Vonnegut and Clancy on Technology
Two of America's best-known authors express their very different opinions on the role technology plays in society
Kurt Vonnegut, long one of this country's most admired authors, often portrays technological development in a disturbing light. Player Piano is a striking example. Published in 1952, it describes a bleak future in which companies have computerized so successfully that most of the population have been put out of jobs. These days, of course, concerns about automation-driven downsizing is the stuff of headlines.
If Vonnegut is cautionary about technology, Tom Clancy is celebratory. In eight best-selling novels published since 1984, Clancy has cooked up scenario after scenario in which America's computer edge proves critical in thwarting a devastating threat from terrorists, drug cartels, or foreign nations.
In separate conversations the authors discussed their feelings with Inc. Technology about an increasingly computerized world. Vonnegut met with editor David H. Freedman at the author's Manhattan townhouse; Clancy spoke over the phone with reporter Sarah Schafer.* * *
On employment: I believe half of the duty of every inventor is to make a product that is better and cheaper, and the other half is to create a job that is more satisfying. We do only half of it. People are never mentioned, as though they don't figure in the equation at all. Technocrats don't give a damn about anything but the machines. They're rational enough to know that there is no afterlife, and so they settle for the benefits they can get now, and they don't care what happens to the world afterwards.
We're always trying to replace jobs. Keeping lists, taking inventory, those are all things to do with life. And then somebody comes along and says, "Hey, you don't need to do that anymore." Well, thanks, but how the hell am I supposed to support my family? You, you silly fool, you've still got a job, sure. There's this great word that the British use all the time: redundant. Workers are declared redundant. How'd you like to come into this world and be told you're redundant? Built into human beings is a need, which nobody bothers to even acknowledge, to do something useful. But instead of worrying about what human beings need, we worry about what machines need. There's no talk at all about what human beings are deprived of; all the talk is about what industries are being deprived of.* * *
On the Internet: There's all this talk about building the information superhighway and new networks. But there's never talk about what's happening to this network [taps the side of his head], which is already in place. There's utter indifference to it.
Christ, I can remember when TV was going to teach my children Korean and trigonometry. Rural areas wouldn't even have to have very well educated teachers; all they'd have to do is turn on the box. Well, we can see what TV really did. Look at what the O. J. Simpson trial has done to everyone. So much for all those Tom Swifts talking about the enormous benefit of what they were doing. The information superhighway will be two lanes loaded with tollgates, and it's going to tell you what to look for. People will just watch the show.
We are not born with imagination. It has to be developed by teachers, by parents. There was a time when imagination was very important because it was the major source of entertainment. In 1892 if you were a seven-year-old, you'd read a story -- just a very simple one -- about a girl whose dog had died. Doesn't that make you want to cry? Don't you know how that little girl feels? And you'd read another story about a rich man slipping on a banana peel. Doesn't that make you want to laugh? And this imagination circuit is being built in your head. If you go to an art gallery, here's just a square with daubs of paint on it that haven't moved in hundreds of years. No sound comes out of it.
The imagination circuit is taught to respond to the most minimal of cues. A book is an arrangement of 26 phonetic symbols, 10 numbers, and about 8 punctuation marks, and people can cast their eyes over these and envision the eruption of Mount Vesuvius or the Battle of Waterloo. But it's no longer necessary for teachers and parents to build these circuits. Now there are professionally produced shows with great actors, very convincing sets, sound, music. And now there's the information highway. We don't need the circuits any more than we need to know how to ride horses. Those of us who had imagination circuits built can look in someone's face and see stories there; to everyone else, a face will just be a face.* * *
On replacing human contact with electronic contact: I work at home, and if I wanted to, I could have a computer right by my bed, and I'd never have to leave it. But I use a typewriter, and afterwards I mark up the pages with a pencil. Then I call up this woman named Carol out in Woodstock and say, "Are you still doing typing?" Sure she is, and her husband is trying to track bluebirds out there and not having much luck, and so we chitchat back and forth, and I say, "OK, I'll send you the pages."
