The Diamond Age, by Stephenson

Thursday April 22, 2021

This novel about an educational book invites comparison to its subject. Stephenson's pedagogy walks you through Chekhov's armory, dense with mental condensation nuclei, firing guns at the end but maintaining ambiguity. Steam punk nanotech is backdrop for a My Fair Lady story and revolution, with themes of dualism and generally flawed humans.


Economics and technology

I read Diamond Age because it was mentioned in Trekonomics. They have a technology like a replicator, but it doesn't really feel like a post-scarcity world because its use is centrally controlled/limited.

"... the Feed is not a system of control and oppression, as CryptNet would maintain. It is the only way order can be maintained in modern society—if everyone possessed a Seed, anyone could produce weapons whose destructive power rivalled that of Elizabethan nuclear weapons." (page 384, Hackworth speaking unconvincingly)

The Seed, never quite achieved in the book, is a nanotech magic bean that promises to usher in a decentralized post-scarcity world, like farming communes where you can grow anything effortlessly, biological or mechanical. Its creation is opposed by the less obviously destructive factions based on fear of loss of control.

Some of the rich and powerful are referred to as "Equity Lords," which is an interesting title, especially in relation to modern tech companies where people have equity to varying degrees, or more generally in connection with people who own stock in the markets.


"Finkle-McGraw began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically different, they were culturally as different as they could possibly be, and that some cultures were simply better than others. This was not a subjective value judgment, merely an observation that some cultures thrived and expanded while others failed. It was a view implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never voiced." (pages 20-21)

"[Nell's mother] didn't like craftsmen, she said, because they were too much like actual Victorians, always spouting all kinds of crap about how one thing was better than another thing, which eventually led, she explained, to the belief that some people were better than others." (page 185)

"it is upon moral qualities that a society is ultimately founded. All the prosperity and technological sophistication in the world is of no use without that foundation—we learned this in the late twentieth century, when it became unfashionable to teach these things." (page 322, Miss Matheson speaking)

The "Neo-Victorian" group is largely a reaction to techno-hedonism. It reminds me of how it can seem these days that wealthier people are more likely to choose old-fashioned wooden toys and the like for their children, more likely to avoid screen time.

In the extreme, I think this kind of view takes a form like Absolute Relativism: The New Dictatorship.

Rugged individualism

"Grandfather loved to tell stories of these criminals, how they had tried to excuse their own crimes by pleading that they were economically disadvantaged or infected with the disease of substance abuse, and how the Lone Eagles—many of whom had overcome poverty or addiction themselves—had dispatched them with firing squads and left them posted around the edge of their territory as NO TRESPASSING signs that even the illiterate could read." (pages 405-406)

"... the usual crowd of starving peasants and professional amputees" (page 449)

For one thing, it's pretty clearly not a post-scarcity society. For another, it's not very shy about seeming to blame people for not doing better for themselves despite this.


There's a lot of tribalism, much of it racial/racist. I think the reasoning was that with the dissolution of traditional governments, people needed to form their own equivalents more than they previously did, but this wasn't super clear to me.

The major conflict, which develops mostly in the background until the end of the book, is a second Boxer Rebellion.

It's not clear whether the ends justify the means, but there's at least a chance the Seed could be a good idea. Would tribalism recede in a true post-scarcity environment?


Nanotechnology represents the material, physical world.

"But [Hackworth, the nanotech engineer] had felt the need to go beyond that—he had wanted to reach beyond mere matter and into someone's soul." (page 188)

Mercifully, there's no mention of quantum mechanics to introduce false confusion. The technology is very physical in the classical sense; nanotech computers use "rod logic" to achieve their results. With the Neo-Victorians, it contributes to a steam punk vibe.

The discussion of dualism is extended to computing, with a substantial exploration of Turing machines.

"... a Turing machine, no matter how complex, was not human. It had no soul. It could not do what a human did." (page 442)

There's also no mention of hypercomputation... An amusing thought: is hypercomputation fundamentally dualist (implying non-physical phenomena)?


I'm interested in educational technology. It's largely failed to revolutionize education so far, but many like Altman hold out hope for "AI teachers that can diagnose and explain exactly what a student doesn’t understand" and the like.

What is the goal of education? The instigator of the creation of the AI teaching books says he wants to encourage subversion, but he also thinks the effect of this will be creating people who tend to agree with him.

"You encourage subversiveness because you think that it will have an effect opposite to what one might naively suppose." (page 365, Carl Hollywood addressing Finkle-McGraw)

Of the girls who get the three "original" books with voices done by remote human voice actors, one girl becomes an actor in a strange troupe, one joins a faction opposed to that of Finkle-McGraw (though he thinks she'll return eventually), and one works scripts at a specialist brothel and then eventually stymies (at least briefly) a revolution that threatens a person she loves. Is this successful education? Maybe?

There are also hundreds of thousands of girls who were raised by books with computer-generated voices. Their books were also further modified by Hackworth.

"At this point, John Percival Hackworth, almost without thinking about it and without appreciating the ramifications of what he was doing, devised a trick and slipped it in under the radar of the Judge and Dr. X and all of the other people in the theatre, who were better at noticing tricks than most other people in the world. "While I'm at it, if it pleases the court, I can also," Hackworth said, most obsequiously, "make changes in the content so that it will be more suitable for the unique cultural requirements of the Han readership."" (page 180)

Everybody who gets the Chinese-language version of the Primer goes on to form the "mouse army" that serves Nell for unclear reasons toward the end of the book.

