute highlight in my recent reading!


BlackOxford Mine too Lisa. I had forgotten how good he is. Thanks again for reminding me.


Denis A fantastic review!


BlackOxford Denis wrote: "A fantastic review!"
Thank you Denis. Very much appreciated.


message 5: by Jan (new)

Jan Unusually thoughtful review. Thanks for drawing the connection to today's reality.


BlackOxford Thanks Jan. Although I don't know how to take the 'unusually'.


Brian Brilliant review, B.


BlackOxford Thanks Brian.


Sebastien Must reread this book, read it so long ago. Fantastic review, thank you for taking the time to write such a wonderful thought provoking review.


BlackOxford Sebastien wrote: "Must reread this book, read it so long ago. Fantastic review, thank you for taking the time to write such a wonderful thought provoking review."

And thank you for taking the time as well Sebastien. It is much appreciated.


Gabrielle Wonderful analysis and review!


message 12: by Jan (new)

Jan BlackOxford wrote: "Thanks Jan. Although I don't know how to take the 'unusually'."

Jan wrote: "Unusually thoughtful review. Thanks for drawing the connection to today's reality."

It's all meant to be unusually positive


BlackOxford Jan wrote: "BlackOxford wrote: "Thanks Jan. Although I don't know how to take the 'unusually'."

Jan wrote: "Unusually thoughtful review. Thanks for drawing the connection to today's reality."

It's all meant ..."

!-)


BlackOxford Gabrielle wrote: "Wonderful analysis and review!"

Thank you Gabrielle.


Adina Brilliant analysis and review!


BlackOxford Thank you Adina


message 17: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Your review reminds me of Daniel Bell's "The End of Ideology". Ironically, your comments on the significance of cybernetics could apply to the first part of the book I'm reading at the moment: DeLillo's "Ratner's Star".


message 18: by fourtriplezed (new)

fourtriplezed Ian wrote: "Your review reminds me of Daniel Bell's "The End of Ideology". Ironically, your comments on the significance of cybernetics could apply to the first part of the book I'm reading at the moment: DeLi..."

I noticed you are on a DeLillo splurge. Would I like him considering my recent literary discoveries?

And fascinating review. It is so long since I read Vonnegut jnr. I really need to find time to re-read.


message 19: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye 4triplezed wrote: "I noticed you are on a DeLillo splurge. Would I like him considering my recent literary discoveries? "

I'm sure you would. PM me if you want some guidance.


BlackOxford Ian wrote: "Your review reminds me of Daniel Bell's "The End of Ideology". Ironically, your comments on the significance of cybernetics could apply to the first part of the book I'm reading at the moment: DeLi..."

I haven't read either one of those, although your mention of Bell reminds me of my yufe. I look forward to your take on DeLillo.


message 21: by David (new)

David Brilliant review. Brilliant ending. Thank you Michael.


BlackOxford Thanks David.


message 23: by W.D. (new)

W.D. Clarke Superb, simply stunning! This review made my week, and is not only exhaustively thorough but also tautly woven in its structure and economical and approachable in its language, balancing complexity with clarity most admirably!

Pynchon was also profoundly influenced by Weiner in his earlier novels especially--are you a fan? In his later novels (as in the work of economic historian Robert Brenner) there is is an explicit interest in exploring capitalism, and a sense that even the lords of finance are subject to a logic beyond their control (in Brenner, the idea that financialization proceeds from long term decline in the rate of profitability, something inherent to the structural logic of capitalism itself, i.e. those tendencies and processes which go by the name of neo-liberalism are but the contradictory [and only temporarily successful] responses to a broader, systemic structural crisis that has yet to fully play out). I'd really like to see a novel that wrestled with this broader canvas, and I don't think that realist novel could do it successfully. Player Piano provides one clue (and TP's Against The Day another) as to how it might be written, I think, and hopefully some young writer will attempt it--I'd love to read it, anyhow!


message 24: by Glenn (new)

Glenn Russell Very fine review, Michael.

The robots are coming, no doubt. People no longer even rake leaves. There are those noisy leaf blowers (a kind of robot).

And not for yet another decade was this force great enough to shift corporate power decisively from the capitalists who make things to the capitalists who finance things. -------------- Very true. I suspect in terms of politics, this shift was made during the age of Robber Barons - a shift from the political leaders making policy to the business leaders financing those political leaders making policy.


BlackOxford W.D. wrote: "Superb, simply stunning! This review made my week, and is not only exhaustively thorough but also tautly woven in its structure and economical and approachable in its language, balancing complexity..."
Thanks WD. And you returned the favour. I didn’t have a clue about Pynchon’s influences and am entirely unfamiliar with Robert Brenner. I will correct both lacunae as speedily as possible.


BlackOxford Glenn wrote: "Very fine review, Michael.

The robots are coming, no doubt. People no longer even rake leaves. There are those noisy leaf blowers (a kind of robot).

And not for yet another decade was this force ..."

Glenn you are exactly correct about the timing of the shift - ten years either side of the turn of the 20th century. In fact Finance came to the fore not because of the need to fund capitalist enterprise but because of the need to justify corporate consolidation in railroads and oil.


Callum James Phelps Love it


message 28: by P.E. (new) - added it

P.E. Thanks for this instrumental review, BlackOxford.


BlackOxford P.E. wrote: "Thanks for this instrumental review, BlackOxford."

And for your tersely rhapsodic comment, P.E.


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