The Attempt to Restore Humanity in a Machine Dependent Society

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The human desire to seek perfection in an imperfect world has become more frequent as modern times have progressed. Society is composed of engineers that construct and produce technologies that simplify human life and grant overall efficiency. Civilians crave a world where their lives are made easier and can rely on machines to complete their tasks. However, at what cost does the rapid expansion of technology begin to take away from the qualities of humanity. Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut, analyzes how the protagonist, Paul Proteus is engulfed in a privileged environment that was mastered through his bloodline. Soon enough our protagonist is met with situations that motivate him to analyze his own life, which results in his pursuit to restore his own humanity and power. This novel dissects the different characters within a technologically run society and follows the life of a dissatisfied person who seeks to escape the routine of his current life. Paul longs for a life away from the domination of machines and learns how his surroundings have impacted his decisions. Paul Proteus’ attempts to departure from the monotony of his life brings to light the negative aspects of technology. The movie “Brazil”, as well as our current society, mimics the world of Paul Proteus, to demonstrate that a progression in technology is undermining humanity and surrendering power to machines.

Paul Proteus throughout his life was expected to fulfill the societal expectation of becoming an elite engineer, a role that was set forth by his father. Paul is a man that was born into power and therefore maintains the highest paying job in Ilium, New York. His father, George Proteus set high standards for him, as he introduced the significance of engineering in a world that can be simplified and advanced through the usage of machinery. “Paul would someday rise almost as high in the organization as his father had. His father...the nation's first National Industrial, Commercial, Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources Director, a position approached in importance only by the presidency of the United States” (Vonnegut 2). George Proteus obtained a status so high that his contributions and power in society surpassed the president of the United States. These significant accomplishments set high expectations for Paul Proteus and set the foundation for his life. Paul is the wealthiest man in Ilium and continues his dad’s legacy in inventing machinery to further simply human life. However, the constrained life that Paul was born into soon proves to be difficult for him as he lacks the energy and satisfaction to continue working in this engineering environment. “He remembered how Anita, shortly after their marriage, had dug up a picture of his father from a trunk and had had it enlarged and framed … the strength that got him to the top job in the economy came in the middle years of his life - came in the years Paul was just beginning.” (Vonnegut 54). Paul’s wife, Anita’s decision in enlarging and framing George Proteus’ image is symbolic of the pressure placed on Paul’s character. Paul is expected to live up to his father’s power and trace his ancestral footsteps in achieving power and intelligence. This overbearing pressure eventually causes dissatisfaction in Paul’s life as he recognizes that his life was not formulated by choice but rather by bloodline. The life that he lives is constructed by expectation and machinery, which proves to be insufficient to provide Paul Proteus any source of happiness.

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Kurt Vonnegut claims “this book is not a book about what is, but a book about what could be” (Vonnegut 1). The circumstances that Paul faces in the novel parallel situations in our modern world, that signify our declining humanity. Paul’s views on the first and second industrialized revolution demonstrate the power that technology has over humans. When analyzing Paul’s writing his secretary claims, “That part where you say how the First Industrial Revolution devalued muscle work, then the second one devalued routine mental work. I was fascinated” (Vonnegut 13). Engineers are aware of the benefits provided by technology to help humans live a simplified life. However, once machines dominate all labor and mental work, there is not much left for humanity to execute. As humans, we have the power of free will and the ability to think for ourselves to make choices that determine our life. Paul states if a third revolution were to occur then “machines that devalue human thinking” would exist (Vonnegut 13). This revelation would further damage humanity as it would leave humans without the ability to think, harming free will. Although technology is a useful resource in society, it also proves to be detrimental as it takes away the value of having a work ethic and the pride of achieving personal goals. The author states that this book is about what could be, which is currently what the generation is experiencing. Humans rely on technology to simplify their life and give viable solutions to daily problems. However, these machines could also lead to the destruction of employment and human purpose. Rudy Hertz, an old engineer symbolizes the people living in Homestead, who are not managers, engineers or professionals. Rudy is an old man who is always found at the bar drinking to forget the internal pain that he has caused himself and others. Rather than living a prideful life in which he is recognized for his work and talent, he instead placed himself and all other machinists out of work. This instance validates the idea of machines taking over human action. For example, in our current society, there are several technologies, such as restaurant kiosks and factory machines that have been utilized to increase productivity and eliminate human error. These advanced machines have taken human employment and render human abilities as useless. The possibility of technology making our decisions and thinking for us is harmful to humanity as there will be no longer any purpose for our existence.

With an expansion of technology intertwined within society, humans are becoming more dependent on machines to complete tasks that they are capable of performing on their own. A symbolic event in the novel demonstrates how our reliance on technology has become so apparent that we lose ourselves when machines begin to fail. The game of checkers in Player Piano represents the battle between machine and man. A young engineer challenges Paul to a checker championship to demonstrate his invention of Checker Charley. Paul initially refuses to compete with the belief that he will lose. However, his companion, Finnerty convinces him to play against the machine. As the game progresses, there is a malfunction in Checker Charley which leads to its defeat, crowning Paul as the winner. This symbolic scene signifies that we cannot always depend on technology to complete our tasks. The more power that we give to machines, the more we damage ourselves when these machines fail to function properly. 'If Checker Charley was out to make chumps out of men, he could damn well fix his own connections. Paul looks after his own circuits; let Charley do the same. Those who live by electronics, die by electronics' (Vonnegut 52). As humans we can fix our own connections, however, machines cannot do that on their own. The people who depend and live by their electronics, die by their electronics. Once defeat has become apparent and the machines begin to glitch, humans must rely on their own abilities to complete tasks. This idea of reliance relates to the society in the movie “Brazil”. In a government-centered society, humans depend on strict rules that guide them as if they are robots. In the film, one scene shows two repairmen who need to fix an air vent. These men went into a panic when the phrase “27B-6” was said. This phrase refers to paperwork that is necessary for the repairmen to be able to fix the air conditioning. Once the men realized that the paperwork was not brought they went into a deep panic, which signifies the control that bureaucracy has on them. The society in this movie cannot function without the correct paperwork and approval of their government. Similarly, the theme of control and reliance is found in the novel as humans depend on technology to rule and dictate their lives.

