Thesis: Technology is the villain in Kurt Vonnegut’s works because of his hatred of corporate insensitivity and his awareness of the destructive social impact of science and technology.
I. Kurt Vonnegut has a great awareness of the destructive social impact of science and technology.
A. Contraptions that Vonnegut calls “social transplants” replace contact with the awful real relatives and friends with synthetic ones.
1. Computers minimize human contact even better than TV’s and CD players with headphones can.
2. Vonnegut voices his hate of the computer because it is a nervous system outside of our own.
3. The start of this was in the 4th century before Christ; audiences accepted people who memorized things to say on stage as genuine relatives.
4. Films and plays show us people talking much more entertainingly than really people talk and shows humans making sounds much lovelier than real humans make.
5. All of these have contributed to our lack of contact with our families and other humans
B. We no longer have developed imaginations because of technological developments.
1. Parents and teachers must be present to help develop our imaginations.
2. Imagination was very important once because it served as our major source of entertainment.
a. People used to be able to read a book and envision the story in their mind and that was entertainment.
b. Now there are shows, actors, movies and television to show us the story.
C. He believes the American dream has materialized into a junkyard by way of the glories of technology.
1. Technology and salesmanship have stripped and raped the land and divested the people of a sense of pride.
2. People are no longer the hard workers they used to be because machines do their job for them.
3. Many Americans are jobless because of the computerization in corporations, and Vonnegut blames American scientists and technologists for this.
4. Only those who still have manual labor to perform are truly happy.
II. Vonnegut has a deep hatred of corporate insensitivity.
A. Vonnegut’s job at General Electric provided him with much material for his novels
1. He saw a computer-operated milling machine while he worked at G. E.
a. It made perfect sense to have a little box make the decisions.
b. He hated the idea though because it was hurting the humans who get dignity from their jobs.
2. His brush with science at G. E. instilled in him a profound dislike of technology.
3. While at G. E. he found profit motives couched in sentimental tributes to pure science and individual freedom being sacrificed for personal advancement.
4. He also noticed how technology was developed in a moral vacuum.
5. He eventually quit his job there to write a novel about people and machines.
B. Kurt Vonnegut despises any institution that dehumanizes men and considers him a mere number and not a human being.
1. Too many corporations and business view us as big parts of one animal.
a. We are actually separate universes.
b. Each universe has its own way of ignoring celebrating or fending of technology.
2. Vonnegut is annoyed at the trend towards the submergence of the individual into a collective state.
III. Technology is portrayed as the villain in Kurt Vonnegut’s writing.
A. In Player Piano machines have replaced most of the jobs of humans.
1. The humans prove to be dispensable in a fully automated society.
2. Companies have been computerized so much that the factories are staffed by a handful of men.
3. He foreshadows the mechanical millenium and the bleak future for humans because of the computerization.
B. Vonnegut warns us of the bleak future that lies ahead due to the advancement of technology.
1. He hints that we, like the dinosaur and the saber-toothed tiger will face extinction.
2. Humanity is competing with the machines for survival.
3. In Cat’s Cradle the creation of the ice-nine finishes the destruction of the world that began with the atomic bomb.
a. Kurt blames this destruction on the fact that the man who discovered ice-nine never picked up a novel or short story to read.
b. Vonnegut says in the novel “without literature a person dies either of putrescence of the heart or atrophy of the nervous system.
