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Player Piano. A re-visit

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The book has aged considerably. Not the contents, the words or the ideas but the actual, physical book. The pages have turned yellow and the paperback cover has developed those little wrinkles that come from nowhere, simply because the materials have aged. I am a careful reader and therefore the back is not broken (I never bend the spine of a book to such a point), but the book is showing that it is a slight relic. Upon opening it the faint smell of dew or some other form of decay reaches me and, if I were prone to allergies or easily affected by moss, I simply would have not enjoyed reading it again, due to health issues, not my mind.
The book also has a strange connection to me. Scribbled on the inside cover is a name, which is probably that of the first person that owned it. Some Sarah Crackin (or something similar; her scribble is not completely legible) bought this book many years ago at THE BOOK RACK, an used-books bookstore in Denver, Colorado. I can tell that because below Sarah’s signature there is a large stamp, green and posted sideways, informing me that THE BOOK RACK would let you buy books at ½ price or trade 2 for 1. In turn, I bought the book at LIBRERIA MULTILINGUA (Multilingual Bookstore) in my native Caracas, something that I can recall because there is a little sticker in the back telling me that and the price which I paid for these 300 musty pages. There is certain symmetry that at least 30 years later, I am reading this book, bought by an American in Colorado and taken to Caracas, to be bought and kept by a person that would migrate to a third country (Colombia) but who has grown very fond of the American west, and specifically of that state in particular.
I am quite sure that THE BOOK RACK is long gone, victim to the automation of literary sales as brought to the XXI century by Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and LIBRERIA MULTILINGUA is also long gone, victim to the fact that people in my country neither can afford buying new books nor are very interested in reading, especially in foreign languages. And it is somehow ridiculously symmetrical because the book is Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s PLAYER PIANO, a book about some dystopian future envisioned by Mr. Vonnegut in which machines and their creators have supplanted humans in almost any and every task. For a person going through an extended period of unemployment, not completely disassociated to the automation of industry, PLAYER PIANO was one hell of a wrong choice to pick up and re-read. Because the dystopian future portrayed by Vonnegut is way too familiar and, in the same way that reading Aldous Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD makes the reader flinch at the accuracy of the prophecy, going through the pages of PLAYER PIANO makes you wonder if the future is really obscure to those with minds sharp enough to think about their today and be able to look straight into our tomorrow.
Vonnegut’s is a world where engineers are kings, where any person being able to automate a process with the specific goal of eventually not just replacing but displacing humans is considered good for society as a whole. Amongst Vonnegut’s many subtle points in the book, the concept of human dignity is repeatedly brought forth, in the sense that Vonnegut is of the believe that work, honest, hard, using-your-hands work, is good for the soul. It keeps not just the morale up but it is morally correct. When you take men (the book was written in the 1950’s so women were still largely an accessory) and you strip them of something to do, something meaningful, then something much larger than the men themselves die. For Vonnegut, that which dies is the American dream: the idea that any man, regardless of origin or brains or ancestry can become not good, but excellent at at least something. Repairing refrigerators, calibrating a carburettor, balancing the spokes of a bicycle, understanding the processes that govern an internal combustion engine.
It is an old mantra, one that most people have heard at one time or another from a caring, well intentioned parent: be whatever you want to be, but whatever you chose, try to be as good as you can. That way lays satisfaction.
For the modernly unemployed, the book is a powerful kick in the stomach, as much as it is an enjoyable read. Vonnegut pictures a world where vacuum-tube-powered computers, reading FORTRAN punched cards, make the decision of whether somebody is or is not suitable for a “position”. It is a world where once the decision is made, your place in society is set, not in stone, but in some other card somewhere, YOUR CARD, the one that tells the system everything there is to know about you. All in just a few holes punched in a sheet of malleable cardboard.
Vonnegut is now long gone, but it would be interesting to see what he would say about our current PLAYER PIANO world. This world where you are not a punched card but rather a profile in Facebook, LinkedIn or one of thousands of job search engines. A world where manual labour has been replaced by portable machines that never make a mistake (until they do, and then it is almost impossible to correct that). A world were algorithms govern almost everything and, for what is worth, a better world than before. It is a beautiful world slowly dividing those that are from those that are not, whatever that “BE” is.
The book came back to me as I picked one at random from my real library, not the virtual one many people have in their Nook or Kindle or Sony Reader. Musty and old, slowly decaying, the message remains current. What I write now is highly influenced by personal, actual circumstances and those that disagree will probably be right in that the view is distorted by lack of impartiality. But I wonder, if Vonnegut was alive and a young man, whether he would still write a XXI century version of the same subject.
Because ROM MEMORY by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. has a terrible ring to it.

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  1. atlpam's Avatar
    Always enjoy your musings - love the description of the origin of your book.