Paul Proteus soon realizes that the dissatisfaction that he has with life is due to his expectation of following his father’s footsteps and relying heavily on machines. Paul’s friend Finnerty, is a man who does not care about what others think of him. As Paul struggles with finding his happiness he begins to find himself envying Finnerty’s mentality. “Paul wondered about his own deep drives as he realized ... Paul, might be content, if only - and let the thought stop there, as though he knew vaguely what lay beyond. He didn't. Paul envied Finnerty's mind” (Vonnegut 31). This is the point in the novel when Paul begins to question his mentality and his lifestyle. He admires Finnerty’s ability to act undisciplined, which prompts him to think about a world that lies beyond his own. This curiosity allows Paul to realize that his happiness can be found away from his current life and within the environment of the common people. “All his life they had been hidden from him by the walls of his ivory tower. Now, this night, he had come among them ... and Paul loved these common people, and wanted to help, and let them know they were loved and understood, and he wanted them to love him too” (Vonnegut 88). When Paul visits Homestead with Finnerty he is placed into the world of the common people, who do not devote their lives to creating machines. This environment is opposite to Paul’s everyday life. In Ilium works, Paul is powerful and intelligent yet unhappy and discontent with his reality. The same emotions are felt by Sam Lowry in the movie “Brazil.” He is annoyed with the ruling of the bureaucracy so much so that his dreams reflect the man that he wants to become. He wants to be a man who is free of dominating factors that control his life and determine his decisions. This same hope is shared with Paul who seeks to escape a life that is governed by machines and takes away the purpose of human life. Paul states, 'The main business of humanity is to do a good job of being human beings, not to serve as appendages to machines, institutions, and systems' (Vonnegut 273). This statement illuminates the imperfection of humanity as it demonstrates how societal perception of life has changed. The belief that some people have is to depend on technology to do their work and thinking for oneself. Technology is integrated into every part of human lives and current society uses it as a means of escape. As class discussions have shown, the majority of people find ways to distract themselves from doing work through means of technology. This demonstrates that as a society we are afraid to recognize the truth of technologies and instead of analyzing the harm that it can do in damaging humanity we rely on it to push those fears away.

The attempt to escape an industrialized life is difficult in a society that is already advanced and afraid to revert back. Paul Proteus recognizes the damage of machines on human life and gives up his success to make a personal change. Paul’s decision to break free from his history and the dominance of technology leads him to buy a farm, which symbolizes the contradiction of his whole life. “‘You're certainly eager to sell me the place, said Paul, laughing. With each new inconvenience, the place became more irresistible. It was a completely isolated backwater, cut off from the boiling rapids of history, society, and the economy. Timeless” (Vonnegut 130). The farm embodies an escape for Paul to isolate himself from the history of society and the economy. This step indicates that his mind was set to quit his past life in continuation of finding one that would bring him happiness. This decision results in objection from Paul’s wife, Anita, who is a selfish woman that is brainwashed by the success of machinery. Her mentality remains the same as she rejects Paul’s desire to reside on the farm, away from the life of Ilium works. Anita shares no sympathy for those who are suffering from the advancement of technology in their society. This mentality parallels Sam Lowry’s mother in “Brazil” as she urges her son to take a promotion that he is offered and move further up in the government. She does not analyze the suffering of the people who are under the control of bureaucracy as long as she is succeeding. Most individuals who benefit in society do not worry about those who are struggling as long as it does not affect them. In modern times, these comparative qualities can be attached to Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook. He also upholds selfish characteristics as he does things for the betterment of his career and platform. At the expense of user privacy and social media addiction, Zuckerberg continues to advance his platform to intrigue users. Proteus recognizes that in order to be happy, he must be selfless and isolate himself from the dependency of machinery. However, his dreams are idealistic as he seeks a simpler life that does not depend heavily on machines and technological domination. Humans are now too dependent on technology that there is no way for everyone to revert back and dismiss machines and their power. Paul can change his personal world, however the same cannot be done for all of society.

Society is comprised of humans that seek technology to simplify life and increase productivity. Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut, analyzes how Paul Proteus seeks to escape the monotony of his life and instead resort to a simplistic world that is not dominated by machinery. The novel using symbolic figures to demonstrate the challenges between man and machine, as well as analyzing how different characters react to change. The movie “Brazil” parallels the novel as the protagonist attempts to remove himself from the control of bureaucracy. Both the movie and the novel analyze how controlling elements in society take away from humanity and how the attempt to seek change in pursuit of happiness is frowned upon by individuals who are afraid to let go of an environment that they are accustomed to.

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The Attempt to Restore Humanity in a Machine Dependent Society. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from
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