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Friday, June 28, 2013

Awesome Short-Short Story...

I was listening to RadioLab today while jogging, and I heard Jenny Hollowell read her short-short story "A History of Everything, Including You." It was amazing! I'm embedding the audio here for you to hear (no pun intended). It happens toward the beginning. It's worth 5 minutes!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Player Piano XXI

"'To a better world,' he started to say, but he cut the toast short, thinking of the people of Ilium, already eager to recreate the same old nightmare. he shrugged. 'To the record,' he said, and smashed the empty bottle on a rock." (340)


At the end of the book, there is a great revolt among the "common people" in Ilium, and they destroy all kinds of machines in their outrage. The government cordons off the whole section. But within a few days, there are people taking the smashed pieces of technology and putting them together in new ways and being "awed" by the technology just as they were before. Here I think Vonnegut speaks to the power of technology to "awe" us, to astound us even. It's more of a feeling than a thought. If you've never felt this awe, I encourage you to watch some of the videos of the testing of the Trinity bomb (the first atom bomb); or watch an Apple keynote from a WWDC. Apple does a wonderful job of generating this feeling of "Wow..." when you watch them display their products.

But for all the amazement that we instinctively feel toward these new technologies, I think we need to cultivate a healthy skepticism as well. A sampling of the questions that are worth considering when it comes to new technology: Who will benefit from this "advancement"? How will this new technology enable humans to be better humans? How will this new technology affect me (my behavior, my cognition, my emotion, etc.) and other humans? Is this new technology environmentally sound (does it harm the planet's ecosystems)? Is this new technology necessary? Does it do more than just distract me?

Be a gadfly. Ask tough questions. Socrates said that humans ought not to live unexamined lives. It seems to me that as a culture, as a human race, we've lost that truth. Let's take-up the banner once again to challenge ourselves and each other to live the examined life, rather than blithely going along with whatever corporations and governments tell us.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Player Piano XX

"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." (315)

"We'll rediscover the two greatest wonders of the world, the human mind and hand." (336)


A double dose today. I think these two snippets do a nice job of summing up the central themes of Vonnegut's Player Piano. I have one more quote that I'll drop tomorrow sometime.

As an educator, I'm thinking to myself that Vonnegut's Player Piano holds a lot of challenging assertions, and that despite having been written in 1952, it speaks to our modern condition (which is the true test of a "great work"; it's why we still read the Iliad and Dante's Inferno). Now would seem a good time to re-introduce this classic American novel into our classrooms. We need more people asking critical questions of our "systems" (corporations and governments); we need more Pauls in our world.

Our very "progress" oriented and technologically oriented 21st century United States, has, I believe, put the cart before the horse. Instead of making decisions based on what's best for humans, we're doing what's best for the sake of efficiency (economic or otherwise), and we're driving a technological agenda without regard for how it's affecting human beings. If you want a good synopsis of the early findings on the result of prolonged interaction with technology on the human brain, read Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Player Piano XIX

"Machines and organization and pursuit of efficiency have robbed the American people of liberty and the pursuit of happiness." (314)


Vonnegut wrote that in 1952. It is worth our time, in 2013, to consider the question: "Has the pursuit of efficiency robbed the American people of liberty and the pursuit of happiness?" I don't think we could unequivocally affirm this idea. But certainly the drive for efficiency in the realm of finance and banking has created a dangerous system that is having negative impacts upon the lives of many people through the recession we've been dealing with for the last five years.

In what ways do our current culture, economy, and government, put efficiency and organization as higher priorities than the needs of the people?

While I was reading Player Piano, the main theme seemed to revolve around the effect of technology on the lives of human beings. I still think this is true, but as I reflect upon the critical quotes I pulled out of the book and post them here on this blog, I think Vonnegut's text is a call to reflection on the proper place of technology in a civilization. The text now seems to me to be summoning us to ask critical questions about who is running "the show", and whose best interests do they have in mind? Cui bono?

