Thursday, 8 May 2014

Player Piano

I have just finished reading Player Piano. It has some very memorable speeches and some very brilliant observations about people, but it is part of a cycle. We face the same dilemmas now. Do we want an automatic world? Would we be happy living a life of leisure while the machines do everything?

This machine Utopia has been coming ever since we invented machines, and it has been strong since the beginnings of the industrial revolution. The push-back is just as old. Vonnegut is telling the story of the Luddites campaigning against the automated looms and spinning frames. This was fictionalised by Samuel Butler in his novel Erewhon. Now the push is towards letting computers run our lives. This has been the inspiration for a lot of science-fiction authors. My favourite is Frank Herbert who wrote about this conflict in his Dune series. There the humans rebel in the Butlerian Jihad (a nod to Butler) and the machines of Ix are replaced by human computers enhanced by drugs - the mentats. But you do not need to look to science-fiction to see the rise of the machines.

Today I stood at the station listening to the automated message telling me that the next Circle Line train would leave in two minutes as I watched it leave as I go too late to the platform. Then the electronic screen told me I had 9 minutes to wait for the next train, before 3 minutes later the next automated message told me that the next train had just left Royal Oak and would be there in 2 minutes. As the echo of the message died away the next train arrived. Two minutes is shorted than I remember. At least I got to work a little earlier than I had anticipated. There I found a parcel from an online book-seller (not that one) that had been despatched by machine from a warehouse labelled and managed electronically. I was surprised by the contents as I couldn't remember ordering a teen fiction novel about a dancer. So I checked my order and it was supposed to be a textbook on epidemiology. So this is what we get with our technological, quality assured lives. The machines aren't going to take over the world anytime soon.

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