Diamond Age definitely suggests that valuable aspects of human development work best (or only) through human interaction. Multiple times the importance of culture generally is emphasized. The AI book is not necessarily any more enlightened than other kinds of education. Maybe it can stand in for ed tech that is just a computerized version of antique methods, despite all its customization.

There are other comments about education, but Stephenson sometimes seems to be effectively free-associating, suggesting different aspects to connect and consider.

More selected quotes

"By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart." (epigraph, quoting Confucius)

"A sizable investment, but the best a father could make." (page 78, referring to education)

"... Nell knew better than to fret over things she could not change." (page 123)

The Primer seems to have helped make Nell a stoic.

"If the Coastal Republic had believed in the existence of virtue, it could at least have aspired to hypocrisy." (page 144)

"He is worth a thousand lesser engineers." (page 170, Dr. X referring to Hackworth)

On page 184, the Primer is described as "a Propædeutic Enchiridion."

"She often put it under her pillow, though, and sometimes she even woke up in the middle of the night and heard it whispering things to her that she had just been dreaming about." (page 184)

This seems to imply that the Primer employed some kinds of subconscious programming techniques...

"But I think it is not likely to be the only instance in which real life turns out to be more complicated than what you have seen in the book." (page 281, Constable Moore speaking)

""Nell," the Constable continued, indicating through his tone of voice that the lesson was concluding, "the difference between ignorant people and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people—and this is true whether or not they are well-educated—is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations—in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.

"In your Primer you have a resource that will make you highly educated, but it will never make you intelligent. That comes from life. Your life up to this point has given you all of the experience you need to be intelligent, but you have to think about those experiences. If you don't think about them, you'll be psychologically unwell. If you do think about them, you will become not merely educated but intelligent" (page 283)

"She appears to be learning new material that isn't explicitly covered in the Primer, and she's developing more sophisticated forms of social interaction, suggesting that she's spending more time around a higher class of people." (pages 284-285, Miranda speaking)

"And there was an ocean of history to be learned: first biblical, Greek, and Roman, and then the history of many other peoples around the world that essentially served as backdrop for History of the English-Speaking Peoples." (page 312, describing the stodgy school)

"Miss Stricken handled the big payoff at the end of each period and at the end of each unit. She stormed in to explain what conclusion they were being led to and to make sure that all of them got it." (page 313)

"She was tormented by the irrationality of this place." (page 319, referring to the stodgy school)

"Now, there was a time when we believed that what a human mind could accomplish was determined by genetic factors. Piffle, of course, but it looked convincing for many years, because distinctions between tribes were so evident. Now we understand that it's all cultural. That, after all, is what a culture is—a group of poeple who share in common certain acquired traits." (page 321, Miss Matheson speaking)

"It is the hardest thing in the world to make educated Westerners pull together," Miss Matheson went on. "That is the job of people like Miss Stricken. We must forgive them their imperfections. She is like an avatar—do you children know about avatars? She is the physical embodiment of a principle. That principle is that outside the comfortable and well-defended borders of our phyle is a hard world that will come and hurt us if we are not careful. It is not an easy job to have. We must all feel sorry for Miss Stricken." (page 323)

On pages 353 and 354 Miss Matheson goes on about how Nell is special. "You are different." and so on. Are we supposed to believe her, or is this just an aspect of the stodgy school weirdness? Other aspects of the book don't seem aligned with Great Man thinking.

""Which path do you intend to take, Nell?" said the Constable, sounding very interested. "Conformity or rebellion?""

""Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded—they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity."" (page 356)

She goes to seek her fortune as a writer for a particularly involved brothel.

""... [Miranda] was not merely Nell's tutor. She became Nell's mother."" (page 357, Carl Hollywood speaking)

""In a tribe such as the F.D.R. [First Distributed Republic], whose view of the universe contains no absolutes, this ritual [elaborate trust-falls] creates an artificial absolute."" (page 378, Hackworth explaining)

On page 383 there's a "thirty-third level" which seems like a throwaway reference to Masonry...

"... Princess Nell had become so beautiful over the years and had developed such a fine bearing that few people would mistake her for a commoner now, even if she were dressed in rags and walking barefoot."

"... Nell wondered at that. Princesses were not genetically different from commoners." (page 386)

"learning the language, which was extremely pithy and made heavy use of parentheses."

Some Lisp? Cute reference.

"Her stories were being digested, not by the Primer, but by another human being, becoming a part of that person's mind." (pages 402-403)

"But the Primer was, itself, a Turing machine, or so she suspected; so how could it understand Nell?"

"Could it be that the Primer was just a conduit, a technological system that mediated between Nell and some human being who really loved her?" (page 403)

Miranda provides the voicing for whatever the Primer wants to say.

""Belief isn't a binary state, not here at least. Does anyone believe anything one hundred percent?"" (page 425)

""Society has never been good at answering these questions—the sorts of questions you can't just look up in a reference database."" (page 428)

"But the human mind didn't work like a digital computer and was capable of doing some funny things." (page 433)

"It would be more correct to say that, although it was virtuous to save them, it was mistaken to believe that they could be raised properly. We lacked the resources to raise them individually, and so we raised them with books. But the only proper way to raise a child is within a family. The Master Confucius could have told us as much, had we listened to his words." (page 455, Dr. X speaking)

"... all of Nell's intellect, her vast knowledge and skills, accumulated over a lifetime of intensive training, meant nothing at all when she was confronted with a handful of organized peasants." (page 469)

"all of the societies that had grown up around the concept of a centralized, hierarchical Feed." (page 498)