Paul (the protagonist), and Vonnegut by extension, is not really anti-technology. He's pro-human, and he's upset that humans have subjugated themselves (their needs, instincts, and gifts) to the realm of technology and machines. In the "fictional" world of Player Piano, decisions are being made based on what's best for "progress" and for the advance of "technology" rather than what's best for people. This is a central focus I think the book explores, and calls each of us to explore.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Player Piano XVIII

"You perhaps disagree with the antique and vain notion of Man's being a creation of God. But I find it a far more defensible belief than the one implicit in intemperate faith in lawless technological progress--namely, that man is on earth to create more durable and efficient images of himself, and, hence, to eliminate any justification at all for his own continued existence." (302-03)


One of the great gifts of philosophy is that it always brings us back to the bedrock questions of humanity: Why am I (or humanity if you prefer) here? What is the purpose of my existence and how can I best achieve this purpose? What is the "good" life? How does one cultivate virtue and happiness? Yay for philosophy! Do we exist to create fancier machines? I think not.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Piano Player XVII

"Without regard for the wishes of men, any machines or techniques or forms of organization that can economically replace men do replace men. Replacement is not necessarily bad, but to do it without regard for the wishes of men is lawlessness. Without regard for the changes in human life patterns that may result, new machines, new forms of organization, new ways of increasing efficiency, are constantly being introduced. To do this without regard for the effects on life patterns is lawlessness." (301-02)


Vonnegut here makes an interesting point that has not been taken into consideration in the 60 years since he wrote Player Piano. Our culture's "method" for adopting new technology over the past 150 years has been to ask: can we do it? If the answer was yes, then we said, "How can we do it in a way that saves money?" And then we did it. 

Can we make an internal combustion engine? Yes. How will it save us money? Engines can be put to work doing the work of hundreds of thousands of employees. You have to pay employees; you don't have to pay machines. No one asked the employees whether this was what they wanted. Please don't misunderstand me: the internal combustion engine has had a profound impact on our development as a society, and has had positive effects. But it has had some lousy effects too (the exhaust that planes and auto-mobiles put into the atmosphere alone is a staggering thought, not to mention the health effects those chemicals will have on our children's children's children...). 

My point is that when confronted with new technology, no one stops and says: what are the pros and cons of this? Who will it affect? Can we alter it somehow to limit the downside? If the upside of a new technology is increased profit for a company, and the downside is all on the government, society, or individual, should we say to the company, "No, you cannot make this technology, because your device adversely affects people."?

This raises an interesting question: do companies have obligations to their employees (their nation/culture? their world?) beyond those outlined in the employment contract? Should a company consider how new policies, practices, "advancements", machines, tools, software, etc. will impact its employees (or their nation, world, or humanity?) before adopting them?

The point here is that unfettered "development" of new technologies or "advancements" without proper oversight, control, consideration, and questioning is not a good thing. As a society, we need a well-formed conscience that puts human beings first, ahead of machines, corporations, efficiency, and profit.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Player Piano XVI

"Man has survived Armageddon in order to enter the Eden of eternal peace, only to discover that everything he had looked forward to enjoying there, pride, dignity, self-respect, work worth doing, has been condemned as unfit for human consumption." (301)


I sometimes wonder if we aren't headed down a path that leads to this conclusion. So often, especially as an educator, I hear people disparage manual labor. But I think a healthy balance of hard work with intellectual activity is one way to find fulfillment. As much as I complain about doing yard work, I always feel a deep satisfaction after spending a day in the yard and seeing the beauty that my hard work accomplished.

I think the best outcome of technological progress would be if we, as a human race, could leverage technology for our mutual benefit, to raise up the poorest people in the world, and to eliminate the need for us to do unpleasant tasks. This could enable us to reconnect with a simpler way of life; a way of life that shows more respect for our planet and our fellow humans. If every human could pursue a life course that s/he wanted and allowed her/him activate her/his greatest potential, we could truly enter the "Eden of eternal peace" Vonnegut writes about.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Empathy and Technology

Yesterday, I wrote a post about the effect of technology on our values (inspired by a Vonnegut quote). Today, I found this article in the New York Times about empathy and how technology can connect and distance us from human interaction at the same time. Worth checking out!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Player Piano XV

"People are finding that, because of the way the machines are changing the world, more and more of their old values don't apply any more. People have no choice but to become second-rate machines themselves, or wards of the machines." (290)


In the United States, at least, the past century has seen dramatic technological "progress", and, simultaneously, we've seen a seismic shift in values. The question is: has the development of new technologies been a driver for shifting cultural values? Just because two things happen at the same time does not necessarily mean that one causes the other.

