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Prophecy of gloom as mass automation dehumanises work
on 15 May 2009
Kurt Vonnegut's first novel is set in a dystopian America of the future, where technology has made manual work obsolete. This society divides into the few technocrats and managers who devise and control the machines, and the masses. A semi-utopian ideal removes the need for work and provides the masses with all they physically need, but provides no hope - what service can they provide? For those outside the elite, their only work is the army or the "Reeks and Wrecks" (Reconstruction & Reclamation Corps), and even the army is not trusted with guns in an age where wars are fought by machines in foreign lands. Even the legal system has been automated, with machines that analyse data and precedent to pronounce judgement.
The book is centred on one character's struggle to find meaning within this society. Dr Paul Proteus is one of the elite, an engineer who manages one of the vast automated factories. But his state-controlled life provides material wealth and little satisfaction. The book follows his journey from elite to subversive in his search for meaning.
Written around the same time as 1984, the book offers a similar view of the future with total state control of society, work and media. While lighter in tone than 1984, the messages are strikingly similar and the outcome similar. This book ends pessimistically, challenging the goals of constant development but highlighting the needs that drive them.