4 years ago today, famed American writer and humanist Kurt Vonnegut died in his home in Manhattan. But Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors, often depicted technological development in a disturbing light.
In Player Piano, Vonnegut first novel published in 1952, he describes a bleak future in which companies have computerized so successfully that most of the population have been put out of jobs. In Sirens of Titan, his second novel published in 1959, he discusses free will, omniscience, and the overall purpose of human history in relation to the Martian invasion of Earth. In Galapagos, published in 1985, he questions the merit of the human brain from an evolutionary perspective (“Thanks to their decreased brainpower, people aren’t diverted from the main business of life by the hobgoblins of opinion anymore”).
In a conversation that took place in 1995, Vonnegut met with editor David H. Freedman at the in Manhattan townhouse to discuss his feelings on technology in an ever-computerized world. Here are the author’s insights:
On employment: I believe half of the duty of every inventor is to make a product that is better and cheaper, and the other half is to create a job that is more satisfying. We do only half of it. People are never mentioned, as though they don’t figure in the equation at all. Technocrats don’t give a damn about anything but the machines. They’re rational enough to know that there is no afterlife, and so they settle for the benefits they can get now, and they don’t care what happens to the world afterwards.
We’re always trying to replace jobs. Keeping lists, taking inventory, those are all things to do with life. And then somebody comes along and says, “Hey, you don’t need to do that anymore.” Well, thanks, but how the hell am I supposed to support my family? You, you silly fool, you’ve still got a job, sure. There’s this great word that the British use all the time: redundant. Workers are declared redundant. How’d you like to come into this world and be told you’re redundant? Built into human beings is a need, which nobody bothers to even acknowledge, to do something useful. But instead of worrying about what human beings need, we worry about what machines need. There’s no talk at all about what human beings are deprived of; all the talk is about what industries are being deprived of.
On the Internet: There’s all this talk about building the information superhighway and new networks. But there’s never talk about what’s happening to this network [taps the side of his head], which is already in place. There’s utter indifference to it.
Christ, I can remember when TV was going to teach my children Korean and trigonometry. Rural areas wouldn’t even have to have very well educated teachers; all they’d have to do is turn on the box. Well, we can see what TV really did. Look at what the O. J. Simpson trial has done to everyone. So much for all those Tom Swifts talking about the enormous benefit of what they were doing. The information superhighway will be two lanes loaded with tollgates, and it’s going to tell you what to look for. People will just watch the show.
We are not born with imagination. It has to be developed by teachers, by parents. There was a time when imagination was very important because it was the major source of entertainment. In 1892 if you were a seven-year-old, you’d read a story — just a very simple one — about a girl whose dog had died. Doesn’t that make you want to cry? Don’t you know how that little girl feels? And you’d read another story about a rich man slipping on a banana peel. Doesn’t that make you want to laugh? And this imagination circuit is being built in your head. If you go to an art gallery, here’s just a square with daubs of paint on it that haven’t moved in hundreds of years. No sound comes out of it.
The imagination circuit is taught to respond to the most minimal of cues. A book is an arrangement of 26 phonetic symbols, 10 numbers, and about 8 punctuation marks, and people can cast their eyes over these and envision the eruption of Mount Vesuvius or the Battle of Waterloo. But it’s no longer necessary for teachers and parents to build these circuits. Now there are professionally produced shows with great actors, very convincing sets, sound, music. And now there’s the information highway. We don’t need the circuits any more than we need to know how to ride horses. Those of us who had imagination circuits built can look in someone’s face and see stories there; to everyone else, a face will just be a face.
On replacing human contact with electronic contact: I work at home, and if I wanted to, I could have a computer right by my bed, and I’d never have to leave it. But I use a typewriter, and afterwards I mark up the pages with a pencil. Then I call up this woman named Carol out in Woodstock and say, “Are you still doing typing?” Sure she is, and her husband is trying to track bluebirds out there and not having much luck, and so we chitchat back and forth, and I say, “OK, I’ll send you the pages.”
Then I’m going down the steps, and my wife calls up, “Where are you going?” I say, “Well, I’m going to go buy an envelope.” And she says, “You’re not a poor man. Why don’t you buy a thousand envelopes? They’ll deliver them, and you can put them in a closet.” And I say, “Hush.” So I go down the steps here, and I go out to this newsstand across the street where they sell magazines and lottery tickets and stationery. I have to get in line because there are people buying candy and all that sort of thing, and I talk to them. The woman behind the counter has a jewel between her eyes, and when it’s my turn, I ask her if there have been any big winners lately. I get my envelope and seal it up and go to the postal convenience center down the block at the corner of 47th Street and 2nd Avenue, where I’m secretly in love with the woman behind the counter. I keep absolutely poker-faced; I never let her know how I feel about her. One time I had my pocket picked in there and got to meet a cop and tell him about it. Anyway, I address the envelope to Carol in Woodstock. I stamp the envelope and mail it in a mailbox in front of the post office, and I go home. And I’ve had a hell of a good time. And I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.
Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We’re dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go do something. [Gets up and dances a jig.]
On being called a Luddite: Oh, I welcome it.
Coincidentilly I am writing this post from Barnstable, Cape Cod, in the house next door to Vonnegut’s home (pictured above right), where his daughter Edie, a painter, currently lives.
R.I.P. dear Vonnegut, my favorite author and perhaps my favorite luddite of all time.