For example, you could ask what effect e-mail has had on hand-written letters. Obviously people write fewer hand-written letters or notes because of the advent of e-mail. But that's not necessarily a "value". "Communication" seems to be a higher priority today than it was decades ago, because technology has given people greater mobility. No longer are families necessarily concentrated in proximate geography. Separation of space has led to ever more elaborate means of communication (telegraph, telephone, email, text message, video-phone, etc.); but one could reasonably question of the quality of newer modes of communication. Obviously you cannot express in a single tweet what you would have written in a letter 50 years ago; but that's not the purpose of Twitter. You could turn that letter into an e-mail without losing much. But I will say that "communication" seems to be growing more telegraphic (no pun intended) with the advent of Twitter, Facebook, and text messages. When was the last time you sent or received a lengthy e-mail that contained significant personal information? I would argue that while we have more means of communicating at our disposal than we did 15-20 years ago, the general quality of our communication has decreased in recent years. The "value" seems to be on quantity, not quality.

Has technology driven this shift (if you agree with my assessment in the previous paragraph)? Driven is a strong word, but I think we can say that technology has contributed to this shift. Technology has certainly enabled this shift. It's easy, today, to "feel connected" to people through Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, etc., but I suspect that much of the "connection" that we feel is veneer, and a thin one at that. Stars, retweets, likes, and inane (and often impersonal) comments are no substitute for long, deep, consistent conversations about life's enduring questions.

It is worth noting that Nietzsche bought a typewriter when his vision began to fail toward the end of his life, and within a couple months of using it to compose instead of writing long-hand, he noted a change in the style of his writing. He felt that the technology of the typewriter altered the way he composed. Composition style isn't necessarily a "value" either, but I think there's good evidence that technological changes are impacting us at a micro and macro level as humans.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Piano Player XIV

The previous post began a brief exploration of Vonnegut's criticisms of collegiate sports in Player Piano, and the next few quotes all come from the same scene. If you missed it, I would recommend going back and re-reading the previous post. This scene takes place in chapter 28.

As Roseberry tries to talk Buck Young into quitting school to join the football team, an engineer from the Ithica works, Harrison, who worked with Paul, intervenes. He says to Young...

"Here you are at a crossroads, my boy. You're lucky. Not many crossroads left for people. Nothing but one-way streets with cliffs on both sides." (279)

The "progress" of their society has taken away most of the options for people. Most people's fortunes and futures are pigeon-holed as they take various aptitude tests and either become part of the elite "engineers and managers" of society, or they join the army or the "reeks and wrecks" (a civilian workforce). And Harrison goes on to suggest this to Buck Young...

"'If you are good,' he said, 'and if you are thoughtful, a fractured pelvis on the gridiron will pain you less than a life of engineering and management. In that life, believe me, the thoughtful, the sensitive, those who can recognize the ridiculous, die a thousand deaths.'" (279)

Finally, Harrison says...

"Go out and make your money on the gridiron, with blood and sweat and sinew. There's honor and glory in that--a little, anyway--and you'll never hate yourself." (280)

This chapter gives us more insight into how the "progress" of technology in this fictional society has damaged the opportunities for people and how it has sucked the life and soul out of those who "manage" the "progress". Harrison, a man who can certainly "recognize the ridiculous", has been sapped dry by the "system".

How many crossroads do people have today? Are we, as a society, making more paths for people to be successful or are we cutting off pathways to success? Is a society responsible for helping its citizens be successful? Is society better if more of its citizens achieve some measure of success? How can society open up more paths to success for individuals?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Player Piano XIII

Introduction: The next few quotes from Player Piano are from what I think is a really pivotal scene. There's a bright young man, Buck Young, studying at Cornell to be an engineer/manager, which would ensure him a future among the muck-a-mucks in the administration of the country as he rose through the ranks. But it turns out that Young is also a great football player. So there is this great scene in a bar, in which Cornell's football coach, Roseberry, tries to convince Young to play for him. The twist is that in Vonnegut's fictional society, students who play football are not allowed to go to school!

It seems that Vonnegut here is making fun of universities and the old stereotypes of "students" recruited to universities for their football-playing abilities, who then never attended a single class, but somehow managed to graduate anyway. In the world in Player Piano, the football coach, Roseberry, has a huge budget, a beautiful office, and his team brings lots of money into the university, both in donations and in ticket sales. While Roseberry is trying to persuade Young to leave school and join the football team, Young asks if he couldn't do both, because he really doesn't want to give up school. Roseberry's reply is classic:

"You can't play college football, and go to school. They tried that once, and you know what a silly mess that was." (278)

So, the next few quotes are going to come from this scene in which Vonnegut takes a healthy poke at what he saw in 1952 as some of the issues in collegiate athletics. The sad part is, with all of the scandals in collegiate athletics we've seen in the last few years, I think this section of his book is as meaningful now as it was when he wrote it. Perhaps if a few more athletic directors and university presidents read Vonnegut, we would learn some lessons and improve.