A Double-Header Reading Assignment: humans becoming robots

I have a proposed weekend assignment: get your self a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano (1952) and Simon Head’s Mindless (2014) and read them Saturday and Sunday. I just finished both, and they are outstanding bedfellows. As you read Vonnegut, you will find yourself constantly amazed at what he imagined more than sixty years ago, in forecasting a society where automation has quite literally broken the backs of the human race, removing much of craft and authentic work from the equation. Vonnegut describes a world in which the winners are an engineering-management upper class who oversee the Machines that do everything. The economic gap has widened to the point of infinity, with beautifully crafted justifications by the upper class of how the Machines have improved the lot of the massive, underemployed class– never mind they only have a few dollars to spend by choice, as what they truly need is supplied by social services in just the right amounts at the right times, automatically.  Machines decide what to build, how much to build, who to hire and who to promote. They are the cognitive orthotic that dumbs down society but keeps it running efficiently and incredibly unequally, and of course the protagonist attempts to revolt, lamely, against this age of rational efficiency.  The book brims with indices and quotients- with the idea that numerical estimates run everything, from what color book-jackets should be to just what authors are published (only if their readability quotient is well above 27). Remember my Robot Futures story about the color blue at Google? Vonnegut predicted this more than half a century before it happened.

Then take on Simon Head’s Mindless, Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans.   I readily admit that Head is not as gifted at prose as Vonnegut, but that’s alright. Head dives deep into just how computer business systems have changed industry- replacing autonomy and master craftsman empowerment at the level of the individual worker with machine-optimized peak efficiency through micro-managing every detailed move a worker makes. His description of both Walmart and Amazon in this respect is horrifying, demonstrating how literally the hand motions of each restocker and shipper are measured, optimized and adjusted, with quantitative performance indicators that ratchet up inexorably until the older employees have special “efficiency review” failures and inevitably lose their jobs. His book sharply describes a here-and-now, in the U.S. and in China both, where the worker class are almost literally automatons– robots– and where middle management cavitates, to be replaced by machine optimization and A.I. that serves top management and top executives directly. 


Both of the stories are fundamentally about the dehumanization that machine efficiency can bring, and the carefree feelings we can nurture while reading a work of fiction by Vonnegut are dashed when Head brings forward specific cases that are very much non-fiction. Come to think of it, you may want to save this double-header for a rainy, foggy, cheerless couple of days.



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