Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age (1995) has had a significant impact on many people; not only is it one of the precursors to the Center for Science and the Imagination, but it has also been used by the likes of Amazon for code words related to the development of the Kindle e-reader. The ideas in it are representative of the creative and innovative writing of Neal Stephenson and the story’s flow and characters make it an absolute pleasure to read.
The Diamond Age posits a future that isn’t quite dystopian or utopian, but similar to what we have now: a mix of good and bad. In this future it is not only the political and cultural landscape which is interesting, but the technology as well, and perhaps most interesting of all is how humans interact with technology.
There are three technologies in The Diamond Age which I think merit mentioning here. The first is the central technology of the book, the illustrated primer. This is an electronic book developed to teach young girls how to be “subversive.” It is an interactive storytelling instrument that personalizes everyone’s education by taking in information from its surroundings and presenting it to the child in a manner that is tailored to their life situation, personality, and learning style. In many ways this book presages today’s debates about personalized education. It recognizes different learning styles, it gives individualized attention, and it meets each child where they come from.
A second technology I found interesting was the Matter Compiler (MC). The MC is akin to a 3D printer, but much more advanced and user friendly. MCs are widespread in this future and available to everyone as a sort of utility. There are even public ones which, like all MCs, can make food. The MC is a solution to the age-old problem of humans trying to meet their basic necessities. So long as you have a roof over your head and an MC it seems that you can get by. Of course this doesn’t mean people don’t work, or don’t struggle; there’s still crime, there’s still manipulation, there’s still a need to fill the day with hustle and bustle, because we are still human.
The third technology that really stuck out to me is nanotechnology, which yes, is a buzz word, and perhaps might be overhyped, but the possibilities presented by Neal Stephenson make me forget about all that and enjoy the technology for what it is in the story: really cool and often quite helpful (but occasionally terrifying). Nano-drones, called mites in the story, can do anything and everything. They watch the streets, search for things, act as an artificial immune system cleaning harmful microbes from the sky, and even crawl up and down your nervous system and function as a torture device. Naturally, for all their benefits, mites can be, and are, used for nefarious purposes. No technology is immune to human meddling, after all.
Though this new world of The Diamond Age is not purely good nor bad, I posit that it is optimistic. Humans are still struggling with one another, and there are certainly social issues plaguing this futurescape, but there is still hope for a better life, and people have not tired of trying to reach it. This perspective underlies important elements of the story: after all, why were transformative technologies like the primer or mites invented? Because they all serve a purpose in trying to lift humanity away from the drudgery and degradation of ignorance and poverty, and to help those who are vulnerable, because humans are still trying to solve their problems – they haven’t given up yet. We might think that it is naïve to believe the future will be utopian, and perhaps it is. But as The Diamond Age shows, we don’t need a utopia to have an optimistic or bright future. We just need to keep trying.