Thursday, February 06, 2014

62 Years Ago

Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano was published.

It is one of many, many cautionary science fiction novels, novellas and short stories that have been written over the decades on the subject of encroaching technologies which are an economic boon to the elite and ruinously disruptive to everyone else.

The Wikipedia tells me that:
It is a dystopia of automation,[1] describing the dereliction it causes in the quality of life.[1] The story takes place in a near-future society that is almost totally mechanized, eliminating the need for human laborers. This widespread mechanization creates conflict between the wealthy upper class—the engineers and managers who keep society running—and the lower class, whose skills and purpose in society have been replaced by machines. 
Here are some quotes from the novel:
“If it weren't for the people, the god-damn people' said Finnerty, 'always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren't for them, the world would be an engineer's paradise.”

"Those who live by electronics, die by electronics. Sic semper tyrannis.”

“Finnerty shook his head. "He'd pull me back into the center, and I want to stay as close on the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center." He nodded, "Big, undreamed-of things -- the people on the edge see them first.”
Three generations later, those at disreputable edges of society remain our best and most acutely tuned-in seers.

Three generations later, those in the cozy, cossetted Center whose personal fortunes will never be adversely affected by the upheavals their peers are foisting on us continue to be the very last people to notice the "Big, undreamed-of things".

Three generations later, our perpetually "unacknowledged legislators" remain safely outcast pariahs to whom no one is gopinlisten (until a generation or two has safely passed.)

Three generations later, goofs in the Center continue to be given large, public platforms from which they proffer their sage advice to us peons on how best to accommodate ourselves to being be stomped flat in the coming Robot Apocalypse.

David Brooks, February 4, 2014:
We’re clearly heading into an age of brilliant technology. Computers are already impressively good at guiding driverless cars and beating humans at chess and Jeopardy. As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology point out in their book “The Second Machine Age,” computers are increasingly going to be able to perform important parts of even mostly cognitive jobs, like picking stocks, diagnosing diseases and granting parole.

As this happens, certain mental skills will become less valuable because computers will take over. Having a great memory will probably be less valuable. Being able to be a straight-A student will be less valuable — gathering masses of information and regurgitating it back on tests. So will being able to do any mental activity that involves following a set of rules.

But what human skills will be more valuable?
David Frum, later in the day, February 4, 2014:
Robots Undercut the Case for More Immigrants

With technology destroying jobs for humans, adding tens of millions of new immigrants to America will only deepen inequality and poverty.

Before we talk about immigration, let’s talk about robots.

The next 10 years are expected to see a revolution in the application of Artificial Intelligence to every day tasks. Cars and trucks may soon drive themselves. Just as ATMs replaced bank clerks, so too new checkout machines will hugely reduce the need for retail clerks. The need for human labor in construction, meatpacking, and food preparation seems certain to contract.
But since it would be ungracious to leave you with the maundering of two mediocrities in your mouth, to cleanse your palette, enjoy some vintage Percy Bysshe Shelley from 1821:
The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry. At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature. The person in whom this power resides, may often, as far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers.

But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, that power which is seated on the throne of their own soul. It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age.

Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves.

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.


John said...

Huh? What's that rattling of chains? What's that eery screaming?

My God, my God, it's the specter of communism!

(Robots are only a problem if they belong only to a small section of the population--i.e., the capitalist class.)

John said...

Oh, and Marx did predict this, kinda sorta.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite meta things about Vonnegut (as well as his contemporaries) is the idea that engineers would be powerful and shape the world. I laugh now, because the lesson of the last four decades is, to the great surprise of many engineers, we're outsourcable, too.

tony in san diego said...

It is funny, I was thinking the same thing...fifty years ago, they thought engineers and managers would rule the world: this book, Brave New World, 1984. It turns out it's they guys who shuffle the fake money around, who ended up ruling the world.

And back then they thought one giant computer would take over the world. Hardly anybody envisioned the micro computer dispersion. John Brunner pretty much conceived of the internet in Shockwave Rider, also, I think, in the sixties.