The role of science and technology in Kurt Vonnegut’s writing
Kurt Vonnegut has a great awareness of the destructive social impact of science and technology. Contraptions that Vonnegut calls “social transplants” replace the awful real relatives and friends with synthetic ones. Recordings, radio and television are just a few of these devices. They made it possible to bring those synthetic relatives and friends right into your home and replace those friends and relatives who are a royal pain in the neck with a better class of people. He also believes that computers minimize human contact even better than televisions and compact disc players with headphones did (Vonnegut 266). In fact, Vonnegut’s least favorite technology is the computer. He believes it is a nervous system outside of our own and it has deprived humans of the experience of becoming. “All they have to do now is wait for the next program from Microsoft” (Pickering 24). Even films, books and plays show us people talking much more entertainingly than people really talk. While singers and musicians show us humans making sounds far lovelier than humans really make (Skaw 568). All of these technological developments have decreased the amount of contact we have with other humans. The first of these “transplants” took place in the 4th century before Christ. Audiences accepted attractive people who memorized interesting things to say on stage as genuine relatives and friends (Vonnegut 266). We no longer have a need to make conversation with our dreadful real family and friends, not when we have all of these technological and entertaining transplanted friends and family. Vonnegut believes contemporary society is lonely because we have alienated ourselves from each other because of all of the technology in our world. Throughout his many writings Vonnegut shows his fascination with the way technology changes the social environment (Lundquist 88). He never abandons his theme of hatred for science and technology and its social impact on society. Vonnegut also believes that we no longer have developed imaginations because of destructive technological developments. We are not born with an imagination; teachers and parents help us to develop it. Imagination was once very important because it was your major source of entertainment. The imagination circuit is built in your head. People can read a book and envision it in their mind. However, this is no longer necessary. Now there are shows, actors, and movies that show us the story instead of letting us use our imagination to envision it. We do not need imagination just like we do not need to know how to ride horses in our society. We have cars that can go much faster than horses so why learn how to ride one? This question can be applied to imagination. Why unleash your imagination to envision an unknown world in a book when you have movies and actors that do it for you? Those who have imagination can look into a face and see the stories there “to everyone else, a face will be just a face.” Science and technology has denied us our imaginations (Freedman 2). In a technologically advanced society, we no longer need it. Vonnegut knows that science and technology have changed America and society tremendously over the years. Technology and salesmanship have raped and stripped the land and divested the people of pride, leaving them ridiculous mechanical men and women. As a result, “The American dream of a new Eden with a new Adam, possible in the virgin wilderness of a new land, has materialized into a junkyard by way of the glories of technology” (Schulz 348). As Vonnegut sketches his settings, American ghosts haunt them: coastal Indians, whalers, Iroquois tribes, Erie canalmen, and pioneers. All of these people exemplify the American dream and all of these people were destroyed by technology (Uphaus 466). People of the contemporary society are no longer the hard workers they used to be because machines do their jobs for them. We don’t need to work as hard as the Indians, canalmen, pioneers, and whalers. Machines do our jobs for us; all we need to know how to do is push a few buttons. Many Americans are jobless because of the computerization in corporations, and Vonnegut blames American scientists and technologists for this (Uphaus 466). Technology is so destructive that it has taken our jobs away from us and takes away our pride. He believes that only those who still have manual labor to perform are truly happy. He shows this belief in his stories, if he ever were to write a sentimental novel with a conventional happy ending the hero almost certainly will be wearing a blue collar. In his novel, Player Piano, the people who still have manual labor to do are the happiest. Science and technology hasn’t affected these people; they still have a job to perform. Kurt Vonnegut is not only aware of the destructive social impact of science and technology; he tries to make you aware of it through his writing. Technology is the villain in his writings because of this awareness. He knows its ability to destroy society and he tries to make you aware of it. Accomplishing what few other writers dare to attempt, he makes Americans see themselves (Kosek 570). Vonnegut has put his finger on an essential problem of our times (Hicks 451). Science and technology has destroyed communication between family members, our ability to use our imagination and has even destroyed the American dream. Kurt Vonnegut has a deep hatred of corporate insensitivity. This hatred stems from a job Vonnegut once held at General Electric in Schenectady, NY. He worked in public relations as an official. His job, the General Electric plant and the town would provide with an abundance of material for his novels. His experiences in the corporate world reappear throughout his novels. While working at G. E. he noticed a computer-operated milling machine. His novel Player Piano was his response to the implication of everything having run by little boxes. It made perfect sense to have the box make the decisions. This would cut down on human error and increase production. But it was too bad for the humans who get dignity from their jobs. The corporation did not care though; they benefit from the