Then I'm going down the steps, and my wife calls up, "Where are you going?" I say, "Well, I'm going to go buy an envelope." And she says, "You're not a poor man. Why don't you buy a thousand envelopes? They'll deliver them, and you can put them in a closet." And I say, "Hush." So I go down the steps here, and I go out to this newsstand across the street where they sell magazines and lottery tickets and stationery. I have to get in line because there are people buying candy and all that sort of thing, and I talk to them. The woman behind the counter has a jewel between her eyes, and when it's my turn, I ask her if there have been any big winners lately. I get my envelope and seal it up and go to the postal convenience center down the block at the corner of 47th Street and 2nd Avenue, where I'm secretly in love with the woman behind the counter. I keep absolutely poker-faced; I never let her know how I feel about her. One time I had my pocket picked in there and got to meet a cop and tell him about it. Anyway, I address the envelope to Carol in Woodstock. I stamp the envelope and mail it in a mailbox in front of the post office, and I go home. And I've had a hell of a good time. And I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you any different.
Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We're dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go do something. [Gets up and dances a jig.]* * *
On being called a Luddite: Oh, I welcome it.* * *
On the role technology has played in global politics: In case you haven't noticed, we live in a world that is for the first time in all of recorded human history unlikely to have a major war. There used to be this country called the Soviet Union; it's not there anymore. The reason is our technology was better than theirs. Probably what pushed the Russians over the edge was SDI [the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars"]. It was really a combination of SDI and CNN. They realized they couldn't beat us so they decided to change the ball game.
Democracy is spreading across the world. Democracy is only possible with easy access to information and good communications. And technology is a way of facilitating communications.* * *
On the impact of technology on society: Look, this is simple. The good old days are now. OK? The human condition today is better than it's ever been, and technology is one of the reasons for that. Do you own a TV set? Do you have CNN? Do you think you know better what's going on around the world than you did 15 years ago? You answered your own question.* * *
On the availability of technology to the underclass: What underclass? I mean you know, what underclass? Do you know any of them? Do they have automobiles? Most of them probably do. Do most of them have television sets? Do most of them have telephones? Well, if they can afford automobiles, they can afford computers. And since they have television sets, they already have access to communications technology. And since they have telephones, they can talk to one another. Wherein are they deprived?* * *
On the drawbacks to technology: Look, technology is another word for "tool." There was a time when nails were high-tech. There was a time when people had to be told how to use a telephone. We got past that. Technology is just a tool. People use tools to improve their lives. Man is the only animal that makes and uses tools. Our tools keep getting better, and as a result of that, our lives keep getting better. There are people in our society -- and they used to be called Luddites back in England in the early 19th century -- who think that any new invention is bad. And I don't understand that.
People live longer today than they ever have. They live happier lives, they have more knowledge, they have more information. All this is the result of communications technology and the tools with which man has equipped himself. How is any of that bad?
I was one of the first generations to watch television. That's technology. TV is like any other kind of tool. TV exposes people to news, to information, to knowledge, to entertainment. How is it bad? Computers are going to be even bigger. TVs are one way. You sit there and you watch it. Computers, you interact with.
I mean, look, no matter what you or anyone else does, there will be someone who says that there's something bad about it. Whenever somebody comes up with a good idea, there's somebody else who has never had a good idea in his life who stands up and says, "Oh, you can't do that because the bicycle manufacturers will go out of business." Well, that's too bad. If everybody in the country lives an extra 18 months, then we'll just have to do without the bicycle manufacturers. I'm sorry. I don't really pay them any attention. I'd rather talk to people who do things than complain about other people who do things. I say they're idiots.* * *
On the impact of computers on the military: Fighting wars is not so much about killing people as it is about finding things out. The more you know, the more likely you are to win a battle. Take the AEGIS system in the navy. It's a radar computer system for air-battle management. What it does is give the commander an extra 15 minutes to decide what he's going to do to fight a battle, and those 15 minutes are decisively important. The army's doing the same thing with a system called IVIS, the Individual Vehicle Information System. It gives every tank and armored vehicle a picture of the battlefield -- where the good guys are and where the bad guys are. It's a revolution because a field commander never has the information he needs. He has to go with his best hunch. The more information he has, the easier it is for him to win the battle.* * *
On the impact of a better-informed public on government: The more information a guy has, the more likely he is to say, "Hey, King Charlie, you really blew that call." That's why democracy happened. The control of information is something the elite always does, particularly in a despotic form of government. Information, knowledge, is power. If you can control information, you can control people. And that's the good news. The bad news is that countries that do not control knowledge and information tend to do better because the average guy who is exposed to a lot of information can get ideas and profit from them. America is the most inventive country in the world. Why? Because everybody has access to information. In the Soviet Union it was illegal to take a photograph of a train station. Look what happened to them. They tried to classify everything. The more information available to the average person, the greater the synergy that develops from it.
There are people in government who don't want other people to know what they know. It's just another example of elitism. And I spit on elitism. Show me an elitist, and I'll show you a loser.