The Diamond Age

Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel The Diamond Age is a fascinating story which provides a lot of relevant discussion about the conflicts between east-Asian and western values, especially in education and social issues.  Additionally vital to book is the advanced technological setting, a future of eartch future revolutionized by nanotechnology.  In fact, for much of the book, the exploration of this nanotechnological future was at least as interesting as the plot.

Use of this book for discussion purposes qualifies as Fair Use. Click for link.

Though written in an age before Google, The Diamond Age contains a great deal of commentary on the digital revolution sweeping our own world.  Just as the internet allowed for the decentralization of communication and commerce, the book’s fictional media net combined with the nanotechnological “feed” to overturn the established order, which in this case has also precipitated the collapse of states.  At one point, Stephenson delves into this backstory, noting that once secure and anonymous payment was built into the media net from the ground up, it became impossible for states to collect tax revenue, and they largely disappeared, something that seemed eerily fascinating to read as Bitcoin’s price rose in the past months. To replace them, Stephenson envisions the ascent of phyles, or tribes, which are groups of people holding similar values or ethnicities. Cities are governed by a Common Economic Protocol to mediate disputes between members of different phyles, which each have a sector in a city.   The book then explores how this setting, and how different phyles interact with each other, notably the Anglo/American Neo-Victorians and the Han Chinese phyles.

If the book only did this, I would still highly recommend it.  The implications of nanotechnology and this new semi-stateless society are riveting, especially for crypto nerds like me, and definitely for most libertarians, but any sci-fi fans or political theorists could definitely enjoy it.  But The Diamond Age is much more than that.  A great deal of the book is devoted to the story of Nell, a person with no tribe, who nevertheless becomes independent and self-sufficient with the help of proper education.  Stephenson’s commentary on social movement, social norms, and education remains relevant, especially in a future which may not require physical teachers to educate.  Nell’s primer is a computerized book and while it is far more sophisticated that Khan Academy or Coursera, but it is no longer inconceivable.

I would caution that parts, especially the early stages, can be a bit dull, especially given the attempts to recreate the Victorian Era.  But overall, The Diamond Age is an excellent experience for any sci-fi fan.  I’m very excited for reading more Stephenson in the future. Right now though, I’ve got a lot of Song of Ice and Fire to catch up on.