computer-operated machine and as long as they are making more money, they are not concerned with the human who they put out of employment (Lundquist 88). His brush with science at G. E. instilled in him a profound dislike of technology (Goldsmith Introduction). In the corporate world, he hated how machines were replacing humans and no one but the people who were losing their jobs cared. While working at General Electric he found profit motives couched in sentimental tributes to pure science and individual freedom was sacrificed for personal advancement. He also noticed how technology was developed in a moral vacuum. All of these things he noticed through his work and contributed to his hatred of the insensitivity of the corporate world (Giannone 6). He eventually quit his job at G. E. to write a novel about people and machines. Also, he deeply despises any institution, be it scientific, religious, or political that dehumanizes men and considers him a mere number and not a human being (Schatt 348). In many novels he portrays society as a group of stupid, unthinking sheep. He does this because he believes this is how institutions and insensitive corporations view society. Too many corporations view us as parts of one big animal. However, we are separate universes each with its own way of ignoring, celebrating or fending off the effects of technology. Too many corporations view their employees as a group. They are too insensitive to care that they are individual people. His hatred of corporate insensitivity contributes to technology being the villain in his writing. From his experiences, Vonnegut knows that feelings get in the way of progress (Giannone 14). Corporations use this policy; they automate everything they possibly can. He is annoyed by the trend toward automation and the submergence of the individual into a collective state.Corporations do both of these things and that is why they are insensitive. They do not care about the individual employee and they do not care about the dignity the employee gets from completing his job. All of these things contribute to technology being the villain in his writing. His experiences with insensitive corporations have made him hate technology and automation. Therefore, Kurt Vonnegut portrays technology as the villain.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s writing, technology is often the villain. In his novel, Player Piano machines have replaced most of the jobs of humans. Machines replace manual labor and computers have taken over most of the supervision of the machines. The factory is then staffed by a handful of men (Reed 25). Business and industry have discovered that they could function more efficiently without inefficient people. As a result, society is almost fully automated with the exceptions of a few jobs computers could not take over, barbering and bartending, because attempts to automate them had failed. The smarter you are in this society the better you are. The computer in this novel, EPICAC XIV, annihilates whatever impedes its efficiency. If you get in the way the machine wipes you out. He portrays technology in a disturbing way in this book. He describes the future as bleak because companies will have computerized successfully. Most everybody will be put out of jobs because of computerization. He writes of the mechanical millenium to come (Klinkowitz 348). Technology is obviously the villain in this novel. Technology has taken over the companies due to corporate insensitivity and society is destroyed because of it. He rails against the mechanization of man in this novel. Other writers may choose to ignore the technological infringement upon our lives and grope for the cause of the dismay in the lives of their characters, Vonnegut knows the cause and he portrays it as the villain. He constantly warns of the bleak future due to the advancement of technology. He hints that humanity, like the dinosaur and the saber-toothed tiger, face extinction. Humanity is clearly competing with the machines for survival. In Cat’s Cradle, the creation of the ice-nine finishes the destruction of the world that began with the atomic bomb. He blames this destruction on the fact that the man who discovered ice-nine never picked up a novel or short story to read. He lived in a technological world where reading was not important. Vonnegut believes, “Without literature a person dies of either putrescence of the heart of atrophy of the nervous system” (Giannone 124). The society has been destroyed by technology so the scientist never experiences reading. Vonnegut suggests that if he had, he may not have developed the ice-nine and technology would not have destroyed the world. Technology is the common villain in Kurt Vonnegut’s writing because he deeply believes it will eventually do away with humans and destroy the world.
Freedman, David H. ; Schafer, Sarah. “Vonnegut and Clancy on Technology.” Technology Nov 95: 63
Gionne, Richard. Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels. NY: Kennikat Press, 1977.
Goldsmith, David H. Kurt Vonnegut Fantasist of Fire and Ice. Ohio: Bowling Green University Poplar Press, 1972.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. “Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and the Crime of His Times.” Rpt. In Contemporary Literary Criticism Ed. Carolyn Riley. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1973. 348.
Lundquist, James. Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Fredrick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc., 1977.
Pickering, Carol. “Shelflife.” Forbes 6 April, 1998: 24
Reed, Peter J. Writers for the Seventies: Kurt Vonnegut Jr. New York: Warner Paperback Library, 1972.
Schatt, Stanley. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976.
Schatt, Stanley. “The World of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.” Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed.Carolyn Riley. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1973. 348.
Schulz, Max F. ” The Unconfirmed Thesis: Kurt Vonnegut, Black Humor, and Contemporary Art.” Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1973. 347-348.
Vonnegut, Kurt. “Technology and Civilization.” Forbes 30 November, 1998: 266