Back in 1952, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a novel called Player Piano. Back some time in the 70’s I read a copy. Now I get to live it.
If it weren’t for the people, the god-damn people’ said Finnerty, ‘always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, the world would be an engineer’s paradise.
I like lecturing. It’s by far the best thing about being a lecturer. I like to get at least one laugh out of the hall, to get them doing some odd thing like clenching and unclenching their fists to experience tension and release in plot design. It’s an effective and personal way to reach 100 people or more and get them switched on about the important learning points. The last few weeks I’ve delivered lectures for my main video class. Next week, it ‘flips’. I’ve been sampled.
In the novel, Vonnegut explains how every skill can be measured and transcribed. A pianist is captured onto a piano roll, the woodworker can be replaced by a robot arm that repeats their motions over and over again. When I first started teaching art we would show how to do things. Now that has been moved over to online courses. That means I talk about the whys and then they go online to see the hows. Actually because I insist on teaching how to do things I am required to work more face to face hours. That is, one hour of why equals three of how, and I either re-write my courses or take the extra load.
Next week, the whys will be in a 20 minute long recording. Not perfect, certainly plenty more for myself and the designers to sort out – but eventually the robo-Tom (or a more attractive replacement) will be available 24-7 to lecture to as many students as the university wants, and at a discount. The staff are only there to assess the results.
I met the person in charge of this. He manages a growing, opulent concern, flush with funds – at a time where other parts of the university are being scaled back. It’s clear to me that at some point I will jump over to what Vonnegut calls the ‘north of the river’ where the managers and engineers live, and I’m already well on the way. But it’s worrying me, because whenever I see somebody pleased with their disruption, I foresee the disruption that will come to them in turn, and meanwhile everything I have ever loved gets turned into sludge. Managers and Deans and Chancellors can be sampled and automated too.
The foreman had pointed out his best man – what was his name? – and, joking with the puzzled machinist, the three bright young men had hooked up the recording apparatus to the lathe controls. Hertz! That had been the machinist’s name – Rudy Hertz, an old-timer, who had been about ready to retire. Paul remembered the name now, and remembered the deference the old man had shown the bright young men.
And here, now, this little loop in the box before Paul, here was Rudy as Rudy had been to his machine that afternoon – Rudy, the turner-on of power, the setter of speeds, the controller of the cutting tool. This was the essence of Rudy as far as his machine was concerned, as far as the economy was concerned, as far as the war effort had been concerned. The tape was the essence distilled from the small, polite man with the big hands and black fingernails…