Player Piano. It's just a scary distopia, right?
We talked a lot about the system of power within the novel--we didn't really talk about what that system was based on: IQ. Seems like a pretty logical thing to base a system on. I mean, if you're going to be elitist, intelligence seems like a better criteria than, say, wealth for determining who's in power and who's not. But...what exactly is "intelligence"? In Intro Psych, I remember being taught about "seven different types of intelligence." And I'm sure that's just one among the bazillions of theories out there. So shouldn't we be suspicious of this all-encompassing "IQ" test and all these other tests that purport to rate things such as "personality" quantitatively? The idea that such traits could be translated into data makes humans sound an awful lot like...machines. And the fact that "Everyone's IQ, as measured by the National Standard General Classification Test, was on public record" (90, though my pages are different) implies a very serious and, I think, disturbing lack of privacy. I mean, it's all right there, in a published number. You can't even lie.
It's a bit tangential, and I'm the first to admit that you have to take everything Tom Wolfe says with a grain of salt; he's kind of old and crazy to begin with, and he's going way out on a limb here. But if you want to read something that will scare your pants off, check out the chapter "Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died" in his most recent book, Hooking Up. (I own the book, if you want to borrow it.) It's about brain waves and genetic research, and it makes the not-too-distant future sound an awful lot like the world of Player Piano. I couldn't stop thinking about this chapter while reading the Vonnegut novel. I've included some highlights in the "extended entry" section for those of you who are interested.
Wolfe begins with a not unfamiliar metaphor, first conceived by Edward O. Wilson:
"Every human brain, he says, is born not as a blank tablet...waiting to be filled in by experience but as 'an exposed negative waiting to be slipped into developer fluid.' You can develop the negative well or you can develop it poorly, but either way you are going to get precious little that is not already imprinted on the film. The print is the individual's genetic history..." (Hooking Up, 91).
He expands upon this metaphor later, specifically in relation to IQ:
"Even more radioactive is the matter of intelligence, as measured by IQ tests. Privately--not many care to speak out--the vast majority of neuroscientists believe the genetic component of an individual's intelligence is remarkably high. Your intelligence can be improved upon, by skilled and devoted mentors, or it can be held back by a poor upbringing--i.e., the negative can be well developed or poorly developed--but your genes are what really make the difference...
"Not long ago, according to two neuroscientists I interviewed, a firm called Neurometrics sought out investors and tried to market an amazing but simple invention known as the IQ Cap. The idea was to provide a way of testing intelligence that would be free of 'cultural bias'...The IQ Cap recorded only brain waves; and a computer, not a potentially biased human test-giver, analyzed the results...It was not a complicated process. You attached sixteen electrodes to the scalp of the person you wanted to test. You had to muss up his hair a little, but you didn't have to cut it, much less shave it. Then you had him stare at a marker on a blank wall. This particular researcher used a raspberry-red thumbtack. Then you pushed a toggle switch. In sixteen seconds the Cap's computer box gave you an ccurate prediction (within one-half of a standard deviation) of what the subject would score on all eleven subtests of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale...all from sixteen seconds' worth of brain waves...Neurometrics' investors were rubbing their hands and licking their chops. They were about to make a killing."
And this--the public reaction--is, I think, the most interesting part:
"In fact--nobody wanted their damnable IQ Cap! It wasn't simply that no one believed you could derive IQ scores from brain waves--it was that nobody wanted to believe it could be done. Nobody wanted to believe that human brainpower is...that hardwired. Nobody wanted to learn in a flash that...the genetic fix is in. Nobody wanted to learn that he was...a hardwired genetic mediocrity...and that the best he could hope for in this Trough of Mortal Error was to live out his mediocre life as a stress-free dim bulb" (94-96).
And a few more terrifying quotes, just for fun:
"Wilson still holds out the possibility--I think he doubts it, but he still holds out the possibility--that at some point in evolutionary history culture began to influence the development of the human brain in ways that cannot be explained by strict Darwinian theory. But the new generation of neuroscientists are not cautious for a second. In private conversations, the bull sessions, as it were, that create the mental atmosphere of any hot new science--and I love talking to these people--they express an uncompromising determinism" (97, my emphasis added).
Scared yet? Or laughing really hard? One more:
"I have heard neuroscientists theorize that, given computers of sufficient power and sophistication, it would be possible to predict the course of any human being's life moment by moment, including the fact that the poor devil was about to shake his head over the very idea" (97).
IQ is only one of the many things he suggests are "hardwired" into us. You can borrow the book to learn more. Is Wolfe just a raving lunatic? Does any of this worry you guys? Just a few thoughts on the human/machine spectrum...